by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Food-safety

Aug 20 2010

The Salmonella-in-eggs situation gets worse

Judging from the number of interview requests today, everyone has figured out that the egg recall is not only awful for the people who got sick but also has something to do with our hopelessly inadequate food safety system and dysfunctional Congress.

The CDC has updated its statistics on the number of illnesses.  Here’s what this epidemic looks like:

About 2,000 cases have been reported but the CDC does not yet know whether these are all related to this particular outbreak.

Here’s what’s special about this particular recall:

  • Salmonella in eggs never used to be a problem until we had industrial egg production that puts hundreds of thousands of hens in close (very close) proximity.
  • The company producing these particular eggs has a long history of rule violations.
  • The company was not required to follow standard food safety plans.  Whatever it had to do was voluntary.
  • The FDA started writing rules for safe egg production more than 10 years ago.  These were quashed. It finally got them done last July.
  • The new safety rules for eggs went into effect this July 9, too late to prevent this outbreak.
  • The FDA’s hands are tied by inadequate legislation and resources.
  • The House passed legislation last August—one year ago—to give the FDA more authority and more resources.  The Senate has been sitting on S.510 ever since.

The moral?  Voluntary doesn’t work.  We need mandatory food safety rules.

And sooner rather than later, no?


Aug 19 2010

Salmonella in eggs is old news. But 380 million?

Yesterday, the FDA announced yet another voluntary recall of eggs produced by Wright County Egg in Galt, Iowa.  The first announcement on August 13 covered 228 million eggs.  This one adds 152 million for a grand total of 380 million—so far.

In that first announcement, the Wright company said: “Our farm strives to provide our customers with safe, high-quality eggs – that is our responsibility and our commitment.”

That, however, is not how the New York Times sees it.  According to today’s account, Wright has a long history of “run-ins with regulators over poor or unsafe working conditions, environmental violations, the harassment of workers, and the hiring of illegal immigrants.”

OK, so where are we on safety regulation?  The FDA, after many, many years of trying, finally introduced safety regulations for shell eggs.  These supposedly went into effect on July 9.

I recount the history of FDA’s persistence in the chapter entitled “Eggs and the Salmonella problem” in What to Eat. Check out the table  listing the key events in this history from 1980 to 2005.  It’s not pretty.

Preventing Salmonella should not be difficult.  The rules require producers to take precautions to prevent transmission, control pests and rodents, test for Salmonella, clean and disinfect poultry houses that test positive, divert eggs from positive-testing flocks, refrigerate the eggs right away, and keep records.  These sound reasonable to me, but I care about not making people sick.

Problems with Wright County Eggs started in May before the FDA’s mandatory rules went into effect meaning that the procedures were still voluntary.  The recalls this month are after the fact.  Chances are that most of the recalled eggs have already been eaten.

The CDC is tracking this recall and has logged about 200 reports of illness associated with it so far.  It has plenty to say about Salmonella and its hazards.

According to FoodSafetyNews, the first lawsuits have been filed.

As for food safety legislation that would give the FDA the authority to handle these incidents more efficiently—and, let us hope, maybe even prevent them—it is still sitting in the Senate.  For S.510 watchers, Bill Marler has a helpful new analysis.

The recall, by the way, affects eggs sold under many different brands: Lucerne, Albertson, Mountain Dairy, Ralph’s, Boomsma’s, Sunshine, Hillandale, Trafficanda, Farm Fresh, Shoreland, Lund, Dutch Farms, and Kemps in the first round, and now also James Farms, Glenview, and Pacific Coast.

The good news is that cooking kills Salmonella.  I’m buying eggs at farmers’ markets these days.

Addition: Tom Philpott of Grist on Wright County’s unsavory history.

Aug 18 2010

NYC grades restaurants for food safety

I’ve been out of town so I missed the New York City Health Department’s grades for restaurant safety.  The agency has a website where you can look these up.

The first restaurant to get an A was happy about it, as you might expect.

All the others are worried that customers won’t go to places that get less than A grades.  But isn’t that the point?  The grades ought to act as an incentive for restaurants to clean up their safety acts.

