Nov 29 2010

Never enough about S.510. Today’s the day!

Update 3:30 p.m.  Final Senate vote postponed until 9:00 a.m. tomorrow!

Today, the Senate is supposed to deal—at last—with S.510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act.  Here’s what I’m told is likely to happen (it gives me a headache just to think about it):

  • 4:00 pm EST: Senate resumes discussion of S.510.
  • 6:30 pm: Senate proceeds to cloture vote on the substitute amendment to S.510.
  • Cloture is invoked.
  • Post-cloture and upon the use or yielding back of the time allotted in the agreement (1 hour for motions re: 1099 and 4 hours for Coburn motions), the Senate will proceed to vote on the motions in the following order: (1) Johanns (1099 forms–the repeal on a tax burden on small businesses), (2) Baucus (1099 forms), (3) Coburn (earmarks), (4) Coburn (substitute)
  • Once those are disposed of, Senate votes on passage of the bill, as amended.
  • Observers expect all of this to last well into the night.
  • Note: Because all of the amendments are offered as motions to suspend the rules, they require a 2/3rds vote. Final passage requires 51. Cloture requires 60.

And in case your mind is still not made up about how this should go, take a look at today’s commentaries:

Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser have an op-ed in the New York Times: A Stale Food Fight:

In the last week, agricultural trade groups, from the Produce Marketing Association to the United Egg Producers, have come out against the bill, ostensibly on the grounds that the small farms now partially exempted would pose a food safety threat. (Note that these small farms will continue to be regulated under state and local laws.) It is hard to escape the conclusion that these industry groups never much liked the new rules in the first place. They just didn’t dare come out against them publicly, not when 80 percent of Americans support strengthening the F.D.A.’s authority to regulate food.

And FoodSafetyNews, ever on the job, has three pieces on the bill today (I’m referred to in a couple of them):

With a little luck, the Senate will pass the bill tonight, large and small farms will comply with its provisions, and our food supply will be safer as a result.  One can always dream.

Additions: a few more editorial comments, all in favor of passing S.510.

The Sacramento Bee editorial (11-25)

The Minneapolis Star Tribune (11-27)

The Bemidji (MN) Pioneer (11-28)

The Baltimore Sun (11-28 and the 29th in some editions)

New York Times editorial (11-16)

USA Today (11-23)

Las Vegas Sun (11-23)

Lexington (KY) Herald Leader (11-23)

Nov 24 2010

Facts and rumors: the current status of S. 510

Following the ongoing saga of S. 510, the Food Safety Modernization Act, is like taking a graduate course in political science.   And sociology graduate students everywhere should be writing dissertations on how a bill designed to help protect the public from food hazards like Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7  became a flashpoint for debates about the role of government in personal choice.

Let’s start with the rumors.   I’m hearing from sources inside the Beltway that the Senate and House have agreed to pass S. 510 in part because they can use it to get something else they want: repeal of an annoying provision in the health care reform act passed last spring that requires 1099 tax reports for business purchases.

The Senate is said to be dealing with S. 510 late in the afternoon or early evening of Monday, November 29.  It is supposed to work like this:

  • There will be a cloture motion, which will pass with 60 votes.
  • The Senate will agree that all amendments to S. 510 will require 67 votes.
  • Senator Coburn will offer amendments, but they will not get 67 votes.
  • The Senate will add language repealing the 1099 tax provision.
  • The Senate will pass the bill (this needs 51 votes)
  • The House will agree to accept the Senate bill as written with no changes.
  • The bill will get sent to President Obama to sign before Congress adjourns.
  • The President will sign the bill.

Maybe, but this does not sound like a done deal to me.  For one thing, opposition to S. 510 seems to be getting noisier.  Remember the adage “politics makes strange bedfellows?”  Take a look at the groups who now oppose the bill, united in their opposition to giving the FDA or government any additional authority:

  • The health food industry
  • The dietary supplement industry
  • The meat industry: American Meat Institute, Cattlemen’s Association, etc.
  • The Tea Party
  • The raw milk community and its legal arm, the Farmer to Consumer Legal Defense Fund
  • Some, but by no means all, small farmers and advocates for them

Missing from this list is Big Agriculture, an absence explained by the fact that the bill does not apply to feed commodities or to seeds.

As for the Tester amendment exempting small farms from certain provisions of the bill: It is opposed by 20 organizations of vegetable growers, and is also is likely to be opposed by companies like Monsanto which do not want the FDA making safety decisions based on size or anything else except risk.

Caroline Scott-Thomas writes in FoodNavigator-USA that all food producers, large and small, should be producing food safely, not least because bacteria do not care how big a farm might be: 

Think about it: If a large-scale cheese maker refused to recall potentially tainted products for financial reasons, as the Estrella Family Creamery is doing, would it inspire dewy-eyed sympathy? I doubt it.

