Three cheers for Margaret Hamburg who, rumors say, is to be the new FDA Commissioner. We worked in the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion at the same time in the late 1980s when I was a nutrition policy advisor and she was assistant to the director. Since then, I have followed her career with great interest and admiration, especially when she headed up the New York City Health Department. She’s a great choice. This is a really tough job and she will need all the help we can give her. So I’m starting with Go Peggy!
The Environmental Working Group has just issued its guide to coping with pesticides on fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s handy shopping card identifies the Dirty Dozen (highest in pesticides) and the Clean Fifteen (lowest). Organics, it says, are still the best choices!
Bill Marler, the lawyer whose specialty is helping clients obtain compensation for food poisonings, knows as much about food safety – or the lack thereof – as anyone I know. He estimates the total cost of the peanut butter recalls as close to $1 billion. This accounts for the costs of the recalls themselves ($75 million to Kellogg alone), as well as the costs of lost sales, advertising and public relations, and stock prices. And that’s just to the companies. Perhaps he will do another estimate for the 677 people (as of March 1) who are known to have become ill as a result.
In the meantime, the fact that Peanut Corporation of America filed for bankruptcy is unlikely to affect victims’ ability to collect damages. Much of those costs will be covered by insurance.
I guess food companies think it’s cheaper to do things this way than to produce safe food in the first place. That, of course, is why we need better federal oversight, and the sooner the better.
Guidance alert, just in: the FDA has issued after-the-fact advice to the industry about how to produce peanuts safely.
Update March 12: Phil Lempert, the Supermarket Guru, polled readers about the recalls. All knew about them and most were not buying recalled products. But 45% said they had stopped buying peanut butter, even though regular peanut butter was not involved in the recalls.
If you have ever wondered why Congress cannot seem to get its act together, try Roquefort cheese. Apparently, in the waning days of his administration, former President Bush, no doubt still angry at France for its stance on Iraq, imposed a 300% tax on Roquefort cheese. Sacre bleu (OK, Roquefort)! As Representative James Oberstar (Dem-MN) makes clear, this is no trivial matter. If President Obama wants to improve U.S.-French relations, this is an easy way to begin. You want affordable Roquefort? Tell your Congressional representatives to reverse this tax!
As for contacting Congress, nothing could be easier.
It’s Sunday, so let’s take a break and browse some food magazines. These, from high-end Gourmet to mass-market Food and Family, are responding to the economic crisis by focusing on basic cooking skills. In writing about this new trend, the New York Times business section has produced a terrific overview. Have trouble telling the magazines apart? Want to know how their advertising is doing? And how about a little history? It’s all here. And who knew that Food and Family has the largest circulation of any food magazine (7 million)? How come? It’s owned by Kraft Foods, a company that knows what its audience likes.
The Government Accountability Office, the agency that keeps a close eye on government integrity, says the FDA ought to be doing a much better job of regulating dietary supplements. It grants that the FDA has taken “some” or “limited” action to go after potentially unsafe products, of which, apparently, there are plenty. The agency, it says, cannot do its job because it lacks resources and recall authority and gives supplements too low a priority.
This is old news, but the report provides an excellent summary of the history and current status of the dietary supplement industry and its regulation. As is typical of GAO reports, the clarity of presentation is exceptional. Here’s what the New York Times reporter says about it.
As we have learned all too often, dishonest food companies cut corners on food safety any time they can get away with it. That is why inspections are absolutely necessary. Right now, the inspection system is largely voluntary and all too easily corrupted. In a series of articles in the New York Times, we now learn that some of the peanut butter caught up in the recent recalls was Certified Organic, and that the plants had passed inspection by USDA-licensed organic certifiers.
As for conventional foods: today’s front-page article expands on flaws in the food inspection system. Inspectors, for example, are paid by the plants they are inspecting (oops). Here’s my favorite quote, attributed to Mansour Samadpour, a food safety consultant: “The contributions of third-party audits to foods safety is the same as the contribution of diploma mills to education.”
When I was doing the research for my book, Safe Food, I visited a plant that manufactured meat products. The plant manager told me that you could butcher a dog in front of the onsite USDA inspector and he would never see it. I believed him: inspectors only see problems if they know what to look for.
All of this makes me think that inspections need to be done by independent agencies that are rewarded for finding problems, not ignoring them. Mandatory HACCP (standard food safety procedures) with testing and inspection would help too. And if the organic food industry wants the public to believe that organic foods are better, it must make sure that production methods meet organic standards in letter and spirit. Otherwise, why bother to pay more for organic foods?
The USDA needs to close loopholes and insist on the integrity of the inspection system. The FDA needs to figure out a way to get its inspection needs under control. These are issues for Congress to handle. I keep wondering: How bad do things have to get before Congress does something useful about food safety?
Senator Dick Durbin (Dem-IL) has introduced The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act to give this beleaguered agency the tools and resources to do its job properly. The proposed Act got immediate endorsements from food industry trade groups: grocery manufacturers, producers of fresh vegetables, and producers of frozen foods, for example.
How come food lobbying groups suddenly want a stronger FDA? No doubt because the alternative is a single food safety agency that would impose real rules with real teeth, and would oversee the safety of food from farm to table. Rosa DeLauro introduced just such a bill in the House.
And how’s this for today’s rumors (most definitely unconfirmed): Michael Osterholm is up for USDA undersecretary for food safety and Michael Taylor for head of the White House Office of Food Safety. Caroline Smith DeWaal, a strong consumer advocate for foods safety is out of the running; she works for Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). These are just rumors. If they turn out too be true, I will have more to say about the potential nominees.