May 10 2012

GAO says U.S. food safety system needs work, resources

The Government Accountability Office is complaining again about the inadequacies of the American food safety system, and with good reason.

Its 2012 Annual Report, Opportunities to Reduce Duplication, Overlap and Fragmentation, Achieve Savings, and Enhance Revenue, says that the food safety system is:

fragmented and results in inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient use of resources.

In 2007, GAO added food safety to its list of high-risk areas that warrant attention by Congress and the executive branch.

More recently GAO found that this fragmentation extends to the responsibilities across multiple agencies to defend food and agricultural systems against terrorist attacks and natural disasters…Many of these activities are everyday functions or part of the broader food and agriculture defense initiative and would be difficult for the agencies to separately quantify.

This report repeats what the GAO has been saying since the early 1990s:

there is no centralized coordination to oversee the federal government’s overall progress in implementing the nation’s food and agriculture defense policy.

Because the responsibilities outlined in this policy (HSPD-9) are fragmented and cut across at least nine different agencies, centralized oversight is important to ensure that efforts are coordinated to overcome this fragmentation, efficiently use scarce funds, and promote the overall effectiveness of the federal government.

Reminder: the present food safety system is mainly divided between two agencies: USDA (meat and poultry) and FDA (everything else).

Centralized oversight of food safety?  What a concept.

May 9 2012

FDA’s Global Engagement

The FDA has just released a classy new report on Global Engagement, summarizing its efforts to deal with issues raised by the globalization of drugs, medical devices, and foods.

This is a big deal.  In 2009, 300,000 foreign facilities in more than 150 countries exported $2 trillion worth of FDA-regulated products to the United States.

Given these numbers alone, the FDA has some challenges.

In 2011, one out of every six FDA-regulated food products in the U.S. came from abroad.  Imports of fresh fruits, vegeta­bles, coffee, tea, and cocoa have more than doubled since 2000.

We import:

  • 80 percent of seafood
  • ~50 percent of fresh fruit
  • ~20 percent of fresh vegetables

As the report explains,

  • Many products entering the United States are made or grown in countries that lack the necessary regulatory over­sight to ensure their quality and safety.
  • Greater numbers of suppliers, more complex products, and intricate multinational supply chains introduce risks to product safety and quality, including more oppor­tunities for economic adulteration and the spread of contaminated products.
  • FDA can only realistically inspect a small percent­age (less than 3 percent) of the enormous volume of food products arriving at U.S. ports of entry, making it crucial that the Agency focus on ensuring that food products meet U.S. standards before they reach the United States.

To deal with this problem, the FDA has opened offices in:

  • China: Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou
  • India: New Delhi and Mumbai
  • Latin America: San Jose, Costa Rica; Santiago, Chile; and Mexico City, Mexico
  • Europe: Brussels, Belgium; London, United Kingdom; and Parma, Italy
  • Asia-Pacific: FDA headquarters
  • Sub-Saharan Africa: Pretoria, South Africa
  • Middle East and North Africa: Amman, Jordan

The FDA seems seriously concerned about its global initiatives and the safety problems posed by our globalized food supply.

The volume seems impossible to manage.  Let’s hope the FDA’s efforts do some good.

May 8 2012

The latest pet food Salmonella recall

A reader writes:

Here’s what I don’t understand.

Everyone who is scared of raw says they want their dog’s food to be cooked, to kill salmonella.

But here is kibble, which by definition is cooked to the point of losing most of its original nutrients, but STILL has salmonella.

I don’t see how this is possible.  If it’s cooked enough to be “kibbled,” how can it possibly still have salmonella? It just seems like the worst of all possible worlds.

This question refers to the recent recall of dry dog food manufactured by Diamond Pet Foods.

As the CDC explains, Michigan public health officials found Salmonella in an unopened bag of a Diamond kibble product during routine testing.  This particular Salmonella strain had been found to infect at least 14 people.