I agree, and also with the comments of Bob Whitaker, the Produce Marketing Association’s Chief Science Officer, who points out that plenty of growers are already using preventive controls like the ones requires by S.510:

There are a lot of very small growers who are already doing this.  I think there is plenty of evidence where growers have already made this a priority and they have been able to do so in a pretty innovative manner. There is a cost to this…But it doesn’t have to be overwhelmingly expensive. A lot of this is common sense.  People need to dive in and understand that this is food and you have to take responsibility for the safety of our food, to the extent that you can… Consumers have to be confident that our products are safe.

I’ve seen this too.  Lots of small food producers do everything they can to reduce microbial risks.  They don’t need a government agency to tell them what to do.

Others, however, won’t take safety steps unless forced to.  That’s why we need this bill to pass.

In the meantime, the debate continues. USA Today, long concerned about food safety, favors the bill. Senator Coburn, however, does not.

Happy Thanksgiving holiday, everyone.

And special thanks to Carol Tucker Foreman of Consumer Federation of America for cluing me in on the latest developments.

Addition: Safe Tables Our Priority (STOP), a food safety advocacy group formed originally by parents of children harmed by eating fast-food hamburgers, strongly favors S. 51o.  Under its auspices, 80 victims of foodborne illness have written a letter to the Senate in the hope that this will help solidify support for passing this bill.

Many of us have traveled to Washington D.C. numerous times to meet with lawmakers, sharing our personal stories as to why stronger food safety laws are necessary; others of us have written opinion pieces, letters, and blog entries urging action on this important legislation. S. 510 would be the first major overhaul of the FDA’s food-safety authorities in decades. It is time to pass this legislation.

Nov 20 2010

Another reason to pass S. 510

Today’s New York Times has a story about the travails of the Estrella Family Creamery, makers of artisanal cheeses found repeatedly by the FDA to be contaminated with Listeria.

The FDA asked for a recall.  Estrella refused.

Whether Estrella should be considered heroic for fighting Big Government, as the article suggests, or instead is allowing dangerous products to go into the marketplace depends on point of view.

Mine is that every producer—large and small—who makes food should be producing it safely under a HACCP plan or its equivalent.  If the product carries special risks, as cheeses sometimes do, the producer ought to be testing to make sure it is safe.

I have visited plenty of artisanal makers of raw and Pasteurized cheeses who produce them safely.  These makers worry constantly about how to make sure that their cheeses are—and stay—safe.

If you have a strong immune system and are not pregnant, Listeria is unlikely to make you sick.  If not, however, watch out: Listeria can be fatal, especially to unborn infants.

In a column I wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle last March, I responded to a question about Listeria from a reader who lost a baby after eating a Listeria-contaminated Pasteurized cheese (the contamination must have occurred later). See correction below.

Listeria has the terrifying property of flourishing at refrigerator temperatures.  In this particular case, neither Pasteurization nor refrigeration were enough to save her baby.

As I said in my column:

Without federal requirements, you are on your own to keep yourself and your unborn infant safe from food pathogens, especially Listeria…. Listeria preferentially affects pregnant women. If you are pregnant and want to stay pregnant, you must avoid Listeria.  This will not be easy.  Listeria is widely dispersed in foods. Infections from it may be rare, but they are deadly. Listeria kills a shocking 25 percent of those it infects and is particularly lethal to fetuses….With so much at stake, and so many other food choices available, why take chances?

That is why allowing Listeria-contaminated cheeses into the food supply is not a good idea.  It is also why the FDA is so concerned that Listeria-contaminated foods do not get into the food supply.

This cheesemaker’s refusal to recall Listeria-contaminated products is another reason why so many of us who care deeply about food safety want the Senate to get busy and pass S.510.

Correction: the writer of that letter has written to explain that the source of her Listeria infection was never determined.  She had eaten a Pasteurized Stilton cheese, a goat cheese, and a rare steak among other suspected foods but none was proven to be the source.  For the record, the CDC says to prevent Listeria, pregnant women should avoid eating:

  • Hot dogs, luncheon meats, or deli meats (unless reheated to steaming hot).
  • Soft cheeses such as feta, Brie, Camembert, blue-veined cheeses, and Mexican-style cheeses such as “queso blanco fresco.”
  • Refrigerated pâté or meat spreads.
  • Refrigerated smoked seafood unless cooked to steaming hot.  This includes salmon, trout, whitefish, cod, tuna, and mackerel which are most often labeled as “nova-style,” “lox,” “kippered,” “smoked,” or “jerky.”
  • Raw (unpasteurized) milk or foods that contain unpasteurized milk.
Aug 29 2010

Further thoughts about the egg recalls

Yesterday’s print edition of the New York Times carried a front-page story on the egg recalls: “U.S. ties farm to Salmonella; town is tense.”  The reporter, Monica Davey, wrote from Clarion, Iowa, the town where the tainted eggs came from.

