by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Food-safety

Feb 5 2016

Chipotle’s food safety woes

Conspiracy theorists cannot believe that Chipotle’s ongoing food safety problems—and its consequent legal woes—can be due to anything other than deliberate sabotage.  Much as I love conspiracy theories—and my favorite is to blame the Center for Consumer Freedom—I suspect the problems are related more to supply-chain issues and the need to establish a stronger internal culture of food safety.  This means getting every employee to follow food safety rules to the letter—but also in spirit.

The company has done the right thing by recruiting help from a top food-safety consulting firm.

In the meantime, here’s what’s happening to its stock prices.Capture

Additions:

Jan 4 2016

Politico Pro Agriculture’s pick of top 2015 food policy stories

Jason Huffman, Helena Bottemiller Evich, and Jenny Hopkinson of Politico Pro Agriculture have published their end-of-year assessment of game-changing events in food and agriculture policy last year.  Here’s their list:

  • Avian flu blew up the U.S. egg industry.
  • The Trans-Pacific Partnership deal got done.
  • The battle over the Dietary Guidelines turned even nastier.
  • The FDA banned most uses of trans fat.
  • The FDA said a genetically engineered fish is safe to eat.
  • The EPA released its final Waters of the U.S. rule, inciting the wrath of multiple industries, states and lawmakers.
  • A federal judge sent peanut company executives to jail for decades for their part in a giant salmonella outbreak.
  • The FDA released major rules to promote the safety of produce and imports.
  • The FDA doubled down on added sugars on food labels, proposing daily values for the listings.

I’ve discussed most of these on this site (all except Waters of the US).

I can’t wait to see what this year brings—more of the same, for sure, but what else?  Stay tuned.

Dec 28 2015

Chipotle’s food safety problems: an update

I’m fascinated by reports of Chipotle’s ongoing problems with foodborne illness.

  • The main interest of the press in these episodes is their effect on Chipotle’s stock prices.
  • The outbreaks have been linked to a bunch of different pathogens: E. coli O157:H7, E. coli STEC O26, Salmonella, norovirus, and, possibly, hepatitis A.  This means they are due to different causes at different outlets.
  • The food, foods, or individuals responsible for these outbreaks are uncertain, making them hard to know how to prevent.
  • Hence: conspiracy theories.

The outbreaks

The most recent CDC report (December 21) counts 53 cases of E. coli 026 from 9 states, with 20 hospitalizations.

12-18-2015: Epi Cruve: Persons infected with the outbreak strain of E. coli O26, by date of illness onset

The FDA reports (December 22) that there are 5 more recent cases of illness caused by a different type of E. coli 026 among people eating at Chipotle.

Food Safety News summarizes the previous Chipotle outbreaks.

  • Seattle: July 2015, 5 people sick from E. coli O157:H7, from unknown food source.
  • Simi Valley, CA: August 2015, more than 230 sick from norovirus (most likely from an ill worker).
  • Minnesota: August and September 2015, 64 people sick from Salmonella Newport (tomatoes?).
  • Boston: December 2015, at least 136 people sick from norovirus.

The consequences

  • Nearly 500 people have become ill after eating in a Chipotle since July this year.
  • Stock prices are down 30 percent from a high of $757.77 in August.

The conspiracy theory

The title says it all: “ANALYSIS: Chipotle is a victim of corporate sabotage… biotech industry food terrorists are planting e.coli in retaliation for restaurant’s anti-GMO menu.”

I don’t think so.

You don’t need conspiracy theories to explain poorly designed and executed food safety procedures.

What is to be done?

The New York Times attributes the inability to identify the food source to Chipotle’s record-keeping:

One of the challenges here has been that we have been able to identify the restaurants where people ate, but because of the way Chipotle does its record-keeping, we have been unable to figure out what food is in common across all those restaurants,” said Dr. Ian Williams, chief of the outbreak response and prevention branch of the C.D.C.

That, at least, should be an easy fix.

For the rest, Chipotle has initiated a new food safety program, and has recruited a leading food safety expert, Mansour Samadpour, to set it up.  I met Samadpour at Earthbound Farms when he was helping that company prevent further problems after the spinach outbreak of 2006.  He knows what he his doing.

Chipotle needs to follow his advice—in letter and in spirit.

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler advises Chipotle to follow a 12-step program to create an effective culture of food safety from top down and bottom up within the company.  For example, he advises the company’s CEO, Steve Ells to say:

  • It is time to have a culture of food safety added to the “integrity” of the food. I have now learned that bacteria and viruses do not care a whit if my food’s ingredients are organic, sustainable, non-GMO and humanely raised.
  • I am going to hire a vice-president of Food Safety. That person will report directly to me and to the Board of Directors. Like Dave Theno being brought in to address the Jack-in-the-Box crisis of 1993, this person will have the resources and access to decision makers to create a culture of food safety from the top down.
  • The company’s new mantra – “Safe Food with Integrity” – will be completely transparent and shared with all – including our competitors.

Will Ells take his advice?  I hope so.

Nov 30 2015

Chipotle’s E. coli outbreak is nearly over, still a mystery

The CDC’s latest update on the food safety problems at Chipotle says whatever food or ingredient caused 45 people to become ill with E. coli is still unknown.

Bill Marler, the food safety attorney who tracks such things, offers a history of previous Chipotle outbreaks from 2008-2015; these involved Norovirus, Salmonella, hepatitis A, campylobacter, and now an STEC (Shiga Toxin-Producing E. coli).

Chipotle closed some of its outlets in the Northwest, but then reopened.

Steve Ells, Chipotle’s CEO, placed an ad in the New York Times, promising to do everything possible to prevent this from happening again.

