by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Food-safety

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

Feb 3 2015

Obama’s budget calls for a single food safety agency!

Starting on page 82 of President Obama’s 150-page, $4 trillion 2016 federal budget is a section on food safety calling for creation of a single food safety agency.

The Budget proposes to consolidate the FSIS [the Food Safety and Inspection Service of USDA] and the food safety related components of the FDA to create a single new agency within HHS…A single Federal food safety agency would provide focused, centralized leadership, a primary voice on food safety standards and compliance with those standards, and clear lines of responsibility and accountability that will enhance both prevention of and responses to outbreaks of food borne illnesses.  It would rationalize the food safety regulatory regime and allow the Federal government to better allocate resources and responsibilities.

Wow!  Food safety advocates in and out of government have been pushing for something like this since the early 1990s.

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler says:

The budget proposes an additional $301 million for the FDA to implement that law, though part of the money would come from user fees imposed on the food industry.

Where do I apply?

Is this a good idea?  It sure could be but the devil is in the details.

Does it have a chance in this Congress?  I’m not holding my breath.

Dec 23 2014

Happy holidays but watch out for packaged caramel apples. They may have Listeria.

It may be the season to be jolly, but not with prepackaged commercial caramel apples.  They may be contaminated with potentially fatal Listeria.  Not good.

The CDC says:

Out of an abundance of caution, CDC recommends that U.S. consumers do not eat any commercially produced, prepackaged caramel apples, including plain caramel apples as well as those containing nuts, sprinkles, chocolate, or other toppings, until more specific guidance can be provided.

As of December 18, 2014, a total of 28 people have been reported as infected with the outbreak strains of Listeria monocytogenes.

  • Five people have died–from eating caramel apples.
  • 26 have been hospitalized, in 10 states.
  • Nine cases are in a pregnant woman or her newborn infant.
  • Three children have meningitis.
  • 83% of the 18 ill people said they ate commercially produced, prepackaged caramel apples.
  • None of the 18 ill people said they ate plain apples, or plain caramel candy.

Here’s the Epi chart of reported cases:

Epi case count, click for more details.

 

Food safety attorney Bill Marler checked FDA records for previous recalls of apples potentially contaminated with Listeria.  His list:

  • December 11, 2014 – Giant Eagle issued a recall of Giant Eagle Apple Pistachio Salad and Apple Pistachio Salad with Chicken due to potential Listeria monocytogenes contamination. To date, Giant Eagle has received no reports of customer illnesses associated with this recall.
  • November 14, 2013 – Crunch Pak® of Cashmere, Washington is voluntarily recalling 5,471 cases of Crunch Pak® Apple Slices due to a possible health risk from Listeria monocytogenes.
  • November 7, 2013 – Garden-Fresh Foods has initiated an expansion of previous recalls of fresh ct vegetables, ready-to eat salads, slaws, dips and spreads.
  • December 8, 2012 – Freshway Foods is voluntarily recalling 6,671 pounds of sliced apples.
  • August 10, 2012 – Missa Bay, LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Ready Pac Foods, Inc., of Swedesboro, New Jersey is voluntarily recalling a total of 293,488 cases and 296,224 individually distributed units of fruit, vegetable, and sandwich products containing apples.
  • August 6, 2012 – Reichel Foods, Inc. of Rochester, Minnesota is voluntarily recalling a limited amount of Dippin’ Stix Sliced Apples & Caramel with Peanuts.

The moral: when it comes to food safety, no food source is sacred.

Add this to your list of food safety hazards to avoid.

Have a food-safe holiday season!

 

Dec 22 2014

GAO: USDA and FDA need to coordinate food safety activities

The Government Accountability Office has just released a new report.

Much of the report is about the need for better coordination of the food safety oversight responsibilities of the USDA (meat and poultry) and those of the FDA (everything else), not to mention the 13 other agencies that deal with aspects of food safety (the report provides a handy summary chart).

