Currently browsing posts about: Food-safety

Jul 25 2010

Eric Schlosser on Senate food-dragging on food safety

Eric Schlosser has an excellent op-ed in today’s New York Times, Unsafe at any meal.”

You would think, he points out, that a bill that passed the House nearly a year ago,

with such broad support, on a public health issue of such fundamental importance, would easily reach the floor of the Senate for a vote. But it has been languishing, stuck in some legislative limbo. Food processors reluctant to oppose the bill openly will be delighted if it dies a quiet death.

How come?

because, right now, very few cases of food poisoning are ever actually linked to what the person ate, and companies that sell contaminated products routinely avoid liability. The economic cost is instead imposed on society. …Without tough food safety rules, a perverse economic incentive guides the marketplace. Adulterated food is cheaper to produce than safe food. Since consumers cannot tell the difference between the two, companies that try to do the right thing are forced to compete with companies that couldn’t care less.

As for the concerns of small farmers:

For months, however, the Internet has been rife with wild rumors and accusations: that the bill is really a subterfuge cleverly designed to eliminate small farms and strengthen the grip of industrial agriculture; that it would outlaw organic production; that it would hand over the nation’s food supply to Monsanto.   Those arguments may be sincere. But the bill very clearly instructs the Food and Drug Administration to focus its enforcement efforts on plants that pose the greatest risk of causing large-scale outbreaks.

What’s holding up this bill?  Nothing but politics of the worst kind.  Lives are at stake here and everyone who cares about our food system should be urging the Senate to get moving.  Thanks Eric for writing this piece.  I hope it helps.

Jul 24 2010

Recent food safety problems caused by raw milk

It’s a hot weekend and I’m feeling lazy, so I will do a bit of borrowing and reproduce Bill Marler’s summary of year-to-date illnesses caused by raw milk products (click on the chart to make it bigger and easier to read).

On his website devoted to the topic, www.realrawmilkfacts.com, Marler presents a litigator’s view of the issues related to raw milk, with plenty of documents to back of his position.

My view: everyone who produces food should produce safe food.  If I were producing raw milk, I’d be testing it like mad to make sure it didn’t harbor dangerous pathogens, but that’s just me.

Jul 23 2010

Latest food safety challenge: chocolate yogurt

I never cease to be amazed by the problems that food technologists worry about. 

A German chocolate company—and the state of Schleswig-Holstein—are funding $2 million worth of research to find a method to safely add chocolate pieces to yogurt.

Why is the safety of chocolate in yogurt a problem?  Yogurt is wet and dissolves the sugar crystals in chocolate, making it messy.  Worse, chocolate is not sterile and yogurt is an ideal bacterial growth medium.

Sterilizing chocolate, it seems, is not easy:

The constituents of the cocoa are very sensitive. Excessively high temperatures and incorrect cleaning, roasting, grinding or conching impair the quality of the finished chocolate pieces. All that has to be taken into account when you are developing new sterilisation techniques.

Researchers, get busy!  Please, please solve this problem right away.

And in the meantime, for those of you desperate for chocolate in your yogurt, how about tossing in a handful of M&Ms?



Jul 20 2010

UK Food Standards Agency stripped of responsibilities

Britain has, as threatened, split up its Food Standards Agency (roughly equivalent to our FDA).  The split only applied to FSA in England.  Its role in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales remains the same for the moment.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the precipitating cause of the new government’s distress about the FSA was—incredible as it seems—the agency’s support of traffic-light front-of-package labeling. 

In its new configuration, FSA keeps its food safety functions.  Its nutrition and labeling functions go to the Department of Health.  Its country-of-origin and other non-labeling policies go to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

Surprise!  The UK Food and Drink Federation thinks this is a terrific move.

As the voice of the UK food and drink manufacturing sector, we believe it is important to maintain an independent food safety regulator and fully support today’s decision by the Government to retain the Food Standards Agency…We also support the decision to move responsibility for nutrition, and other food policy issues, back into Government departments…This should lead to clearer and more consistent policy making, while avoiding unnecessary duplication of effort across Whitehall.