Los Angeles has been doing this for ages.  It’s reassuring to see the A on the door.

My personal test for whether a restaurant is likely to be paying attention to safety: handwashing.  I am always reassured to see restaurant restrooms with (1) hot water, (2) soap, and (3) towels.  With those, it’s easier for employees to wash their hands so they are more likely to do so.

I’m always amazed at how many restaurants do not have all three.   Check out the restrooms and see for yourself?

Aug 14 2010

Two more analyses of S. 510 to ponder

Yesterday, I posted comments from the Consumers Federation of America about the latest version of S.510. With luck, the Senate will vote to pass this bill in September and will reconcile its version with the House bill passed a year ago.  Here are two comments based on Senator Harkins’ staff analyses:

1.  The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) says that the latest version of the bill includes these improvements (my emphasis):

  • The amendment sponsored by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) pertaining to farms that engage in value-added processing or that co-mingle product from several farms.  It will provide the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with the authority to either exempt farms engaged in low or no risk processing or co-mingling activities from new regulatory requirements or to modify particular regulatory requirements for such farming operations. Included within the purview of the amendment are exemptions or flexibilities with respect to requirements within S. 510 for food safety preventative control plans and FDA on-farm inspections.
  • The amendments sponsored by Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) to reduce unnecessary paperwork and excess regulation.  The Bennet language pertains to both the preventative control plan and the produce standards sections of the bill.  FDA is instructed to provide flexibility for small processors including on-farm processing, to minimize the burden of compliance with regulations, and to minimize the number of different standards that apply to separate foods.  FDA will also be prohibited from requiring farms and other food facilities to hire consultants to write food safety plans or to identify, implement, certify or audit those plans. With respect to produce standards, FDA will also be given the discretion to develop rules for categories of foods or for mixtures of foods rather than necessarily needing to have a separate rule for each specific commodity or to regulate specific crops if the real food safety issue involved mixtures only.
  • The amendment sponsored by Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) to provide for a USDA-delivered competitive grants program for food safety training for farmers, small processors and wholesalers.  The training projects will prioritize small and mid-scale farms, beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers, and small food processors and wholesalers. The program will be administered by USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture.  As is the case for all of the provisions in S. 510, funding for the bill and for this competitive grants program will happen through the annual agriculture appropriations bill process.
  • The effort championed by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) to strip the bill of wildlife-threatening enforcement against “animal encroachment” of farms is also in the manager’s package.  It will require FDA to apply sound science to any requirements that might impact wildlife and wildlife habitat on farms.
  • An amendment proposed by Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) to amend the traceability and recordkeeping section of the bill that will exempt food that is direct marketed from farmers to consumers or to grocery stores and exempt food that has labeling that preserves the identity of the farm that produced the food. The amendment also prevents FDA from requiring any farm from needing to keep records beyond the first point of sale when the product leaves the farm, except in the case of farms that co-mingle product from multiple farms, in which case they must also keep records one step back as well as one step forward.

2.  Bill Marler provides additional information:

Here is Chairman Harkin’s mark-up and section by section summary – this is the version of the bill voted out of the HELP Committee in mid-November and here is the most recently approved version as of last night.

Senator Feinstein has not released a copy of her BPA amendment — however, she is now saying it will only be baby bottles, sippy cups, baby food, and infant formula.

Here’s the Senator Tester amendments as they were introduced in April (I’m sure the version they’re working with now looks quite different after months of negotiations, but the principle is likely the same).

Marler also points out that only foods that are already regulated by FDA will be subject to S. 510, as its Section 403 maintains the existing firewall between FDA and USDA-regulated foods and agricultural products.

Keep reading.  This is critically important legislation to help the FDA ensure food safety.

