Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jun 24 2009

Organic wine: clarification of the rules (?)

You would think that the labeling of organic wine would be simple, but you would be so wrong.  Just for fun, here’s who does what in the federal government when it comes to food and beverages.  For the most part:

  • USDA does meat and poultry
  • FDA does everything else
  • Except alcohol, which is done by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB)
  • Except that USDA does all organic food
  • Except for organic wine, sort of
  • Problem solved: USDA and TTB have made a deal.  TTB will do organic wine
  • Except that USDA has just changed the rules

Got all that?

I won’t try to reproduce the rules for organic wines; they look too much like what I’ve just written.  Take a look at judge for yourself.  I’m just happy that all this has been straightened out.

Jun 23 2009

The latest trick in recalled foods: repack and redistribute!

Even I cannot keep up with what the packers of Salmonella-contaminated foods are willing to do to sell their products.  Remember the recalled pistachios?  Turns out the recalled nuts were simply repacked and redistributed.   If you are a packer and don’t like your test results, find a lab that will give you the results you want.  If you don’t know what to do with recalled nuts, put them in new packages and ship them out.

What is it going to take to get the food safety system we need?  How much worse does it have to get?

Jun 22 2009

Organics: letter vs. spirit

My once every three weeks Food Matters column for the San Francisco Chronicle deals this time with a slew of questions about organic foods: what are they, can you trust them, are they worth it, aren’t they elitist?

In response, Scott Exo of the Food Alliance points out that his organization does certifications that go beyond what the USDA requires and include the Alliance’s broader requirements for sustainable food production practices: working conditions, animal welfare, and environmental impact.  I’m glad to know about it.

Jun 20 2009

How could E. coli O157:H7 get into cookie dough?

Thanks to Bill Marler for discussing this question on his blog this morning and for suggesting starting with the ingredient list.  As a typical example, here is the ingredient list for Nestlé’s Chocolate Chunk cookie dough (others can be found at this site):

INGREDIENTS: BLEACHED ENRICHED FLOUR (WHEAT FLOUR, NIACIN, REDUCED IRON, THIAMIN MONONITRATE, RIBOFLAVIN, FOLIC ACID), SUGAR, NESTLE SEMI-SWEET CHOCOLATE CHUNKS (SEMI-SWEET CHOCOLATE [SUGAR, CHOCOLATE, COCOA BUTTER, MILKFAT, SOY LECITHIN, VANILLIN – AN ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR, NATURAL FLAVOR]), MARGARINE (PALM OIL, WATER, SUNFLOWER OIL, HYDROGENATED COTTONSEED OIL, SALT, VEGETABLE MONO- AND DIGLYCERIDES, SOY LECITHIN, SODIUM BENZOATE, CITRIC ACID, NATURAL AND ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR, BETA CAROTENE COLOR, VITAMIN A PALMITATE ADDED), WATER, CORN SYRUP SOLIDS, MOLASSES, EGGS, EGG YOLKS, BAKING SODA, SALT, CORNSTARCH, SODIUM ALUMINUM PHOSPHATE, VANILLA EXTRACT, VANILLIN – AN ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR

MADE ON EQUIPMENT THAT ALSO PROCESSES PEANUTS/NUTS

CONTAINS: MILK, EGG, SOY, WHEAT INGREDIENTS

For starters, we don’t really know yet whether raw cookie dough is the source of this E. coli outbreak.  It could be something else, and Nestlé will have recalled 300,000 cases purely out of precaution.  The most likely source of bacterial contamination is eggs, but eggs typically carry Salmonella, not E. coli O157:H7.   And besides, the eggs in raw cookie dough are undoubtedly pasteurized, which ought to kill any bacteria that happen to be present.

The usual source of this toxic form of E. coli is cow manure.  Cows that carry this bug do not necessarily become ill, but they excrete it. Recall the spinach E. coli outbreak in 2006?  The spinach field was one mile away from a cattle crossing over a stream.  California investigators identified the particular strain of E. coli that caused the problem in cattle, cattle feces, and water at the cattle crossing, but did not found it in the field.

All they could do is speculate. Their leading hypotheses were runoff, a change in the water table, and (my favorite) wild boar.  Unfortunately for this last theory, when they surveyed wild boar for E. coli O157:H7, they found fewer than 0.5% to carry it.  So how E. coli got into the spinach remains a mystery.

As for the cookie dough, I’m guessing that everyone involved is having a busy weekend testing the ingredients, the packing plants, and everything else they can think of.  Let’s hope they find the source right away.

Jun 19 2009

Cookie dough alert: E. coli O157:H7

As a result of investigations in Colorado, the FDA has just issued one of it’s lovely warnings of “voluntary” recalls, this time of Nestlé ‘s raw Toll House cookie dough (see product list).

