by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Food-safety

Dec 28 2015

Chipotle’s food safety problems: an update

I’m fascinated by reports of Chipotle’s ongoing problems with foodborne illness.

  • The main interest of the press in these episodes is their effect on Chipotle’s stock prices.
  • The outbreaks have been linked to a bunch of different pathogens: E. coli O157:H7, E. coli STEC O26, Salmonella, norovirus, and, possibly, hepatitis A.  This means they are due to different causes at different outlets.
  • The food, foods, or individuals responsible for these outbreaks are uncertain, making them hard to know how to prevent.
  • Hence: conspiracy theories.

The outbreaks

The most recent CDC report (December 21) counts 53 cases of E. coli 026 from 9 states, with 20 hospitalizations.

12-18-2015: Epi Cruve: Persons infected with the outbreak strain of E. coli O26, by date of illness onset

The FDA reports (December 22) that there are 5 more recent cases of illness caused by a different type of E. coli 026 among people eating at Chipotle.

Food Safety News summarizes the previous Chipotle outbreaks.

  • Seattle: July 2015, 5 people sick from E. coli O157:H7, from unknown food source.
  • Simi Valley, CA: August 2015, more than 230 sick from norovirus (most likely from an ill worker).
  • Minnesota: August and September 2015, 64 people sick from Salmonella Newport (tomatoes?).
  • Boston: December 2015, at least 136 people sick from norovirus.

The consequences

  • Nearly 500 people have become ill after eating in a Chipotle since July this year.
  • Stock prices are down 30 percent from a high of $757.77 in August.

The conspiracy theory

The title says it all: “ANALYSIS: Chipotle is a victim of corporate sabotage… biotech industry food terrorists are planting e.coli in retaliation for restaurant’s anti-GMO menu.”

I don’t think so.

You don’t need conspiracy theories to explain poorly designed and executed food safety procedures.

What is to be done?

The New York Times attributes the inability to identify the food source to Chipotle’s record-keeping:

One of the challenges here has been that we have been able to identify the restaurants where people ate, but because of the way Chipotle does its record-keeping, we have been unable to figure out what food is in common across all those restaurants,” said Dr. Ian Williams, chief of the outbreak response and prevention branch of the C.D.C.

That, at least, should be an easy fix.

For the rest, Chipotle has initiated a new food safety program, and has recruited a leading food safety expert, Mansour Samadpour, to set it up.  I met Samadpour at Earthbound Farms when he was helping that company prevent further problems after the spinach outbreak of 2006.  He knows what he his doing.

Chipotle needs to follow his advice—in letter and in spirit.

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler advises Chipotle to follow a 12-step program to create an effective culture of food safety from top down and bottom up within the company.  For example, he advises the company’s CEO, Steve Ells to say:

  • It is time to have a culture of food safety added to the “integrity” of the food. I have now learned that bacteria and viruses do not care a whit if my food’s ingredients are organic, sustainable, non-GMO and humanely raised.
  • I am going to hire a vice-president of Food Safety. That person will report directly to me and to the Board of Directors. Like Dave Theno being brought in to address the Jack-in-the-Box crisis of 1993, this person will have the resources and access to decision makers to create a culture of food safety from the top down.
  • The company’s new mantra – “Safe Food with Integrity” – will be completely transparent and shared with all – including our competitors.

Will Ells take his advice?  I hope so.

Nov 30 2015

Chipotle’s E. coli outbreak is nearly over, still a mystery

The CDC’s latest update on the food safety problems at Chipotle says whatever food or ingredient caused 45 people to become ill with E. coli is still unknown.

Bill Marler, the food safety attorney who tracks such things, offers a history of previous Chipotle outbreaks from 2008-2015; these involved Norovirus, Salmonella, hepatitis A, campylobacter, and now an STEC (Shiga Toxin-Producing E. coli).

Chipotle closed some of its outlets in the Northwest, but then reopened.

Steve Ells, Chipotle’s CEO, placed an ad in the New York Times, promising to do everything possible to prevent this from happening again.

Screen Shot 2015-11-14 at 9.39.40 AM

This got Bill Marler to ask: Is this Chipotle’s 2-b-4 moment?

We only make dramatic changes when we’ve been hit in the head with a 2-by-4 once or twice. Hopefully for Chipotle, this is their 2-by-4 moment.

The presence of E. coli indicates fecal contamination of some ingredient or food that was not cooked or not cooked sufficiently (cooking kills bacteria).  But from what animal,where, and when?

Chipotle needs to check every ingredient it sources, as well as every process involved in preparing and serving the foods.  If standard safety procedures aren’t already in place, this is a big job.

Let’s hope the CDC finds out what caused this outbreak, and soon.

Oct 21 2015

Canada’s new government’s commitments on food and nutrition

The Washington, DC-based Center for Science in the Public Interest also operates in Canada.  It issued a comment on the recent Canadian election.

Newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has four years to implement his public health nutrition commitments.  He and his party have pledged to:

  • Introduce new restrictions on the commercial marketing of unhealthy food and beverages to children, similar to those now in place in Quebec
  • Bring in tougher regulations to eliminate trans fats, similar to those in the U.S., and to reduce salt in processed foods
  • Improve food labels to give more information on added sugars and artificial dyes in processed foods
  • Make additional investments of $40 million for Nutrition North and $80 million for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency

Sounds like a new era indeed.  This will be interesting to watch.

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!

 

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