Aug 13 2010

S. 510 inches toward passage

It looks like S. 510, the Senate’s version of the food safety bill passed by the House a year ago, may actually have a chance of passing. According to summaries by Bill Marler and by Food Safety News, there is now bipartisan agreement on the bill’s key provisions:

Hazard analysis and preventive controls: Requires facilities that manufacture, process, pack, or hold food to have in place risk-based preventive control plans to address identified hazards and prevent adulteration, and gives FDA access to these plans and relevant documentation. These requirements do not apply to restaurants or most farms.

Imports: Requires importers to verify the safety of foreign suppliers and imported food.  Allows FDA to require certification for high-risk foods, and to deny entry to a food that lacks certification or that is from a foreign facility that has refused U.S. inspectors.  Creates a voluntary qualified importer program in which importers with a certification of safety for their foreign supplier can pay a user-free for expedited entry into the U.S.

Inspection: Gives FDA additional resources to hire new inspectors and requires FDA to inspect food facilities more frequently.

Mandatory Recall Authority: Gives FDA the authority to order a mandatory recall of a food product if the food will cause serious adverse health consequences or death and a company has failed to voluntarily recall the product upon FDA’s request.

Regulatory Balance: Achieves new requirements without being excessively burdensome.  The legislation provides training for facilities to come into compliance with new safety requirements and includes special accommodations for small businesses and farms.  It does not interfere with current organic farming practices and does not change the current definition of farm under the 2002 Bioterrorism Act.  Any farm that is not currently required to register with FDA will not be required to do so under this legislation.

Surveillance: Enhances surveillance systems to detect foodborne illnesses.

Traceback: Requires FDA to establish a pilot project to test and evaluate new methods for rapidly tracking foods in the event of a foodborne illness outbreak.

Increased FDA Resources: Increases funding for FDA’s food safety activities through increased appropriations and targeted fees for food facility reinspection, food recalls, and the voluntary qualified importer program.

Carole Tucker Foreman of Consumers Federation of America (CFA), sends its statement on the bill.  CFA, like many others, is disappointed in some of the bill’s provisions but supports it because the FDA so desperately needs more authority and resources:

Consumer Federation of America commends the Senate HELP Committee for reaching a bipartisan agreement that should remove any further barriers to bringing S. 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, to the floor of the Senate in early September.   At a time when bipartisanship is in short supply, this is a notable achievement.

We are extremely disappointed that the Senate, in order to reduce the estimated cost of the legislation, reduced the frequency of FDA inspections of food processing facilities. Regular and frequent inspection is a basic part of prevention.

Inspectors are cops on the beat—checking to be sure that corporate process controls are operating as intended.  Even the most sophisticated and well intentioned company can make a mistake and history shows some plants are careless and not concerned with protecting their customers.

CFA advocated increasing the number of inspections that were required in the bill reported by the Committee last year.  Instead, the Senate has reduced the frequency to once every five years for high risk plants and once every seven years for other facilities.

Despite our dismay with this glaring weakness, CFA supports passage of  S. 510 and will encourage our members to communicate with their Senators urging its passage.  We believe that establishing an affirmative legal mandate for FDA to prevent foodborne illness will help save lives.

The current version of the Senate bill is available for scrutiny.  If passed, it still needs to go to the House for reconciliation of the two versions.  So it is still interim and worth reading carefully.  Read it and decide for yourself what it says and is likely to mean.

Aug 9 2010

Supplements in trouble—again!

You have to pity the poor supplement industry.  It is taking a real beating these days.

First, the Government Accountability Office told a Senate committee that the dietary supplement industry routinely uses “questionable and deceptive” marketing practices and gives potentially dangerous advice.

USA Today agreed.  In an editorial, it noted that:

Industry spokesmen have gotten away for years with minimizing all this as just the work of a handful of bad apples. Lobbyists say responsible makers and distributors should not be burdened with more government oversight. But the problem is big enough that another GAO study last year found nearly 1,000 reports in a 10-month period of specific health problems linked to supplements, including nine deaths, 64 life-threatening illnesses and 234 hospitalizations. Nobody knows how many other incidents never got reported.