FSA may be keeping its food safety responsibilities, but Food Safety News reports that the agency hasn’t been doing such a great job with them.  FSA’s most recent  Annual Report says that it did not achieve its target for reduction of Campylobacter infections.  It also failed to reach targets for reductions in salt and saturated fat.

Under the new division of responsibility, salt and fat are no longer FSA’s problem.  The Health Department will be dealing with them—or not.

Given the industry-friendly bent of the new new health minister, expect considerable backing off from previous FSA policies. 

England is not setting a good example for our FDA, alas.

As for what FDA can and cannot do, see Michael Taylor’s post on the Atlantic Food Channel.  In discussing why the FDA isn’t taking a more vigorous enforcement stance against unsubstantiated health claims on food products, Taylor says:

We have no pre-market review authority over such claims, and, under prevailing legal doctrines concerning “commercial free speech,” the evidentiary requirements placed on FDA to prove that such claims are misleading are significant and costly to meet. Moreover, meeting them requires tapping the same team of nutritionists, labeling experts, and lawyers who are working on our other nutrition initiatives.

If they go after health claims, he says, it’s a losing proposition:

We’re also conscious of the cleverness of marketing folks, who, once we prove today’s claim is misleading, can readily come up with another one tomorrow. Going after them one-by-one with the legal and resource restraints we work under is a little like playing Whac-a-Mole, with one hand tied behind your back.

What he doesn’t point out nearly strongly enough, in my opinion, is that doing something about health claims rests with Congress.  Congress passes laws.  The FDA’s job is to enforce them.  Congress needs to give the FDA the tools it needs to protect the public and promote public health. 

And that, of course, brings us back to the food safety bill that has been sitting in the Senate for the last 11 months.  If Congress can’t even get that passed, it’s hard to be optimistic about its doing anything reasonable about misleading health claims.

Jul 16 2010

Food safety roundup

I’ve been collecting items on food safety for the last week or two. Here’s a roundup for a quiet Friday in July:

Antibiotics in animal agriculture

     USA Today does great editorial point/counterpoints and here is one from July 12 on use of antibiotics as growth promoters or as  prophylactics in farm animals and poultry.  This selects for antibiotic-resistant bacteria.   If we get infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, too bad for us. 

     The paper’s editors think that use of antibiotics for these purposes is irresponsible:  Our view on food safety: To protect humans, curb antibiotic use in animals.

     Dr. Howard Hill, a veterinarian who directs the National Pork Producers Council, defends these uses of antibiotics: Don’t bar animal antibiotics.

The source of the 2006 E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak in California spinach

     USDA and UC Davis investigators are still trying to figure out how the toxic E. coli O157:H7 got onto the spinach. Investigators did not find the bacteria on the spinach field itself, but they did find it in water, cattle, and cattle feces at a cattle crossing over a stream one mile away. Leading hypotheses: runoff from that stream or wild boar.

     Subsequent studies showed low levels of E. coli 0157:H7 in wild animals and birds.  A new study confirms that just under 4% of wild boar harbor the bacteria. 

     The investigators say the spinach outbreak of 2006 was the result of a combination of circumstances: “Everybody is starting to realize that maybe unusually heavy rainfall prior to planting could be an issue in terms of where water is routed.”

     Dairy farming is moving into California’s Central Valley in a big way.  Runoff from those farms will not be sterile and growing vegetables along water routes may be risky.  Compost, anyone?

The chemical behind Kellogg’s cereal recall

     Kellogg recalled 28 million packets of breakfast cereals last month because people reported funny smells and getting sick from something in the packaging.  At first, Kellogg would not say what the chemical contaminant might be.  

     Then it said the chemical is methylnaphthalene. Mothballs! (Are they still making mothballs?  Their smell is unforgettable)

     Tom Philpott’s comments on Grist.com point out what’s really at stake: “And of course, the real scandal is what Kellogg’s is marketing to kids: a tarted-up slurry consisting mainly of sugar, corn products, partially hydrogenated oil, and food colorings. But that’s a whole different story.”