CDC investigators connected the dots between the illnesses and dog food through interviews:

Seven of 10 (70%) ill persons interviewed reported contact with a dog in the week before becoming ill.

Of 5 ill persons who could recall the type of dog food with which they had contact, 4 (80%) identified dry dog food produced by Diamond Pet Foods that may have been produced at a single facility in South Carolina.

In my book, Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine, I tell the story of the massive pet food recalls of 2007 due to contamination with the industrial chemical, melamine.  And in Feed Your Pet Right, my co-authored book about the pet food industry, I explain how pet foods are manufactured and why they are so subject to contamination and recall.

Canned pet foods are sterile.  Dry kibble is not.  It may be sterile at the point of extrusion, but it is a perfect growth medium for bacteria.  It is nutritionally complete.  Although some nutrients are lost during processing, the product formulas compensate for such losses.  That is why dogs can survive on “complete and balanced” dry foods.

If the factory is contaminated with Salmonella, the bacteria can fall into the production lines and get packaged into the kibble bags.

Dogs are relatively resistant to Salmonella and usually do not show signs of illness from eating contaminated kibble.

But humans who handle the food or the dog can acquire the bacteria and get sick.

This makes dry dog food a potentially hazardous product, one best kept away from people with weak immune systems such as young children and the elderly.

People like feeding dry food to pets because it is convenient and cheap.

My point in Pet Food Politics was that pet food is an indicator of problems in food safety regulation.  If pet foods are not forced to be produced under strict food safety measures, humans and the human food supply are also at risk.

Resources

May 6 2012

Tuna scrape: a case study in international food safety

My Q and A column in the San Francisco Chronicle appears on the first Sunday of every month.  This one is about safety problems with tuna scrape.

Q: I had no idea that the tuna in my sushi roll was scraped off the bones in India, ground up, frozen, and shipped to California. Is this another “slime” product? Can I eat it raw?

A: No sooner did the furor over lean, finely textured beef (a.k.a. “pink slime”) die down than we have another one over sushi tuna. On April 13, the Food and Drug Administration said Moon Marine USA, an importing company based in Cupertino, was voluntarily recalling 30 tons of frozen raw ground yellowfin tuna, packaged as Nakaochi scrape.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigations linked consumption of Nakaochi scrape sushi to about 250 diagnosed cases and an estimated 6,000 or so undiagnosed cases of illness caused by two rare strains of salmonella. Among the victims who were interviewed, more than 80 percent said they ate spicy tuna sushi rolls purchased in grocery stores or restaurants.

Scrape refers to the meat left on fish skeletons after the filets are cut off. This is perfectly good fish, but difficult to get at. I once visited an Alaskan salmon packing plant and asked what happened to the delicious looking meat between the bones. The answer: pet food. (Lucky cats.)

A hot commodity

But tuna is too valuable to leave behind, and companies in India use special devices to scoop out the meat, combine it with scrapings from many other fish, chop the mixture, freeze it in blocks, and ship it to importers in the United States. Unlike “pink slime,” tuna scrape is not treated with ammonia or anything else to kill harmful bacteria.

Nevertheless, it is supposed to be safe. The FDA requires producers of imported foods to follow established safety plans. Although the United States imports about 80 percent of seafood sold domestically, the FDA only inspects 1 or 2 percent.

This means we have to rely on the diligence of international food producers in following safe-handling procedures, and of U.S. importers in verifying safety through pathogen testing. But even well-intentioned producers can make safety errors, especially when dealing with high-risk foods.

Tuna scrape is very high risk. Its supply chain is long, complicated and international, leaving many opportunities for contamination. And it is eaten raw.

This tuna scrape came from a single processing plant in India owned by Moon Marine International of Taiwan. Tuna are plentiful off the Indian coast, and the tuna processing industry is expanding rapidly. India has dozens, perhaps hundreds, of fish processing facilities, but most are relatively small and their number, size and geographical dispersion make monitoring difficult.