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This report points out that both agencies

have mechanisms in place to facilitate interagency coordination on food safety that focus on specific issues, but none provides for broad-based, centralized collaboration…[Existing]mechanisms do not allow FDA, FSIS [USDA], and other agencies to look across their individual programs and determine how they all contribute to federal food safety goals. Nearly all the experts GAO interviewed agreed that a centralized collaborative mechanism on food safety is important to foster effective interagency collaboration and could enhance food safety oversight. The Food Safety Working Group (FSWG) served
as a centralized mechanism for broad-based food safety collaboration and resulted in a number of accomplishments, including improved coordination. However, the FSWG is no longer meeting…Without a centralized collaborative mechanism on food safety, there is no forum for agencies to reach agreement on a set of broad-based food safety goals and objectives.

The GAO complains that “for more than a decade, we have reported on the fragmented nature of federal food safety oversight.”

Actually, its complaints go back longer than that but here’s one from 1999:

New Picture

I will have to go through my files but as I recall, the GAO started arguing for a single food safety agency sometime in the early 1990s.  Political realities make that idea impossible.  Instead, we have the Food Safety Working Group which seems to have stopped meeting.

It’s good the GAO is still on the case.  We need better food safety oversight.

Tomorrow’s example: Caramel apples.

Oct 14 2014

Today’s food politics of Ebola

Ebola is much in the news, and for good reason.  It is highly contagious, difficult to contain, and deadly.

In food studies, we say that food is a lens through which to view the most important problems of society.  Here are some thoughts on the food politics of Ebola.

Dietary Supplements for Ebola Prevention or Treatment

The Council for Responsible Nutrition, the trade association for supplement manufacturers, has found it necessary to issue an advisory on use of dietary supplements to prevent or treat Ebola infections.

The American Herbal Products Association (AHPA), the Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA), the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), the Natural Products Association (NPA), and the United Natural Products Alliance (UNPA) are therefore endorsing the following unified advisory for marketers and retailers, as well as for consumers of dietary supplements:

  • Marketers and retailers of dietary supplements are urged to refuse to stock or sell any supplements that are presented as treating or curing Ebola virus disease, or preventing Ebola virus infection.
  • Marketers and retailers should refrain from promoting any dietary supplement as a cure or treatment for Ebola virus disease.
  • Anyone who believes they may have Ebola virus disease or may have come in contact with the Ebola virus should contact a healthcare professional immediately. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more information on Ebola virus disease and the proper actions to take if you suspect you are ill.

The knowledge that no known treatment exists for Ebola has not stopped supplement manufacturers from advertising the benefits of their products for this infection.

FDA Warning Letters

The FDA has stepped in and issued warning letters to three manufacturers marketing their products as possible treatments or cures.  The FDA letters, which make interesting reading, went to:

Marketing of Nutritional Supplements

A simple Google search of “supplements Ebola” turned up this kind of information this morning:

The Ebola virus can be destroyed naturally – despite what you’ve been told To date, not a single virus has been tested that is not inactivated (killed) by a large enough dose of vitamin C (ascorbic acid). Many other antioxidants have similar virucidal effects, but vitamin C appears uniquely to be of greatest potency and clinical efficacy, as its simple chemical structure allows for it to be disseminated throughout the body with little restriction… Vitamin C is both very potent and optimally bioavailable in accessing any viral infection.

And this:

The substances in the Natural Allopathic protocol for Ebola offer a power unequalled in the world of medicine that we can harness to save many lives of people infected with Ebola…. Magnesium salts, sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), iodine, selenium and vitamin C are concentrated nutritional medicinals that have been used in the direst of medical circumstances…The core of the Natural Allopathic protocol redefines the way emergency room and intensive care should be practiced on Ebola patients with proven fast-acting, safe, concentrated and mostly injectable nutritional medicines. If the Ebola infection truly gets out of hand, it is comforting for parents to know that they can legally administer these same medicinals if infected people are treated at home. All of the Natural Allopathic Medicines can be also taken orally or used transdermally (topically) to almost the same effect if treatment is started early enough.

How Can Supplement Makers Do This?

The ability of supplement manufacturers to claim health benefits for their products, and mostly get away with it, is a result of congressional action in passing the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA), which essentially deregulated these products.

Twenty years later, the supplement industry is deeply divided between responsible and irresponsible manufacturers, both allowed by law.