In defense, an industry spokesman blamed the FDA:

As FDA Deputy Commissioner Joshua Sharfstein acknowledged last week, DSHEA strikes the right balance, but FDA needs to do more to maintain that equilibrium. FDA must use the tools it was given under the law to address the issues that hurt the credibility of responsible companies and undermine consumer confidence.

And now, the September issue of Consumer Reports list the “Dirty Dozen” supplements that research links to nasty problems such as cancer, coma, heart problems, kidney damage, liver damage, or death: aconite, bitter orange, chaparral, colloidal silver, coltsfoot, comfrey, country mallow, germanium, greater celandine, kava, lobelia, and yohimbe.  The FDA has been warning about the ones shown in red for years.  But these and the others are still on the market.

Among other suggestions, Consumer Reports advises:

Beware of these categories. Supplements for weight loss, sexual enhancement, and bodybuilding have been problematic, the FDA said, because some contain steroids and prescription drugs.

Don’t assume more is better. It’s possible to overdose even on beneficial vitamins and minerals. Avoid any product that claims to contain “megadoses.”

Report problems. Let your doctor know if you experience any symptoms after you start taking a supplement…do it yourself at www.fda.gov/medwatch or by calling 800-332-1088.

Research in the right places. Be skeptical about claims made for supplements in ads, on TV and by sales staff. If a claim sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Consumer Reports provides online links for assessing supplements at www.ConsumerReportsHealth.org.

Yes, I know half the U.S. adult population takes supplements and nearly everyone who takes them claims to feel better as a result.  The science, however, consistently produces reasons for skepticism, if not caution.

I discuss this discrepancy in Food Politics. Take a look and decide for yourself!

Aug 8 2010

Why public health matters

I received a couple of requests to define “public health” last week from readers Anthro and MA.  As MA puts it,

Maybe…we need a definition of “public health.”  I view my health as a private matter, my food choices as a private matter, and an expression of my freedom.  To me, public health is not an individual concern, it’s a corporate (group) concern – government, schools, companies, farms, etc.  Public health includes things like properly working sewer systems, sanitation, water quality, and air quality.   Marion – can we get a definition of ‘public health’ from you, as Anthro suggested?

My definition of public health isn’t much different from mainstream definitions.  But to me, public health is a critically important expression of democracy, and the antithesis of  a “corporate” concern.  Public health approaches promote good health for everyone, not just those who can afford it or are educated enough to make appropriate choices.

A standard definition such as the one given in Wikipedia, says that public health is about promoting health and preventing disease through societal choices and efforts.   Public health deals with health at the population level, rather than at the level of individual personal responsibility, and it emphasizes prevention rather than treatment.

In my experience teaching public health nutrition, the concept of public health is sometimes hard for people to grasp, especially since populations are made up of individuals. I like to explain it this way: public health makes it easier for individuals to make healthful food choices for themselves and their families. Or to put it another way, public health makes better food choices the default.

The classic example of a public health intervention is water chlorination.  As individuals, we could all boil our own drinking water to kill harmful organisms but this requires us to have stoves, pots, and fuel, and to know how to boil water.  For many people, having to do this would be an intolerable burden and responsibility.  Instead, some societies choose to take public health measures to ensure that drinking water is safe at the tap for everyone.

Other food examples: milk Pasteurization, banning of trans fats, food labeling.

The particular example that elicited the question has to do with food safety.   We, as a society, could insist that food producers take measures to ensure that their products are free of harmful microorganisms (public health), or we could teach individuals how to manage food safety in the home or restaurants and cook foods properly (personal responsibility).

Preventing obesity is another example: We could, as a society, take measures to make it easier for people to eat more healthfully and be more active (public health) or leave it up to individuals to do this for themselves (personal responsibility). Many of the arguments about suggested public health measures to prevent obesity are about how best to balance society’s needs with individual rights.  But as I see it, the proposals aim to tweak societal choices that have already been made: which crops receive farm subsidies, for example.

An exceptionally clear example is how to avoid toxic levels of methylmercury in fish.   We can teach pregnant women to recognize which fish are high in methylmercury and hope this works well enough so they will avoid buying such fish (personal responsibility) or we could–as a society–require coal-burning power plants to scrub their emissions so mercury doesn’t get into ocean or lake waters in the first place (public health).