Screen Shot 2015-11-14 at 9.39.40 AM

This got Bill Marler to ask: Is this Chipotle’s 2-b-4 moment?

We only make dramatic changes when we’ve been hit in the head with a 2-by-4 once or twice. Hopefully for Chipotle, this is their 2-by-4 moment.

The presence of E. coli indicates fecal contamination of some ingredient or food that was not cooked or not cooked sufficiently (cooking kills bacteria).  But from what animal,where, and when?

Chipotle needs to check every ingredient it sources, as well as every process involved in preparing and serving the foods.  If standard safety procedures aren’t already in place, this is a big job.

Let’s hope the CDC finds out what caused this outbreak, and soon.

Oct 21 2015

Canada’s new government’s commitments on food and nutrition

The Washington, DC-based Center for Science in the Public Interest also operates in Canada.  It issued a comment on the recent Canadian election.

Newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has four years to implement his public health nutrition commitments.  He and his party have pledged to:

  • Introduce new restrictions on the commercial marketing of unhealthy food and beverages to children, similar to those now in place in Quebec
  • Bring in tougher regulations to eliminate trans fats, similar to those in the U.S., and to reduce salt in processed foods
  • Improve food labels to give more information on added sugars and artificial dyes in processed foods
  • Make additional investments of $40 million for Nutrition North and $80 million for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency

Sounds like a new era indeed.  This will be interesting to watch.

Aug 4 2015

Become a food-safety expert: Cilantro this time

On my 12th-floor Manhattan terrace, I grow cilantro every summer.  I like to have it handy.  And I know it’s local, organic, seasonal, and deer-free—and unlikely to be contaminated with Cyclospora.

Image result for cilantro

The CDC reports 358 people to be ill with Cyclospora, most likely because they ate cilantro imported from Mexico.

It doesn’t take much web surfing to find out anything you want to know about such problems.  I like to use three sources:

The CDC

The FDA

Bill Marler

Jul 29 2015

Court asks for life in prison in peanut butter Salmonella case

Federal court officers are recommending what attorneys are calling an “unprecedented” sentence of life in prison for a Stewart Parnell, the former owner of the Peanut Corporation of America.  He was convicted last fall of selling bulk peanut butter from his plant in Georgia to food processors—even after the peanut butter tested positive for Salmonella.

The CDC associated the tainted peanuts with the deaths of 9 people and illnesses among more than 700.

The government’s sentencing recommendations say:

The Government submits that the U.S. Probation Office correctly calculated the Sentencing Guidelines adjusted offense level for Stewart Parnell to be 47 with criminal history category I, which results in a life sentence Guidelines range; for Michael Parnell, to be adjusted offense level 37 with criminal history category I, which results in a 210 to 262 months Guidelines range; and for Wilkerson to be adjusted offense level 30 with a criminal history of I, which results in a 97 to 121 months Guidelines range.

Does the punishment fit the crime?  Bill Marler’s discusses of the legal issues related to this conviction as opposed to the results of similar cases.  Marler is usually unsympathetic to owners of companies producing foods that kill people, but in this instance he says:

I find it a bit hard to parse out why some have been targeted – OK, perhaps the Parnell prosecution is a bit easier because it was so clearly intentional – and some have not, or at least not yet.  Honestly, what are the differences in prosecuting the Jensens, DeCosters and ConAgra and leaving the others – so far – unmolested…Is it the number of sick, the number of dead? Is it the economic consequences? What really are the criteria, or, should it simply be left to the discretion of the prosecutor as to who or what feels the sting of the criminal justice system?

Jun 8 2015

The Blue Bell ice cream recall: a roundup

I was interested to read Michael Taylor’s comments on the recall of Blue Bell ice cream contaminated with Listeria.  Mr. Taylor is Deputy FDA Commissioner for food safety.

This was an outbreak in which 10 people were hospitalized and three died.  The best place to begin on this is on the CDC website for the Blue Bell outbreak.  It provides excellent graphics summarizing the number of cases and where they occurred:
Capture

This outbreak was particularly awful because inspections had found severe violations of standard food safety procedures, yet the company ignored them.  The result: people died.

Mr. Taylor asks if this outbreak could have been prevented with better FDA regulation.  In 2010, Congress passed the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) but it’s taken time for the implementation.  Taylor says:

the preventive controls for human food rule, if finalized as proposed, would require that companies like Blue Bell have a written food safety plan, based on an analysis of likely hazards, and companies would have to show us that plan during inspections.Listeria monocytogenes is a classic example of a hazard that a company should be controlling. Under the proposed standards, companies would be required to have the right controls in place to minimize hazards and would have to verify that their controls are working.

But, he says, to implement the law, the FDA needs funding: “If we do not get the funding, we will lose momentum, and implementation will be badly disrupted.”

Congress, no doubt, will continue to keep the FDA on a short string.  No industry likes being regulated and the food industry fights regulation in every way it can.

The FDA needs to do more to ensure food safety but can’t without inspectors.

That leaves legal approaches.  For these, I go right to the websites of the Marler-Clark law firm, which specializes in food safety cases.

Here’s what Bill Marler and his colleagues have had to say about the Blue Bell case (most recent first and I may be missing some):

Marler-Clark is filling a critical regulatory gap by suing companies that cause foodborne illnesses and deaths.  But this is after-the-fact.

As Bill Marler has been pleading since 2007: please put me out of business.

Prevention would be much, much better.  Hence the need for more FDA resources.

Update, June 12: The CDC concludes its investigations and the FDA releases reports

Page 1 of 2612345...Last »