For this one, I answered a bunch of questions and responded to a letter to the editor from Stephen Sundlof, head of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. He took me to task for exaggerating the inadequacies of our our food safety system. He’s right. I exaggerated. But he should know better than anyone how badly the system works. He was in charge of the pet food recalls in 2007 and is now in charge of the current peanut butter recalls.
President Obama had quite a lot to say about food safety this morning and I’m happy to say that it sounds like he gets it: the present system is outdated (it was developed a century ago), too spread out, under-resourced, and hazardous to health. He’s going to appoint a committee to make recommendations and promises that all will be fixed “under the leadership of Dr. Margaret Hamburg.” I hope she knows what she’s gotten herself into.
And while I’m at it, how about the USDA’s new plan to test the meat at hamburger packing plants four times a month? Is this an improvement or a clear effort to make sure nobody ever finds anything wrong? Here’s Brian Hartman’s discussion of that question at ABC News.
Why do I get suspicious when I hear that the National Restaurant Association (NRA) and coalitions of its supporters are in favor of proposed legislation to require calorie labeling in fast food restaurants? Jim Matheson (Dem-Utah) has just introduced a bill that the NRA and its supporters think is just fine. Why? It requires calorie information on menu boards or some other place in the store (hidden under the counter, perhaps?). The New York City initiative puts the information on menu boards in the same size type as the price.
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.