by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Food-safety

Nov 4 2013

Feds must take stronger action against salmonella

My monthly (first Sunday) column in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Q: When I read that people are getting sick from salmonella in Foster Farms chicken, I don’t know what to do. Are we supposed to stop eating chicken?

A: I share your frustration.

Last month, the Department of Agriculture warned that chicken produced by Foster Farms plants in California was linked to illnesses caused by a strain of salmonella Heidelberg which is resistant to multiple antibiotics.

Although these antibiotics are not the ones usually used to treat salmonella, antibiotic resistance in general makes bacteria more virulent.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now reports 362 people ill with this strain, three-quarters from California, with a shockingly high – 38 percent – rate of hospitalization.

And because most food-borne illness is never reported, some estimates suggest that there could be 9,000 cases of chicken-induced illness in California alone.

The USDA’s response? It did not require Foster Farms to recall the chicken; it just told the company to clean up its act.

According to the USDA, it’s your responsibility to make sure you don’t get sick. You should be following basic household food safety rules, cooking chicken to 165 degrees, and using a food thermometer to make sure.

Fine, but shouldn’t chicken be safe before it gets to you? You should not have to run your kitchen like a maximum-security biological laboratory.

Besides, cooking chicken to 165 degrees may not be enough. Costco, to its credit, recalled rotisserie – cooked – chickens from its store in South San Francisco when people reported getting sick after eating them. Nobody knows whether the cooking temperature wasn’t high enough or the chickens got cross-contaminated later.

Salmonella, alas, is hardly a new problem. In 1971, public health advocates petitioned the USDA to put salmonella warning labels on chicken. But the USDA said no. Salmonella, it said, is an inherent contaminant of raw meat, not an adulterant. The USDA had no need to act. You just needed to learn how to cook chicken properly.

In the 1990s, the USDA finally issued better rules for poultry safety. Despite them, the CDC reports a steady rise in salmonella outbreaks and illnesses.

The industry responds that the salmonella issue is a complex one because the bacteria are inherent in bird species.

Sorry, but salmonella illnesses are preventable.

If people are getting sick from eating contaminated chicken, the companies are not following safety rules, and the USDA is not enforcing them.

This is about politics, not public health.

For decades, advocates have complained about the USDA’s conflicting missions to promote agricultural production and protect consumer health. We have called on Congress to unite federal food safety oversight within one independent agency. Failing that, we insist that the USDA enforce its own rules.

The USDA’s recent decision to allow American poultry meat to be shipped to China for processing is hardly reassuring. The mind boggles to think that chickens raised and slaughtered in America would go to China to be turned into chicken nuggets and then come back here to be sold.

Also for decades, safety advocates have called for an end to the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in meat and poultry production. Antibiotics not only induce resistance, they induce virulence. Fortunately, the Foster Farms bacteria are still susceptible to the kinds of antibiotics most effective against salmonella, but victims of the next outbreak may not be so lucky.

Why do Congress, federal agencies and the White House permit meat and poultry producers to continue reckless use of antibiotics? Chalk this up to industry lobbying and campaign contributions.

If you can afford it, buy chicken that has not been factory farmed. Even so, you must cook the meat to a temperature that will kill bacteria, avoid cross-contamination, and sterilize everything the chicken comes near.

But the salmonella problem goes way beyond your own kitchen.

We all need to press for a food safety system that holds public health as its first priority. This means empowering the USDA to enforce its own rules, uniting the functions of USDA and the Food and Drug Administration, and using antibiotics in meat and poultry production only for therapeutic purposes.

Marion Nestle is the author of “Eat, Drink, Vote,” “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics,” “Food Politics” and “What to Eat,” among other books. She is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University, and blogs at E-mail:

Oct 10 2013

Annals of Government shutdown: What’s up with Salmonella Heidelberg?

I’ve been trying to make sense of what’s happening with the latest horrible food poisoning outbreak: this time of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella Heidelberg.  Food Safety News and attorney Bill Marler have been following the events closely.

They reported that USDA—not CDC (which was on furlough)—issued the Public Health Alert.

But the outbreak is so serious that CDC recalled staff from furlough.  Now the CDC is back on the job.  It reports that as of October 7:

  • 278 persons in 17 states are infected with 7 outbreak strains of Salmonella Heidelberg.
  • 42% of them are hospitalized (this is unusually high), and no deaths have been reported.
  • 77% of cases are in California.
  • The source is Foster Farms chicken

What does Foster Farms have to say about this?

