by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Food-safety

Apr 27 2012

American Enterprise Institute advocates single food-safety agency!

Politics does indeed make strange bedfellows. 

The American Enterprise Institute, a conservative (to say the least) think tank, has just issued a report on reforming the farm bill to ensure a safer food system.  Its stunning conclusion:

More feasibly, in the short to medium term, changes in food safety regulation should aim at correcting inconsistencies or loopholes that exist in US food safety laws.

For example, policymakers could merge the FSIS and the FDA to allow for a better allocation of resources and exploit potential return to scales.

Standardizing states’ detection systems for food-borne illnesses and collecting better data about the incidence of food-borne illnesses would make firms more accountable and help construct better food safety policies.

Merge the food safety functions of USDA and FDA?  This, of course, is precisely what food safety advocates and the Government Accountability Office have been urging since the early 1990s. 

Now, maybe, it has a chance?

Apr 6 2012

Tired of hearing about beef processing? Try chicken.

Apparently as a result of a need to cut costs, the USDA is changing the way its inspectors oversee chicken processing.

As Dana Milbank of the Washington Post puts it, this is

a proposal to allow chicken slaughterhouses to inspect themselves — eliminating those pesky federal monitors who have the annoying habit of taking diseased birds out of the food supply.

Even if the Obama administration were inclined to bring down capitalism with an orgy of overregulation, there isn’t enough money in the budget to enforce the rules on the books.  That’s what the chicken fight is about: Spending cuts…are a form of de facto deregulation (my emphasis).

The New York Times account of this policy change notes that inspectors:

had observed numerous instances of poultry plant employees allowing birds contaminated with fecal matter or other substances to pass. And even when the employees try to remove diseased birds, they face reprimands….

The Agriculture Department proposal allows poultry plants to speed up their assembly lines to about 200 birds per minute from 140, hampering any effort to examine birds for defects.

But that’s not all.  The Center for Livable Future at Johns Hopkins  reports that meal made from chicken by-products (in this case, feathers) contains arsenic and antibiotics such as fluoroquinolones that have been banned by the FDA for use in poultry.

A study published in Environmental Science & Technology found fluoroquinolone antibiotics in 8 of 12 samples of feather meal collected from six states and China.

A second study found arsenic in every sample of feather meal tested.

These findings indicate that poultry producers are using these drugs, even though they are not allowed to.

The U.S. poultry industry raises about 9 billion chickens and 80 million turkeys for human consumption each year.  Meal made from their feathers is commonly added to feed for chickens, pigs, cattle, and fish.  This could be a reentry route into the human food supply for such drugs.

Nicholas Kristof explains in the New York Times that these studies also found feather meal to contain

an antihistamine that is the active ingredient of Benadryl…[and] acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol.  And feather-meal samples from China contained an antidepressant that is the active ingredient in Prozac.

Poultry-growing literature has recommended Benadryl to reduce anxiety among chickens, apparently because stressed chickens have tougher meat and grow more slowly. Tylenol and Prozac presumably serve the same purpose.

Such findings indicate some of the worst problems with industrial poultry production.  They result from pressures to produce chickens cheaply.  The faster chickens can be pushed to grow, the less feed they consume and the cheaper they are to raise.

I don’t know what the best system for inspection might be, but I’m quite sure that leaving food safety oversight to the discretion of the packers is not a good idea.  Neither is speeding up the line.  And neither is feeding chickens drugs that can affect human health.

Here is even more evidence for the need for an overhaul of our food safety system.

A single food safety system anyone?

Apr 4 2012

Oops. Apologies to Mike Osterholm

Dr. Michael Osterholm, the director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, and a well known advocate for safe food, has asked for a correction to my post of several days ago.

He thinks the post can be interpreted as suggesting that he has financial ties to Beef Products, Inc (BPI), the maker of the ingredient.

In reading over the post, I can see how that interpretation is possible.  That was certainly not my intention.

Dr. Osterholm tells me that neither he nor his University of Minnesota Center have financial, consultative, or political ties to BPI or to Cargill (which also makes the ingredient).

His concerns about the issue have to do with facts about food safety and with correcting misinformation.

I did not mean to suggest otherwise, have personally apologized to him, and have edited the post accordingly.

 

Apr 2 2012

“Pink Slime:” Some questions about what’s really at stake

The “pink slime” furor gets curiouser and curiouser.  It’s hard to keep up (see yesterday’s post) but here’s my summary of where we are with this for the moment.

What is the furor about?

The best place to start is with Michael Moss’s December 30, 2009 investigative report in the New York Time on the ammonia process used by Beef Products, Inc to make LFTB (lean finely textured beef).

The article contains the first mention of the term “pink slime” as a pejorative for this product.

Moss provides confidential documents detailing the effects of the ammonia processing of LFTB, and revelations of the discrepancy between USDA’s standards for beef safety and those of its school lunch program.

How much LFTB is used in ground beef?

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal (March 28), Cargill Inc. estimates about 850 million pounds per year.

What is the “pink slime” crisis going to cost the beef industry?

