by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Food-safety

Feb 21 2013

Grand jury indicts Peanut Corporation of America officials

The wheels of justice really do grind slow, but they sometimes do grind.  A federal grand jury has indicted four officials of the Peanut Butter Corporation of America for “conspiracy, wire fraud, obstruction of justice and others offenses related to contaminated or misbranded food.”

Translation: Salmonella that sickened more than 500 people and killed at least 8.

The documents in the case have just been unsealed:

I’ve been following this particular food safety tragedy for several years now.  The offenses were so egregious—officials blatantly ignored positive tests for Salmonella, for example—that some kind of punishment seemed warranted.

According to the account in USA Today:

The indictment alleges that PCA officials affirmatively lied to their customers about the presence of salmonella in PCA’s products,” said Stuart Delery, principal deputy assistant attorney general.

Delery also said some officials at PCA, no longer in business, fabricated lab results certifying to customers that the products were salmonella free “even when tests showed the presence of salmonella or when no tests had been done at all.”

As lawyer Bill Marler writes,

These indictments will have a far reaching impact on the food industry.  Corporate executives and directors of food safety will need to think hard about the safety of their product when it enters the stream of commerce.  Felony counts like this one are rare, but misdemeanor charges that can include fines AND jail time can and should happen.

Is this a sign that courts might be taking food safety problems more seriously?  If so, it’s about time.

Addition, February 22:  Food Safety News has a handy timeline of the Peanut Corporation events.

Feb 19 2013

The horsemeat scandal–an object lesson in food politics

The unfolding drama around Europe’s horsemeat scandal is a case study in food politics and the politics of cultural identity.

Cultural identity?  They (other people) eat horsemeat.  We don’t.

Most Americans say they won’t eat horsemeat, are appalled by the very idea, and oppose raising horses for food, selling their meat, and slaughtering horses for any reason.

These attitudes have created dilemmas.  Since Congress effectively banned horse slaughter in 2006, roughly 140,000 horses a year have been transported to Canada and Mexico to be killed.  Whether this is better or worse for the horses is arguable.  Some—perhaps most—of that meat will be exported as food.

As Mal Nesheim and I wrote in our book about the pet food industry, Feed Your Pet Right, most—more than 90%—of domestic horsemeat ended up in pet food (the rest was eaten or shipped to Europe).  In the 1920s, horse slaughterhouses started pet food companies as a means to dispose of the meat.  Horsemeat remained a major ingredient of dog foods throughout the 1940s.

Since then, pet food companies replaced horsemeat with meats from other animals.  Although it continues to be permitted in pet food, I’m not aware of any company that would dare use it.  It would have to be disclosed on package labels.

That brings me to the European horsemeat crisis, one brought about by advances in DNA technology that allow officials to test for species in foods.

I’m indebted to Joe O’Toole, president of Lucullus, a French specialty food company, for keeping me up to date on the unfolding saga of how horsemeat got into European hamburger and so many other foods.  He sent me links to early stories:

The problem first emerged earlier in January when the Food Safety Authority of Ireland handed over results of DNA tests it had carried out on burgers produced in Ireland for sale in the UK. Samples from 10 of 27 products sourced from three processing plants had tested positive for horse DNA. One sample is said to have contained 29 percent horse.

As the article explained, the immediate response was “a relatively faultless exercise in damage control.”  Food processors immediately recalled their products and Tesco, Britain’s largest supermarket chain, placed an ad and followed it up with a video apology.  This is viewed as excellent damage control.  Although Tesco shares dropped by 1 percent for a loss of  $475 million, it could have been worse.  

Leaving aside the cultural prohibitions against eating horsemeat, here’s what I find fascinating:

  • DNA technology made this possible.
  • The supply chain is so complicated and involves so many countries—Romania, Ireland, Netherlands, Spain, Poland, France, and, no doubt, others—that where the meat comes from is impossible to trace.
  • The finger pointing  over who is to blame.
  • The enormous number of companies involved.
  • The idea that this is a drug issue (horses are treated with drugs).
  • The idea that horse transport is used as a cover for smuggling (drugs and people).
  • The involvement of organized crime (if selling horsemeat is illegal…).

By far the best place to start on this story is Felicity Lawrence’s Horsemeat Scandal: The Essential Guide, in The Guardian. She did this as a Q and A:

1. Where did the horsemeat scandal begin?

2. Where did the horse and pig found by the Irish in beef products come from?

3. Why did some products contain so much more horse than others?

4. How did the rest of Europe get involved?

5. Is the source of the Irish horsemeat the same as the French one?

6. Why are the supply chains so complex?

7. Why has it happened?

8. How is the meat industry regulated?

9. What about industry claims that it has full traceability?

10. What happened to government control of food safety and standards?

11. Where do the horses come from?

12. What part do UK horse abattoirs play?

13. Why are governments talking about organised crime?

14. Is it a health problem?

I will have more to say about this later, as more details emerge.  Stay tuned!