I’d like to know if cookie dough is really the problem.  If there is a problem with cookie dough, it’s usually Salmonella. If cookie dough is the culprit, how on earth did this nasty form of E. coli, usually excreted by farm animals, get into it?  Eggs?  Butter?  Chocolate?  Flour?   In the meantime, the tally has reached 65 victims in 29 states: 25 hospitalizations, 7 with severe complications, no deaths.  Here’s the brand new CDC Nestlé Toll House Cookie Dough outbreak page with the statistics.

The roster: spinach 2006, pet food 2007, tomatoes (or was it jalapeno peppers or cilantro) 2008, peanut butter 2009, pistachios 2009. And now cookie dough.

The endless mantra is that we need prevention: HACCP, pathogen testing, and independent third-party verification.

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Jun 18 2009

Food legislation (maybe)

Legislators in the new administration are working on food laws.  Here is a quick sample:

Calorie labeling: it looks like we have bipartisan support for national menu labeling.  If passed, calories will have to be disclosed on menu boards of fast food and vending machine chains throughout the country – and not just in New York City and the few states that have passed their own laws.   Lots of health organizations are backing this proposal.

Food safety: the House just passed its version of a bill that will overhaul some aspects of the present food safety system.  This bill still has a long way to go but is a hopeful sign that Congress might actually do something to fix the FDA.  What the bill does not do is deal with fixing the system.  It exempts meat, poultry, and eggs under USDA jurisdiction.

Produce safety: The new head of the FDA, Margaret Hamburg, says her agency is going to put special efforts into ensuring the safety of high-risk produce. To do that, she will need Congress to pass laws that, among other things, give the FDA the authority to order recalls and a lot more money to carry out its work.

Organics: The U.S. and Canada have agreed to coordinate their organic standards, so foods certified organic in Canada can be sold here and vice versa.  Let’s hope the most stringent standards prevail.

These are (somewhat) hopeful signs.  Let’s hope Congress manages to keep at this and tries to get it right.

Jun 17 2009

Pesky problems with multi-nutrient supplements

It’s hard not to think of multivitamin supplements (which also include minerals) as perfectly safe, since the amounts of specific nutrients rarely exceed recommended levels.  But according to recent reports, formulation mistakes get made and these don’t always get caught by quality controls.  Here are two examples.

According to FoodProductionDaily.com, 25% of Adverse Event Reports (AERs) sent into the FDA last year concerned multivitamin supplements. This, says one supplement trade association, should not be interpreted to mean that there is anything wrong with the supplements.  Maybe not, but how about checking?

I say this because of the high zinc levels in the Nutro pet food recently recalled by Mars (see previous post).  Thanks to Sophie for sending a link to a report that some bags of the kibble contained zinc at more than 2000 ppm as compared to the 75 ppm that is supposed to be there.   This, of course, is why I keep insisting that everyone, not just pet owners, should be concerned about the quality of pet food.  We only have one food supply.  If a problem exists with pet food, it’s quite likely that something similar could happen to ours.

The take-home lessons:

  • For food manufacturers: Don’t trust the suppliers of vitamin/mineral mixes; test them!
  • For the government: How about requiring all supplement manufacturers to follow HACCP (science-based food safety) plans, with testing and quality control.
  • For customers (this means you): Contact the consumer affairs representative listed on the package label, ask if the company tests vitamin and mineral levels in finished products, complain if it doesn’t, and demand to see test data if it does.

Addendum: October 16, 2009: Thanks to Anthro for sending a link to this October 7 article from the website of the New England Journal of Medicine: “American roulette – contaminated dietary supplements.”   This is only to be expected from deregulated industries.

Jun 16 2009

Nanotechnology: threat or promise?

A recent meeting of the Institute for Food Technologists included presentations on applications of nanotechnology to food. These, say food technologists, have the potential to improve the safety, quality, and shelf life of foods.  They cite as examples anti-microbial coatings on food packaging materials and improved delivery systems for vitamin and flavor ingredients.

Nanotechnology deals with substances at the atomic and molecular levels, which means really, really small.  One nanometer is 0.000,000,001 meters (10 to the minus 9, or one millionth of a millimeter).

Until now, I haven’t said anything about food nanotechnology because I really don’t know what to say about it.  Is it safe?  How would we know?  Friends of the Earth says nanotechnology is the antithesis of organic agriculture and  represents a new threat to our food supply.  Even Food Technology thinks it should be disclosed on package labels.

The FDA says it already has the authority to regulate food nanotechnology.  The industry says that overly strict regulations are impeding progress in this industry (sounds like the GMO arguments, no?).

What’s going on here?  I’m having trouble getting a handle on this one.

If you know something about this, comments are most welcome.

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