As the president and CEO of one supplement company puts it,

The industry of 1994, roughly $8 billion in sales, has experienced compounded double-digit growth every year since DSHEA became law…DSHEA opened the door to growth, innovation, new science, new discovery and a nation of wanting consumers enchanted with the thought that there are natural solutions to their individual health needs…20 years later, it’s time to take a hard look at what DSHEA doesn’t provide to the industry today. The barrier to entry into this industry continues to have no hurdles; DSHEA does not define the boundaries of consumer trust… The generations of today, and the generations of tomorrow will demand transparency, they will demand efficacy, and they will demand quality and safety from all of us.

Clearly, they aren’t getting that now.

Other Connections to Food Politics

Chocolate

Politico writes:

EBOLA THREATENS WORLD’S CHOCOLATE SUPPLY:  Ivory Coast, the world’s largest producer of cacao, the raw ingredient in M&Ms, Butterfingers and Snickers Bars, has shut down its borders with Liberia and Guinea, putting a major crimp on the workforce needed to pick the beans that end up in chocolate bars and other treats just as the harvest season begins… the outbreak already could raise prices…Prices on cocoa futures jumped from their normal trading range of $2,000 to $2,700 per ton, to as high as $3,400 in September over concerns about the spread of Ebola to Côte D’Ivoire.

Food safety

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler points out that Ebola started out as a foodborne illness.    Its most likely source was infected bushmeat that transferred the virus to human handlers.

Following standard food safety procedures is always a good idea while hoping that health officials get this epidemic under control.

 

Aug 12 2014

Oops. USDA is NOT requiring poultry packers to test for Salmonella and Campylobacter

Christopher Waldrop, who directs the Food Policy Institute at Consumer Federation of America writes to correct something  I said in a post last week about USDA’s poultry rule.  He says:

USDA will actually NOT be requiring plants to test for Salmonella or Campylobacter. Their press release makes it sound like they will, but if you read the final rule, USDA actually allows the plant to decide for itself what to test. It could be pathogens like Salmonella or Campy, OR it could be indicator organisms like generic E. coli. USDA does require testing at 2 points along the line – pre-chill and post-chill and will require a minimum testing frequency, but plants are not obligated to test for the pathogens that make people sick.

He explained this problem to Food Safety News and in a press release.

He points out that what the USDA really said is on page 229 of its statement of policy in the section on Indicator Organisms and Baseline:

Comment: Several consumer advocacy organizations argued that instead of allowing establishments to choose which organism to test for, FSIS should require that establishments test for Salmonella and Campylobacter. The comments said that these are the two pathogens of greatest public health concern in the products affected by the proposed rule and together account for nearly half of all poultry-related outbreaks in the United States…Response: As discussed above, the purpose of the proposed new testing requirements is to ensure that establishments are effectively monitoring process control on an ongoing basis. FSIS has determined that this can be achieved by sampling pre-and post-chill for enteric pathogens, such as Salmonella and Campylobacter, or for an appropriate indicator organism…The cost to analyze samples for Salmonella and Campylobacter is much greater than that to analyze for indicator organisms…FSIS has concluded that such costs would not be justifiable when measurements of indicator organisms are as effective for monitoring process control as measurements of pathogens.

Here’s what USDA says in its press release:

  • Poultry companies will have to meet new requirements to control Salmonella and Campylobacter.
  • FSIS will now require that all poultry companies take measures to prevent Salmonella and Campylobacter contamination.
  • All poultry facilities will be required to perform their own microbiological testing at two points in their production process to show that they are controlling Salmonella and Campylobacter.

I can see why I misunderstood this as announcing a requirement for testing at two points for Salmonella and Campylobacter.

But the USDA is leaving it to the production plants to demonstrate that cheaper testing for an indicator organism like nonpathogenic forms of E. coli will adequately demonstrate that chickens are free of pathogenic Salmonella and Campylobacter.

Fingers crossed that it works.

Addition, September 11:  Food and Water Watch has filed suit against the USDA to block the new poultry inspection system on the grounds that it privatizes inspection responsibility, at great hazard to the public.

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