Her story reminded me of Eric Schlosser’s movie, Fast Food Nation.  The film was intended as fiction, but much of what we are hearing about these egg operations makes it seem like fact.

Here’s what struck me most about her article.

  • So far, nearly 1,500 illnesses have been linked to these eggs, a record.
  • The FDA found matching strains of Salmonella in samples taken from bone meal and barns owned by the DeCoster family.
  • The DeCosters produce 2.3 million dozen eggs per week from their Iowa operations.
  • Iowa is expected to produce 15 billion eggs from 60 million hens this year.
  • The DeCosters have a long history of violations of health and safety laws at their operations.
  • The DeCosters contribute generously to the Clarion community.
  • The plant workers are Mexican.

It’s hard to know where to begin, but the take home lessons seem obvious:

  • Industrial egg operations have gotten out of hand in size, waste, and lack of safety.
  • Immigration issues are very much involved.  If places like this are going to hire immigrants to work in them, we need to protect the rights of those workers.
  • The Senate needs to pass the food safety bill and enable the FDA to do more inspecting.  The accompanying New York Times editorial emphasizes that point.

Today’s New York Times editorial says it all again:

It wasn’t simply that the operation is out of scale with the Iowa landscape. It is out of scale with any landscape, except perhaps the industrial districts of Los Angeles County. What shocked me most was the thought that this is where the logic of industrial farming gets us. Instead of people on the land, committed to the welfare of the agricultural enterprise and the resources that make it possible, there was this horror — a place where millions of chickens are crowded in tiny cages and hundreds of laborers work in dire conditions.

I’m hoping some good will come of all this.  Maybe this is our version of The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s 1906 muckraking book that got Congress to act immediately to pass the Food and Drug Act that governs our food safety system to this day.   The Senate has been sitting on S.510 for more than a year.   For shame!

Addition, August 30: Michele’s Simon’s list of favorite articles on the egg recalls.

Aug 26 2010

Egg industry response to recalls (in translation)

How is the egg industry handling the recalls?

Yesterday, major newspapers ran a full-page ad from “America’s Egg Farmers” (I saw it in USA Today and in the New York Times). The ad displays an egg and text on a white background, nothing more.

The text is spare and notable more for what it does not say than for what it does. Here it is, with my translations in red italics.

A message from America’s Egg Farmers. We want you to think that we are down home farmers of small flocks of hens in a lovely bucolic settings. We think this sounds better than “A message from egg agribusiness.”

You’ve probably heard about the recent egg recall. We wish you hadn’t.

As egg farmers, we’re concerned, and continue to work closely with the FDA and USDA to help ensure the safest and highest quality eggs possible. We don’t have to take any responsibility for this mess. We will let the FDA and USDA deal it.

The potentially affected eggs, which make up less than 1% of all US eggs, have been removed from store shelves. Whew.  The problem is solved. We don’t need to do another thing except work on public relations.

You may be wondering if eggs are safe to eat. We wish you would just forget about this.

Yes, they are.  Fingers crossed!

Thoroughly cooked eggs are thoroughly safe eggs, according to the Center for Disease control and the FDA. Eggs should be cooked until the whites and yolks are firm. We know we are producing unsafe eggs.  It’s not our fault if you don’t know how to cook them.

To find out more information on this recall and the safe handling of eggs, please visit eggsafety.org. When you do, we will tell you how safe our eggs are and how well we treat our hens, and invite you to watch an FDA video on how to cook eggs properly.

And remember, thoroughly cooked means thoroughly safe. It’s not our fault if you don’t listen.

I think the egg industry has a lot to answer for. It needs to do better than this. OK egg industry, how about placing an ad that says something like this:

  • We are devastated that this happened and our hearts go out to everyone who became ill and to their families.
  • We are taking every step to make sure that this never happens again.
  • We are deeply sorry that our industry did not voluntarily adopt safety procedures years ago, especially when the FDA first proposed egg safety rules in 2004.
  • We take full responsibility as an industry for the failure of one of our members to obey the law.
  • We will do everything possible to make sure that the victims of this incident are fully compensated for their medical costs and losses.
  • We fully support food safety legislation and urge the Senate to pass S.510 immediately. It will give the FDA the tools it needs to do its job and help us produce eggs under the safest possible conditions.
  • We apologize to the American public that our eggs are not safe enough and that we have not worked hard enough to make sure that they are safe.