Safe handling issues

The frozen scrape blocks are supposed to be held at subzero temperatures throughout shipping. Even so, they pose a safety risk. They combine the scrapings from many fish. One contaminated scraping can contaminate the entire lot.

And subzero freezing may kill some salmonella, but large fractions can survive, remain viable, and multiply when the blocks are thawed.

Once the tuna scrape arrived in America, I’m guessing it was trucked to Cupertino and from there to retailers and distributors who further trucked them to restaurants and grocery stores. There, sushi chefs thawed the scrape and used it to make spicy tuna rolls.

Tuna scrape is used in supermarket-grade sushi, not the fancy stuff. Sushi used to be – and still is, in places – an art form requiring exceptional skills. In Japan, sushi chefs can train for as many as 10 years to learn how to recognize the freshest, safest and most delicious fish. Sushi served by such chefs is made to order. It is never pre-prepared. It can be breathtakingly expensive.

But in America, sushi has gone mainstream. You can find prepackaged sushi rolls at practically any supermarket or convenience store, at a cost equivalent to hamburger.

Cheap sushi is made with cheap ingredients – hence, Nakaochi scrape – by chefs with far less training. A typical certification program for sushi chefs in this country can be completed in two or three months. Some offer certification online. Although these programs address safe food-handling procedures, the training is necessarily superficial.

What are the odds?

Sushi aficionados argue that while raw fish is never perfectly safe, the safety odds are much better when the chef is well trained, and the fish are freshly caught and cut to order in front of you. By their standards, tuna scrape is suitable only for pet food, which is at least cooked to kill pathogens.

If anything, the tuna scrape outbreak teaches why it is so important to know where food comes from and how it is made. Caveat emptor.

Nutrition and public policy expert Marion Nestle answers readers’ questions in this monthly column written exclusively for The Chronicle. E-mail your questions to food@sfchronicle.com, with “Marion Nestle” in the subject line.

Addition, May 14Bill Marler reports that the FDA “483 Inspection Report” on the Indian tuna processing facility is now available.  Here are excerpts from the most revealing section:

Tanks used for storage of process waters have apparent visible debris, filth and microbiological contamination…There is no laboratory analysis for water used in ice manufacturing at the [redacted] facility to show the water used to make ice is potable…Apparent bird feces were observed on the ice manufacturing equipment at Moon Fishery; insects and filth were observed in and on the equipment…Tuna processed at your facility, which is consumed raw or cooked, comes in direct contact with water and ice.

May 4 2012

Brooklyn’s Food Book Fair launches today

I was honored to give the keynote address to this weekend’s splendid Food Book Fair (for information, travel directions, and schedule, click here).

The Fair features the work of groups listed in the poster.  It encompasses an unusually broad vision of food studies in action.

The venue, the Wythe Hotel at 12th street in Brooklyn, is an architectural wonder and worth the trip on its own.  It’s just a short walk from the Bedford Street subway stop on the L line.

Check out the schedule.  Check out the terrific selection of books at the bookstore–all on food in its many dimensions.

Come!

May 3 2012

New and delightful books about food

Paul Kindstedt, Cheese and Culture: A History of Cheese and its Place in Western Civilization, Chelsea Green, 2012.
Kindstedt, a professor of food science at the University of Vermont and co-director of its Institute for Artisan Cheese, has organized his history by time period and region, from the Paleolithic origins of cheese to current attempts to regulate raw milk.  His material is well referenced and the book is full of facts and observations that will delight cheese lovers.

Seamus Mullen, Hero Food: How Cooking with Delicious Things Can Make Us Feel Better, Andrews McNeel, 2012.

I don’t usually blurb cookbooks but I couldn’t resist this one from Seamus  Mullen, the chef-owner of Tertulia in lower Manhattan.

This gorgeous book proves without a doubt the point I’ve been making for years: healthy food is delicious!  Take a look at what Seamus Mullen does with vegetables, fruit, grains and everything else he cooks.  I can’t wait to try his 10 Things to Do with Corn.  His food can’t guarantee health, but will surely make anyone happy!