Addition, February 27: Australia Food Safety News offers this terrific infographic on the scandal.

Jan 14 2013

FDA issues food safety rules–at long last

I’m catching up with events that occurred while I was out of the country.  One was the release by FDA of two of its long-awaited proposals for food safety rules.

These go into the Federal Register on January 16. But they were announced on January 4, perhaps to commemorate the two-year anniversary of President Obama’s signing the Food Safety Modernization Act authorizing these rules.

The two massive sets of proposed rules, 680 and 547 pages, respectively, are:

Still to come: proposed rules for

  • Food importers
  • Preventive controls for animal feed
  • Accreditation of third-party auditors

Notice that all of these are proposals.  Terrific as it is to have them released, no breath-holding is in order.

Once the proposals appear in the Federal Register, interested parties will have 120 days to comment.  It will probably take a year for the FDA to write final rules.   For the produce standards at least, larger farms get 2 years before implementation kicks in.  Smaller farms get 3 or 4 more years to figure out how to comply.

Some farms, such as those bringing in less than $500,000 per year, are exempt.  Chalk that up to successful lobbying by small farmers.

The FDA estimates that the new rules will cost large farms about $30,000 a year, and small farms $13,000.   It says that following the rules will prevent 1.75 million cases of foodborne illness a year and save more than $1 billion in costs.

The rules for produce focus on prevention of contamination through:

  • Agricultural water
  • Biological soil amendments
  • Poor worker hygiene
  • Domesticated and wild animals
  • Equipment, tools and buildings.

All food producers will need to develop, submit, and follow a written food safety plan that includes:

  •  A hazard analysis
  • Preventive controls
  • Monitoring procedures
  • Corrective action procedures
  • Verification procedures
  • A recall plan

That’s the basic outline.  The devil is in the details and in this case there are plenty of them (I have much sympathy for whoever has to write these things).  The proposals devote hundreds of pages to definitions.  Here, for example, is FDA’s summary of its definition of farm and farm activities.  Hint: RAC = Raw Agricultural Commodity.

  • The basic purpose of farms is to produce RACs and RACs are the essential products of farms.
  • Activities that involve RACs and that farms traditionally do for the purposes of growing their own RACs, removing them from the growing areas, and preparing them for use as a food RAC, and for packing, holding and transporting them, should all be within the definition of “farm” in §§ 1.227 and 1.328.
  • Activities should be classified based in part on whether the food operated on is a RAC or a processed food, and on whether the activity transforms a RAC into a processed food.
  • Activities farms may perform on others’ RACs should appropriately be classified as   manufacturing/processing, packing, or holding in the same manner as these activities are classified off-farm when the RACs are to be distributed into commerce.
  • Manufacturing/processing, packing, or holding food– whether RACs or processed foods, from any source–for consumption on the farm should remain within the farm definition.

I include this example to illustrate what food producers are up against.  It explains why practically every group commenting on the proposals said the same things: “we are glad they are out but must reserve comment until we—and our lawyers—have a chance to go over the rules in detail.”

My guess is that we will be hearing plenty more about these reactions when they do.

In the meantime, the elephant in the room issue is funding.  The FDA’s budget is already overstressed.  How can it possibly add monitoring and enforcement responsibilities without additional staff and funding?  How can it get new resources from this Congress?

Recall: the FDA gets its funding from congressional agriculture appropriations committees, not health committees.

The FDA addresses the funding issue in a website Q and A:

G.5.  Does FDA have sufficient funding to implement the new rule?  The funding we have available through the annual budget cycle and fees impacts the number of FTEs we have and will be a factor in the way that FDA handles its significant and far-ranging activities, including the way that this legislation is implemented… Without additional funding, FDA will be challenged in implementing the legislation fully without compromising other key functions. We look forward to working with Congress and our partners to ensure that FDA is funded sufficiently to achieve our food safety and food defense goals.

Indeed.

To submit a comment:

  • Go to http://www.regulations.gov.
  • Refer to Docket No. FDA-2011-N-0920.
  • Do it by May 16.
Jan 10 2013

Predictions for 2013 in food politics

For my monthly (first Sunday) Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle, I devote the one in January every year to predictions.  Last year I got them all pretty much on target.  It didn’t take much genius to figure out that election-year politics would bring things to a standstill.  This year’s column was much harder to do, not least because the FDA was releasing blocked initiatives right up to the printing deadline.

