by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Food-safety

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 regulations.gov 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.

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.

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