May 2 2012

FDA releases strategic plan for 2012-2016

Ordinarily I find government plans of this type to be soporific but this one is especially well written and well thought out (with some caveats).

The report is a statement of FDA commitment to what it is going to do in the next four years in food areas that affect people and animals.  It includes many promises, among them this one of particular interest: 

Program Goal 4: Provide accurate and useful information so consumers can choose a healthier diet and reduce the risk of chronic disease and obesity

Objective 1. Update the Nutrition Facts label.

  • Publish proposed rules updating the nutrition facts label and serving sizes [OK, but by when?].
  • Publish final rules updating the nutrition facts label and serving sizes [Ditto].

Objective 2.  Implement menu and vending machine labeling regulations.

  • Publish final menu and vending machine labeling regulations [OK, but by when?].
  • Collaborate with states, localities and other partners to ensure high rates of compliance.

Objective 3.  Improve consumer access to and use of nutrition information.

  • Explore front‐of‐pack nutrition labeling opportunities [Explore?  See comment below].
  • Collaborate with public/private sector parties on nutrition education [Collaborate?  See comment below].
  • Implement updated standards for the labeling of pet food including nutrition and ingredient information [How about a Pet Facts label for pet foods that someone might actually be able to understand?].
  • Implement standards for animal feed ingredients.
  • Publish final rule defining and permitting use of the term “gluten free” in the labeling of foods.

Goal-setting processes usually include dates by which the objectives are to be completed.  These do not, which suggests that the FDA can continue to delay action until 2016. 

I also do not understand what is meant by “Explore front‐of‐pack nutrition labeling opportunities.”  Explore?  The FDA has already sponsored two Institute of Medicine reports on front-of-pack labeling.  Does this mean the agency is ignoring them and intends further research?

And “Collaborate with public/private sector parties on nutrition education?”  What does the FDA have in mind for the content of such education?  You can bet that no collaborative campaign can focus on “don’t drink your calories.” 

FDA needs to deliver on these items, and sooner rather than later.  This year?  I’m not counting on it.

 

May 1 2012

Nutritionist’s Notebook: Estimating nutrient requirements

My Tuesday question from student readers of NYU’s Washington Square News:

Question: How can we determine our individual caloric, vitamin, carbohydrates, fats and other intake requirements per day based on our own individual weight, height and lifestyle?

Answer: You can’t. You will have to be satisfied with estimates based on measurements performed years ago on a small number of study subjects.

We require calories and nutrients — 40 to 50 separate substances that our bodies cannot make, we must get from food. Because these interact, studying one at a time gives results that may well be misleading.

Early nutrition scientists got “volunteers”— in quotes because study subjects often were prisoners — to consume diets depleted in vitamin C, for example. They waited until the subjects began to develop scurvy, a sign of vitamin C deficiency. Then they fed the subjects the smallest amount of vitamin C that would eliminate symptoms.

Because individuals vary in nutrient requirements, scientists used this data to estimate the range of nutrient intake that would meet the needs of practically everyone.

The Institute of Medicine compiles such data into Dietary Reference Intakes and presents the estimates by sex and age group. You can look up your requirements in DRI tables. DRIs account for the needs of 98 percent of the population. If your requirements are average, you will need less.

Few American adults show signs of nutrient deficiencies, but if you are worried about your own intake of nutrients, you can take a multivitamin supplement. Note, however, that we have no evidence to show supplements make healthy people healthier.

You can estimate calories by looking up everything you eat or drink in food composition tables, but it is easier to weigh yourself at regular intervals. If you are gaining weight, you are eating too many calories for your activity level.

With nutrition, it’s best to get comfortable with estimates and probabilities.

Fortunately, eating a healthy diet takes care of nutrients without your having to give them a thought. Eat your veggies!

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, May 1 print edition. Marion Nestle is a contributing columnist. Email her questions at dining@nyunews.com.

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