Salsa and guacamole are sources of foodborne illness

     The CDC reports that salsa and guacamole are becoming more frequent sources of contaminants leading to illness.  CDC started collecting information on sources of outbreaks in 1973.  Its first outbreak due to salsa or guacamole occurred in 1984.  Since then, there have been 136 such outbreaks.  Restaurants and delis were responsible for 84%.  Between 1984 and 1997, salsa and guacamole outbreaks accounted for 1.5% of total foodborne outbreaks.  But the percentage rose to 3.9% from 1998 to 2008.

     Moral: make your own!

China deals with melamine in milk powder

     China is taking creative steps to prevent melamine from getting into milk powder and infant formula.  To discourage fraudulent producers from boosting up the apparent level of protein in milk with melamine, it simply reduced the amount of protein required.

The latest on food irradiation

     FoodSafetyNews.com presented a two-part series on food irradiation (part 1 and part 2), both of them quite favorable to the technology. As I discuss in my book, Safe Food, I don’t have any safety ojections to food irradiation, but I consider it a late-stage techno-fix for a problem that should never have occurred in the first place.

     I conclude with my favorite quote from former USDA official Carol Tucker Foreman: “sterilized poop is still poop.”

Enjoy a safe weekend!

Jul 7 2010

Two GAO reports on FDA’s food safety problems

Food Safety: FDA Has Begun to Take Action to Address Weaknesses in Food Safety Research, but Gaps Remain. GAO-10-182R, April 23, 2010 (23 pages).

Imported food makes up a substantial and growing portion of the U.S. food supply, with 60 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables and 80 percent of seafood coming from across our borders….In January 2007 GAO designated federal oversight of food safety as a high-risk area needing urgent attention and transformation because of the federal government’s fragmented oversight of food safety. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for ensuring the safety of roughly 80 percent of the U.S. food supply–virtually all domestic and imported foods except for meat, poultry, and processed egg products–valued at a total of $466 billion annually, as of June 2008.

Food Safety: FDA Could Strengthen Oversight of Imported Food by Improving Enforcement and Seeking Additional Authorities.  GAO-10-699T, May 6, 2010 (20 pages).

In 2008, FDA inspected 153 foreign food facilities out of an estimated 189,000 such facilities registered with FDA…. FDA estimated that it would conduct 200 inspections in 2009 and 600 in 2010. GAO previously identified several gaps in enforcement that could allow food products that violate safety laws to enter U.S. commerce. For example, FDA has limited authority to assess penalties on importers who introduce such food products, and the lack of a unique identifier for firms exporting food products may allow contaminated food to evade FDA’s review.

As it has been saying for years, GAO wants FDA to ask Congress to give it statutory authority to:

  • Recall products identified as unsafe
  • Require companies to demonstrate that food ingredients are safe before using them
  • Require preventive controls (e.g. HACCP) by firms producing foods that have been associated with repeated instances of serious health problems or death.

Note that the FDA does not have this authority now and must seek it from Congress.  The food safety bill now before Congress does some of this, which is one reason why it should be passed.  Note: the House passed the bill last August.  Eleven months later, the Senate is still sitting on it.  Not helpful.

Addition: Consumers Union has produced a video—starring Eric Schlosser—on why the Senate must pass the food safety bill, and right away.

Update, July 8: President Obama states support of the Senate’s food safety bill.

Jun 26 2010

A how-to guide for companies involved in food recalls

Bill Marler, the Seattle attorney whose firm represents victims of foodborne illness, has seen the best and worst of company behavior when faced with pressures to “voluntarily” recall tainted products.  Here is his guide to good corporate behavior under difficult circumstances.  It begins with “don’t produce tainted products in the first place.”   But, alas, if you do:

First, have a pre-existing relationship with the folks that regulate you. If someone holds your business in the palm of his or her hand, you should at least be on a first name basis. No, I am not suggesting that you can influence your way out of the outbreak, but knowing who is telling you that your company has a problem allows you the ability to get and understand the facts. Do regulators and their investigators make mistakes? Perhaps, but not very often and not often enough to waste time arguing that your company did not poison customers.