Obviously, both public health and individual approaches are necessary, but the overall objective of public health is to make it much, much easier for individuals to make better health choices without having to think about them.

Because public health applies to everyone, it is essentially democratic.   And that’s one of the reasons why I think it matters so much.

Aug 4 2010

We need S. 510 to pass, despite tea bagging

My policy is to ignore snippy comments on this site but I recently received one that raises an issue worth attention.  In response to my most recent post about the endless—and to my mind, appalling—delays in passing S. 510, a bill that will give the FDA authority to require safe food production, a critical reader, Harry Hamil, writes:

Dr. Nestle, your statement, “What’s holding up this bill? Nothing but politics of the worst kind,” is absolutely false and you know it.  As you well know, there is broad, deep and large opposition to the industrial-size-only approach to food safety that S 510/HR 2749 will make the law of the land….And, once again, I challenge you to a debate of the actual provisions of the bill. Your previous blogs demonstrate a remarkable ignorance of the actual provisions and little understanding of the real world consequences.

As readers of this blog know, I believe that all food, no exceptions, from large producers and small, should be produced safely, meaning that producers should follow food safety plans that involve preventive controls.  But this comment raises another issue: the unhelpful tone of this debate.

Bill Marler, the Seattle lawyer who represents the victims of food poisonings, gets such comments all the time.  In a post on FoodSafetyNews.com, he deals with the tone issue in response to rather nasty comment about his views of raw milk.  Marler says:

Actually, I get more than a few emails like this.  Most do a bit better at spelling and punctuation, but nearly all are from raw milk proponents, producers, or consumers (although there are a few from the anti-S. 510 cabal).  Some, but not all, have a level of passion that borders on violence.  Perhaps not directed at me, but generally in the “do not tread on me”–“tea party” shouting that we have been subjected to over the last year.

Frankly, I was perplexed at the “yell fest” that passed for discussion of whether we should expand health care to the 40 million of our fellow citizens without health insurance.  I am shocked at how we scream at each other via email or blog comments about raw milk or honest differences about how food safety legislation should be modeled.  It is like screaming at and belittling each other at the dinner table–albeit, a very large table.

What is with all this anger over food?  I mean, honestly, it seems like there are bigger fish to fry.  What about the wars?  Global warming?  Energy policy?

But, folks are angry about their view of food–especially the proponents of raw milk (affectionately, “raw milkies”) and the anti-S. 510 folks (affectionately, “organic tea baggers”).  Both groups view themselves as victims of big government and big business bent on reducing them to servitude or extinction.  They cannot see that perhaps, just perhaps, people who see the dangers of raw milk or the value of S. 510, might simply have an honest disagreement with those that see raw milk as the nectar of the gods or S. 510 as more than a method of lining the pockets of Monsanto.  But, hey, that is just me.

So, do the yelling, threats and belittling of the anti raw milk/pro S. 510 crowd actually work?  Are some convinced that those that yell the loudest have the best arguments?  Or, do some simply shy away from their positions after being the target of a nasty blog post or scathing email or comment?  I think some do.  I know I have been tempted to simply focus on other pressing issues surrounding food safety–there are many–and let folks guzzle raw milk to their heart’s content and let S. 510 die a lingering death.

But, that is not my style.  Even as a child when told to do A I usually did B.  When the raw milk party calls me a tool of big dairy or an ambulance chaser, I come back with reasoned pros and cons of raw milk consumption, videos of raw milk consumers sickened, and a website–Real Raw Milk Facts–dedicated to having a reasoned discussion about raw milk.  I am also beginning to work on a raw milk retail sampling project to test its safety.

As for S. 510, the nastier the emails from small producers who want little or no food safety regulation, the more money I donate to political campaigns, the more trips I take to DC, and the more often I fund victim visits to their favorite senator.

And, to do the above, I hardly raise my voice.  Well, once in awhile I do.

Me too.  Thanks Bill.
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