I can dream, can’t I?

Aug 21 2010

Why the U.S. needs a better food safety system

Yes, the Senate needs to pass S.510 but that is only the first step.  As the inimitable Carol Tucker Foreman puts it in today’s New York Times story on the latest egg recalls:

You have to treat eggs with the assumption that they’re contaminated with salmonella…We may all object to the fact that we have to treat food like toxic waste, but if we don’t want to get sick, and especially if you have someone in your house that’s immune-suppressed, you have to handle things carefully and demand that the standards be set higher.

If you are still unconvinced, take a look at the recalls announced by the FDA just since August 13 (I’ve deleted the ones that do not involve microbial contaminants):

The FDA has a lot to say about Salmonella risk, but it’s useful to note that all these recalls are voluntary. Hence the need for S.510.

S.510 won’t solve the problem but it is a necessary first step in getting to a food safety system that does a better job of protecting the public against this sort of thing.

Aug 20 2010

The Salmonella-in-eggs situation gets worse

Judging from the number of interview requests today, everyone has figured out that the egg recall is not only awful for the people who got sick but also has something to do with our hopelessly inadequate food safety system and dysfunctional Congress.

The CDC has updated its statistics on the number of illnesses.  Here’s what this epidemic looks like:

About 2,000 cases have been reported but the CDC does not yet know whether these are all related to this particular outbreak.

Here’s what’s special about this particular recall:

  • Salmonella in eggs never used to be a problem until we had industrial egg production that puts hundreds of thousands of hens in close (very close) proximity.
  • The company producing these particular eggs has a long history of rule violations.
  • The company was not required to follow standard food safety plans.  Whatever it had to do was voluntary.
  • The FDA started writing rules for safe egg production more than 10 years ago.  These were quashed. It finally got them done last July.
  • The new safety rules for eggs went into effect this July 9, too late to prevent this outbreak.
  • The FDA’s hands are tied by inadequate legislation and resources.
  • The House passed legislation last August—one year ago—to give the FDA more authority and more resources.  The Senate has been sitting on S.510 ever since.

The moral?  Voluntary doesn’t work.  We need mandatory food safety rules.

And sooner rather than later, no?


Aug 19 2010

Salmonella in eggs is old news. But 380 million?

Yesterday, the FDA announced yet another voluntary recall of eggs produced by Wright County Egg in Galt, Iowa.  The first announcement on August 13 covered 228 million eggs.  This one adds 152 million for a grand total of 380 million—so far.

In that first announcement, the Wright company said: “Our farm strives to provide our customers with safe, high-quality eggs – that is our responsibility and our commitment.”

That, however, is not how the New York Times sees it.  According to today’s account, Wright has a long history of “run-ins with regulators over poor or unsafe working conditions, environmental violations, the harassment of workers, and the hiring of illegal immigrants.”

OK, so where are we on safety regulation?  The FDA, after many, many years of trying, finally introduced safety regulations for shell eggs.  These supposedly went into effect on July 9.

I recount the history of FDA’s persistence in the chapter entitled “Eggs and the Salmonella problem” in What to Eat. Check out the table  listing the key events in this history from 1980 to 2005.  It’s not pretty.

Preventing Salmonella should not be difficult.  The rules require producers to take precautions to prevent transmission, control pests and rodents, test for Salmonella, clean and disinfect poultry houses that test positive, divert eggs from positive-testing flocks, refrigerate the eggs right away, and keep records.  These sound reasonable to me, but I care about not making people sick.

Problems with Wright County Eggs started in May before the FDA’s mandatory rules went into effect meaning that the procedures were still voluntary.  The recalls this month are after the fact.  Chances are that most of the recalled eggs have already been eaten.

The CDC is tracking this recall and has logged about 200 reports of illness associated with it so far.  It has plenty to say about Salmonella and its hazards.

According to FoodSafetyNews, the first lawsuits have been filed.

As for food safety legislation that would give the FDA the authority to handle these incidents more efficiently—and, let us hope, maybe even prevent them—it is still sitting in the Senate.  For S.510 watchers, Bill Marler has a helpful new analysis.

The recall, by the way, affects eggs sold under many different brands: Lucerne, Albertson, Mountain Dairy, Ralph’s, Boomsma’s, Sunshine, Hillandale, Trafficanda, Farm Fresh, Shoreland, Lund, Dutch Farms, and Kemps in the first round, and now also James Farms, Glenview, and Pacific Coast.

The good news is that cooking kills Salmonella.  I’m buying eggs at farmers’ markets these days.

Addition: Tom Philpott of Grist on Wright County’s unsavory history.

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