Second, stop production of the implicated product and initiate a recall of all products at risk immediately. This procedure should have been practiced, and practiced, and practiced before. All possibly implicated suppliers should be alerted and all retailers should be offered assistance. Consumers need to be engaged too. The goal now is to get poisoned product out of the marketplace and certainly out of the homes of consumers.

Third, launch your own investigation with two approaches, and at the same time. Are the regulators correct? And, what went wrong? Tell everyone to save all documents (you have to anyway). The goal here is to get things right. If it really is not your product, what has happened is bad, but survivable. If it really was your product, then learning what happened helps make sure it is likely to never happen again. More than anything, be transparent. Tell everyone what you find–good or bad.

Fourth, assuming that the outbreak is in fact your fault, publicly admit it. If it is not your fault, then fight it. However, pretending that you are innocent when you are actually at fault will get you nowhere. Asking for forgiveness is not a bad thing when you have something to be forgiven for. Saying you are sorry is not wrong when you are in fact wrong.

Fifth, do not blame your customers. If your food has a pathogen it is not your customers’ responsibility to handle it like it will likely kill them or a member of their family. Hoping that the consumer will fix your mistake takes your eye off of avoiding the mistake in the first place.

Sixth, reach out to your customers and consumers who have been harmed. Offering to pay legitimate losses will save money and your company’s reputation in the long run.

Seventh, teach all what you have learned. Do not hide what you have learned. Make your knowledge freely available so we all limit the risk that something similar will happen again.

In other words, do the right thing.  Excellent advice.

But Mr. Marler cites no examples.  I wonder if there are companies that actually did all this?  It would be good to know who they are.

Jun 1 2010

Thinking about food safety

Food safety is in the news again.

Congressman John Dingell (D-Mich) is calling on the Senate to get busy and pass the food safety bill that it has been sitting on for the last ten months: “I urge my Senate colleagues to acknowledge this important threat and make legislation addressing it a priority. Until the Senate acts, American families will continue to be at risk.”

If this bill ever passes it will require food companies to develop food safety plans, authorize the FDA to order recalls, and give the FDA better access to company records.

But will it do any good?

Here is one view from Dennis Stearns, counsel in the Seattle law firm, Marler & Clark, which represents victims of foodborne illnesses.  In a piece in Food Safety News, “What the oil spill can teach us about food safety,” he notes the endlessly repetitive responses–all talk, no action–to food safety and other crises involving corporate irresponsibility.

He quotes USDA Secretary Vilsack saying, “You can’t have two [food safety] systems and be able to reassure people you’ve got the job covered…This [referring to the peanut recalls of last year] is a grand opportunity for us to take a step back and rethink our approach.’”

Stearns’ piece concludes with this comment on Vilsack’s remarks:

Sadly, this was not the first time that someone had pointed out the need for systemic revision to food safety regulation and inspection in the United States. And neither was it the first time that expressions of outrage over people dying from foodborne illness were followed by no real changes at all. And all I can say about that is: I’m shocked! No, really, I’m shocked!

In contrast, Jim Prevor,who writes as the Perishable Pundit, writes in the online New Atlantis: A Journal of Science and Technology that fixing the FDA will do little to address food safety problems.  Instead, he recommends:

  • Fix the liability system so retailers as well as producers are liable and make it legal negligence, not strict liability.
  • Root out bribery and corruption in food safety certification.
  • Invest in state testing laboratories.
  • Invest in food safety research.
  • Revitalize the Agricultural Extension Service.
  • Educate consumers.

I’m not sure about the legal liability issues, but most of the rest are really good ideas and would help a lot.  Of course consumers should follow food safety procedures but how about getting safe food to them in the first place?

None of this will happen without policy changes, which is why the food safety legislation matters so much.  It’s a national scandal that the Senate is still sitting on that bill.

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