First, it blames the government:

Consumers should know that as recently as Oct. 8, USDA-FSIS publicly assured the safety of our chicken:  “Foster Farms chicken is safe to eat but, as with all raw chicken, consumers must use proper preparation, handling and cooking practices.” There is no recall in effect and FSIS continues to inspect our poultry on a daily basis, certifying it as Grade A wholesome.”

Then, Foster Farms argues that toxic, antibiotic-resistant salmonella are normal on poultry:

Raw poultry is not a ready-to-eat product. All raw poultry is subject to naturally occurring bacteria… According to the CDC, “It is not unusual for raw poultry from any producer to have Salmonella bacteria. CDC and USDA-FSIS recommend consumers follow food safety tips to prevent Salmonella infection from raw poultry produced by Foster Farms or any other brand.”

Bill Marler asks how come Foster Farms is not issuing a recall?

Good question.  Take a look at CDC’s most recent Epi curve.  Usually, these show a standard distribution pattern over time with cases rising to a peak and then declining.  This one shows no sign of decline.

Persons infected with the outbreak strains of Salmonella Typhimurium, by date of illness onset as of October 7, 2013

OK, so what, as Bill Marler asks, will it take to close Foster Farms or force it to recall its tainted products?

For starters, how about getting the government opened again.  And insisting that FDA issue the final food safety rules and start enforcing them.

Update, October 11:  On October 7, USDA sent three letters of intended enforcement to Foster Farms:  Letter #1Letter #2, and Letter #3.  Now, according to a report from Bill Marler, the USDA has decided not to close Foster Farms or force a recall.

And here are two useful articles from Politico:

Sep 9 2013

Microbiology lesson: the latest news on Cyclospora

As an undergraduate at Berkeley, I majored in Bacteriology.  I haven’t worked in that field for decades, but the training makes me appreciate the terrific job the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does in providing education about food safety microbiology.

The CDC website is always a good place to start (another is food safety lawyer Bill Marler’s blog).

I thought of this as I was trying to find out what’s going on with the latest big outbreak of foodborne illness, this time due to Cyclospora.

The CDC’s Cyclospora website, updated frequently, keeps track of the numbers of cases—in this case, 641 as of September 3, with 41 hospitalizations—from 24 states.

Investigators traced cases in Iowa and Nebraska to a salad mix produced by Taylor Farms de Mexico.  But this mix is not linked to cases in Texas, which complicates the investigations.

As for the biology of Cyclospora: it’s a parasitic protozoa transmitted through feces.  The CDC provides this handy diagram of its life cycle:


Life cycle of Cyclospora cayetanensis

What are you supposed to do to prevent getting sick from Cyclospora?  The CDC says unhelpfully: “Consumers should continue to enjoy the health benefits of eating fresh fruits and vegetables as part of a well-balanced diet.”

Everyone, it says, should follow safe produce handling recommendations.

Translation: Wash your veggies!

Jul 29 2013

FDA’s latest round of food safety proposals: food imports

The FDA has finally released safety rules for imported foods, two years after Congress passed the food safety law.  OK.   We now have them.  At last.

Here’s what the FDA is up against:

  • 150 different countries ship foods to the U.S.
  • These account for about 15% of the food supply, but 50% of fresh fruits and 20% of fresh vegetables.
  • The agency has the capacity to inspect about 2% of imported foods.

To deal with this disconnect, the FDA proposes to hold importers accountable for the safety of what they ship to us.

The proposed rules allow two ways to do this: Importers can do their own onsite safety audit, or they can verify that their suppliers did so.

Both methods involve verification by certified verifiers that suppliers used “prevention-oriented food safety practices” (HACCP in other words), and achieved the same level of food safety as domestic growers and processors.

Neither requires inspection by FDA, although importers may use inspection.

The proposed rule and the third-party accreditation proposed rule are available for public comment for the next 120 days.

The previous proposed rules, for produce safety and food production facilities (see below), have been given another 60 days for public comment.  Comments on all proposals will now be due at the same time.  The FDA expect to issue the rules 12 to 18 months after the comments come in and then it will take another 18 months for rules to go into effect.

What does all this mean?

The FDA hardly has the resources to manage U.S. inspections so expecting it to do foreign inspections is unrealistic.  This plan shifts the regulatory burden to producers and shippers (why does this sound like foxes guarding henhouses?).