 Q: I just looked at your 2012 crystal ball column. Your predictions were spot on. But what about 2013? Any possibility for good news in food politics?

A: Food issues are invariably controversial and anyone could see that nothing would get done about them during an election year. With the election over, the big question is whether and when the stalled actions will be released.

The Food and Drug Administration has already unblocked one pending decision. In December, it released the draft environmental assessment on genetically modified salmon – dated May 4, 2012. Here comes my first prediction:

The FDA will approve production of genetically modified salmon: Because these salmon are raised in Canada and Panama with safeguards against escape, the FDA finds they have no environmental impact on the United States. The decision is now open for public comment. Unless responses force the FDA to seek further delays, expect to see genetically modified salmon in production by the end of the year.

Pressures to label genetically modified foods will increase: If approval of the genetically modified salmon does nothing else, it will intensify efforts to push states and the FDA to require GM labeling.

Whatever Congress does with the farm bill will reflect no fundamental change in policy: Unwilling to stand up to Southern farm lobbies, Congress extended the worst parts of the 2008 farm bill until September. Don’t count on this Congress to do what’s most needed in 2013: restructure agricultural policy to promote health and sustainability.

The FDA will start the formal rule-making process for more effective food safety regulations: President Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act in January 2011. Two years later, despite the FDA’s best efforts, its regulations – held up by the White House – have just been released for public comment. Lives are at stake on this one.

The FDA will issue rules for menu labels: The Affordable Care Act of 2010 required calorie information to be posted by fast-food and chain restaurants and vending machines. The FDA’s draft applied to foods served by movie theaters, lunch wagons, bowling alleys, trains and airlines, but lobbying led the FDA to propose rules that no longer covered those venues. Will its final rules at least apply to movie theaters? Fingers crossed.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will delay issuing nutrition standards for competitive foods: When the USDA issued nutrition standards for school meals in January 2012, the rules elicited unexpected levels of opposition. Congress intervened and forced the tomato sauce on pizza to count as a vegetable serving. The USDA, reeling, agreed to give schools greater flexibility. Still to come are nutrition standards for snacks and sodas sold in competition with school meals. Unhappy prediction: an uproar from food companies defending their “right” to sell junk foods to kids in schools and more congressional micromanagement.

The FDA will delay revising food labels: Late in 2009, the FDA began research on the understanding of food labels and listed more relevant labels as a goal in its strategic plan for 2012-16. Although the Institute of Medicine produced two reports on how to deal with front-of-package labeling and advised the FDA to allow only four items – calories, saturated and trans fat, sodium and sugars – in such labels, food companies jumped the gun. They started using Facts Up Front labels that include “good” nutrients as well as “bad.”

Will the FDA insist on labels that actually help consumers make better choices? Will it require added sugars to be listed, define “natural” or clarify rules for whole-grain claims? I’m not holding my breath.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program participation will increase, but so will pressure to cut benefits: Demands on Snap – food stamps – reached record levels in 2012 and show no sign of decline. Antihunger advocates will be working hard to retain the program’s benefits, while antiobesity advocates work to transform the benefits to promote purchases of healthier foods. My dream: The groups will join forces to do both.

Sugar-sweetened beverages will continue to be the flash point for efforts to counter childhood obesity: The defeat of soda tax initiatives in Richmond and El Monte (Los Angeles County) will inspire other communities to try their own versions of soda tax and size-cap initiatives. As research increasingly links sugary drinks to poor diets and health, soda companies will find it difficult to oppose such initiatives.

Grassroots efforts will have greater impact: Because so little progress can be expected from government these days, I’m predicting bigger and noisier grassroots efforts to create systems of food production and consumption that are healthier for people and the planet. Much work needs to be done. This is the year to do it.

And a personal note: In 2013, I’m looking forward to publication of the 10th anniversary edition of “Food Politics” and, in September, my new editorial cartoon book with Rodale Press: “Eat, Drink, Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Food Politics.”

Nov 7 2012

The election is over (whew): what’s next?

My post-hurricane Manhattan apartment still does not have telephone, internet, or television service, so I followed the election results on Twitter.

I knew that President Obama had been reelected when the Empire State Building turned on blue lights.

What’s ahead for food politics?

With the election out of the way, maybe the FDA can now:

  • Release final food safety rules (please!)
  • Issue proposed rules for front-of-package labels
  • Issue proposed rules for revising food labels
  • Require “added sugars” to be listed on labels
  • Define “natural”
  • Clarify “whole grain”
  • Release rules for menu labeling in fast-food restaurants

Maybe the USDA can

  • Release nutrition standards for competitive foods served in schools

And maybe Congress can pass the farm bill?

As for lessons learned:

  • The food industry has proven that it can defeat consumer initiatives by spending lots of money: $45 to $50 million on California’s Proposition 37 (GMO labeling), $4 million on soda tax initiatives in Richmond and El Monte.
  • But if enough such initiatives get started, food companies might get the message?
The election leaves plenty of work to do.  Get busy!
Aug 31 2012

Advocacy groups sue FDA to get busy on safety standards

I’ve written previously about the holdup on implementation of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act by the White House Office of Management and Budget, reportedly because anything regulatory is likely to be a campaign issue in this especially contentious election year.

To get things moving, The Center for Food Safety and the Center for Environmental Health have sued the FDA to implement the rules on the grounds that the law requires federal agencies to conclude matters presented to them “within a reasonable amount of time.”

The suit complains that the FDA is failing to meet required deadlines for at least seven new food regulations and that nine more are coming due in 2013.  It asks the court to order the agency to enforce the law right now.

In several instances, the FDA has attempted to make FSMA’s deadlines only to have its work held up at the White House Office of Management and Budget. FDA reported sending its proposed Foreign Supplier Verification Program to the OMB in November and its proposed produce safety standards in December, though the OMB has yet to release either regulation. Both were required by FSMA on Jan. 4.

FSMA also required FDA to establish standards for analyzing and documenting hazards and implementing preventative measures by July 4 of this year, the suit recounts.

The plaintiffs are especially alarmed that the FDA is not enforcing policies that are “self-executing,” meaning the new preventive standards for example.

From where I sit, the preventive standards are the critical factor in stopping outbreaks of foodborne illness before they happen.

While we are waiting for politics to resolve, the CDC keeps adding new outbreak home pages.

Would implementation of preventive standards help?  Yes it would, especially if the problem is in the packing houses (packing houses can be cleaned).

Jul 19 2012

What’s holding up the new food safety regulations?

A full-page ad in Tuesday’s New York Times (July 17) alerts readers to the astonishing 18-month delay in issuing food safety rules authorized by the Food Safety Modernization Act passed by Congress at the end of 2010.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The sponsor of the ad, Make Our Food Safe, is a coalition of highly respected public health and advocacy groups working on food safety issues.

According to the New York Times report, they are baffled by the delay.

But the F.D.A. rules that are needed to carry out the law have been under review by the Office of Management and Budget in the White House since December, and consumer health advocates say there has been no explanation for what they describe as a lengthy delay.

….Before the rules become official, the F.D.A. still has to circulate them for public comment, adding more months to the process. The rules for importers were expected in January and for domestic food processors in July, advocates said.

Could the delay be due to election-year politics?  Advocates wonder if

Democrats may want to avoid the impression that government regulation is growing, a popular cause for attacks by Republicans.

The Office of Management and Budget denies this.

Moira Mack, a spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Budget, said that the agency coordinates suggestions from many institutions across the federal government, and that it is not unusual for the review process to take months. A regulation last year on dangerous snakes, for example, took about 10 months to clear, she said.

Oh come on.  These rules are about protecting the public from dangerous microbes.  They need to move.

The Make Our Food Safe website makes it easy to write President Obama to release the FDA’s proposed rules.    Add your voice!

Jul 11 2012

The Ad Council on food safety: buy a meat thermometer

Yesterday’s international edition of USA Today (I picked it up at Heathrow) carried a full-page ad from the Ad Council, which donates its services to worthy causes every now and then.  This one, entirely in grey and white, displays logos from the Ad Council, USDA, and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), the parent agency of FDA.

In inch-high letters, all caps: DO YOU WANT THAT SAFE OR MEDIUM-SAFE?

In quarter-inch letters, also caps: USE A FOOD THERMOMETER TO MAKE SURE YOU COOK RAW MEAT AND POULTRY TO A BACTERIA-KILLING TEMPERATURE.

The ad also displays the Cook, Clean, Chill, Separate logo and the admonition to “Keep your family safer from food poisoning.  Check your steps at foodsafety.gov.”

Mind you, I’m highly in favor of following food safety procedures at home.

But most food safety problems are not due to the failure of home cooks to use thermometers.

They are caused by failures to observe food safety procedures during commercial production and preparation.

Shouldn’t meat and poultry be safe when you buy it in the supermarket?

This ad implies that the principal responsibility for food safety lies with the end user—you.

If you get sick it’s your fault because you didn’t use a meat thermometer?

USDA and DHHS:  how about getting the Ad Council to encourage meat and poultry producers to make sure their products are safe in the first place.

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