The FDA also intends to certify third-party auditors.  These invariably involve conflicts of interest, although that system  seems to have worked fairly reasonably well for organic foods.  But we are talking about the safety of imported foods here, and lives are at stake.

This is undoubtedly the best the FDA can do given its limited resources and its problems with Congress.  This Congress is hardly likely to view food safety as a national priority and give the FDA what it needs.

Recall: FDA appropriations go through agricultural appropriations committees, not health appropriations.  And this Congress cannot even pass a decent farm bill.

Congratulations to the FDA for making the best of a bad situation.  And fingers crossed that the proposals survive, get implemented by 2015, and nothing bad happens in the interim.

The document collection:

For a detailed discussion of the pros, cons, and questions, see the account in Food Safety News

May 23 2013

Kathleen Merrigan on agriculture’s political problems

The Farm Journal reports on a speech given by Kathleen Merrigan, who recently stepped down as USDA Deputy Secretary, to  Crop Life’s 2013 National Policy Conference.     

Why did she step down?  “Because it’s a hard job.”

Her speech dealt with problems faced by agriculture in today’s political climate.  She listed ten.  These begin with (1) immigration, (2) tax reform, and (3) food safety.

Number 9 was GMO labeling:

Merrigan described this as a sort of “whack-a-mole” problem. USDA and FDA haven’t allowed organic producers to put “non-GMO” on labels, but support is growing in some states, such as Washington, to require labeling. She says people want a verdict and she doesn’t expect the issue to go away. 

I don’t either.

Mar 25 2013

White House weakened food safety rules

I subscribe to Food Chemical News, at great expense but for good reason.  On Friday, I received this alert addressed to Dear Subscriber:

Food Chemical News has discovered a stunning set of documents, made available by the Department of Health and Human Services as part of a transparency initiative, that prove FDA was forced by the White House Office of Management and Budget to remove certain elements from the draft of its FDA Food Safety Modernization Act preventive controls proposal. It had long been speculated among FDA watchers that the agency intended to include requirements for product testing, maintaining supplier verification programs and tracking consumer complaints in its FSMA proposal, published in the Federal Register Jan. 16, but the eight documents we found this week, while searching for other information, confirm it.

Food Safety News picked up the story.

Food Chemical News is reporting that documents released on on Feb. 28 reveal cuts made by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to the implementing regulatory package for the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).Those apparent cuts include striking out requirements for food companies to test for microbial contamination of environments and finished food products, as well as rules for companies to maintain supplier verification programs and track consumer complaints.

We encourage readers to review the documents here and comment on anything of interest in our comment section.

The documents say that the White House deleted:
  • Requirements for environmental monitoring for pathogens.
  • Requirements for finished product testing for pathogens.
  • An assumption that if environmental monitoring finds pathogens on food-contact, the pathogens are also in the food.
  • Requirements for a supplier approval and verification program.
  • A requirement that companies review consumer complaints about safety.
  • FDA authority to copy company records.
The White House also:
  • Added a year to the length of time companies and farms of all sizes have to comply with the law. 
Why?  Undoubtedly election-year politics.  The election is over.  
The FDA needs to do its job.  
Let’s get these items reinserted.
The safety of Americans is at stake here.  
Mar 14 2013

Food safety problems can happen anywhere, even Noma

I was interested to read in Food Safety News last week that Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant ranked as the world’s best, was the site of a norovirus outbreak that affected a large proportion of its customers.  

I tweeted something about this and was contacted immediately by Lisa Abend to correct errors in the story.  Her careful, highly detailed account in Time describes what happened and why. 

Noma immediately issued its own explanation, notable for providing much information beyond the usual “we regret.”

Since receiving the news, we have been working closely with The Danish Veterinary and Food Administration to find the source of the problem. As a result of our collaboration, we have determined the most likely cause of illness was Norovirus, which may have been brought in by a member of staff, who was symptom-free.

Noma even made the health inspector’s report easily available.

Did it lose customers over this incident?  Hardly.

I’ve not been to Noma, but I would love the chance to eat there.

The short-term lessons here are worth noting:

  • Transparency helps.
  • Cooperating with health authorities helps.
  • Fixing the problem helps. 

The long-term lessons are also worth pondering:

  • Food safety problems can happen anywhere.
  • Food safety has to be a priority for any place that makes or serves food.
  • Make sure employees wash hands frequently.
  • Pay employees to stay home while sick.
  • Make sure employees have health care coverage.

Without these actions, even people eating at expensive restaurants are at risk of norovirus and worse.

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.

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