According to the business press, meat packers are likely to lose a record $101 per head as a result of the pink slime crisis. Multiply that by the 34 million head of cattle slaughtered each year for food. And then there’s the economy:

Margins for meat packers have been declining for several months as consumers began to push back against high prices at retail in order to cope with rising gas prices. In response, processors have reduced slaughter rates in an effort to maintain beef prices [see Addition at the bottom of this post].

Who supports BPI and why?

BPI is a strong supporter of the Republican party and its candidates. But it is also generous elsewhere.

See, for example, BPI’s full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal, March 23, 2012. It quotes from “In defense of food safety leadership,” by Nancy Donley. Donley is a founder of STOP (Safe Tables Our Priority), an organization of mothers whose children died from eating contaminated hamburger.

After what I personally experienced watching my son suffer and die, I am very skeptical and cynical about for-profit meat companies and their professed commitment to food safety. Not all companies ‘walk their talk.’ BPI does.

BPI is well known to be the donor of the anonymous gifts to STOP of $250,000 last year and $500,000 the year before (see the tax forms posted on STOP’s website).

What is the USDA’s position on LFTB and BPI?

Obamafoodorama (March 29) reports on USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack’s press conference in Iowa on March 28. He joined Governor Terry Bransted, a Republican, in defense of LFTB.

Here’s what Obamafoodorama says Secretary Vilsack said:

  • The product is crucial to fighting childhood obesity.
  • This product is safe…There’s no question about it. We’ve said that hundreds of times and we’ll continue to say it.
  • It is a “leaner product” than regular ground beef, and crucial for the battle to end childhood obesity. That’s one of the reasons we’ve made it a staple of the school lunch program.
  • We are…concerned about obesity levels, and this is an opportunity for us to ensure that youngsters are receiving a product that is lean and contains less fat.
  • “Historically” the product is less expensive than other products…For that reason it’s been part of the school lunch program.”
  • [It] doesn’t have to be labeled when it is included in ground beef because “it is safe.”

Obamafoodorama’s report concludes:

Somewhat disappointingly, the Secretary’s efforts to defend lean, finely textured beef did not include him digging into a plate of the product and eating it on camera.

Why is a Democratic USDA Secretary going to bat for a private company well known for supporting Mitt Romney in particular and Republicans in general?

I can only speculate that it has something to do with Tom Vilsack’s wife, Christie, who is running for Iowa’s 4th Congressional District. In Iowa, BPI has bipartisan support, and Christie Vilsack says:

LFTB is safe…it is the women in our community who can put BPI back on it’s feet.

I think one of the biggest strengths in this audience today are all the women here, because we tend to be the ones who go to the grocery stores, and we’re the ones who choose the products that we bring home and feed to our families.

No concerns at all. It’s a safe product, and these are wonderful people who work there.

Who stands to benefit from the “pink slime” furor?

Wendy’s for one. I saw the company’s full-page ad in USA Today and the New York Times (March 30):

Where’s the pure beef? At Wendy’s that’s where! We use nothing but pure, 100% fresh, never-frozen North American beef.

We’ve never used fillers, additives, preservatives, flavor boosters, or ammonia treatments.

We’ve never used ‘pink slime,’ and we never will.

If LFTB is safe, isn’t it acceptable?

I’ve heard this argument before. It’s the same one used for GMOs. As I discuss in my book Safe Food, even if technological processes like this are safe, they are not necessarily acceptable—especially if they are not labeled and do not give consumers a choice.

What should BPI and other companies do when caught in a crisis like this?

Bill Marler has an explanation and some suggestions. This CEO:

  • Did not trust consumers with the truth.
  • Did not openly explain how the food product was made and what additives and ingredients it contained.
  • Ignored dissenting expert opinions in memos and emails.

To rebuild public trust and sales, Marler advises, do not:

  • Shoot the messenger.
  • Threaten legal action.
  • Play the political card.
  • Make political supporters eat your product or say how safe it is in front of the national media.

What should companies do? Simple:

  • Just tell the truth.
  • Tell consumers what they already know.
  • Tell the public how the product is made and what is in it.
  • Tell consumers the real benefits of the product.
  • Post test results online.
  • Invite the public, not politicians, to your plant for a tour and a taste test.
  • Bottom line: If you have nothing to hide, hide nothing.

My last questions for now:

  • Why are we allowing the school lunch program to be the dumping ground for cheap food?
  • Why don’t we have a food safety system in place that requires beef to be safe in the first place—so it doesn’t have to be treated with ammonia?

We should all be asking these questions and demand that our elected leaders ask them too—and insist on answers.

Addition: AFA, a competitor of BPI, filed for bankruptcy, because of reduced demand for all beef products.

Mar 30 2012

I’ve been lobbied! Intense efforts to save pink slime aimed at governors, USDA officials, and me

I don’t think I’ve ever been the target of a concerted lobbying campaign before, but efforts to restore the public image of pink slime—a.k.a. Lean Finely Textured Beef—have even gotten to me.

This week, while I was working on my column on pink slime for the Sunday, April 1 San Francisco Chronicle, I received e-mail messages from:

  • Dr. Michael Osterholm, the Minnesota-based food safety authority who I have never met but know about through his expertise and strong support for irradiation as a beef safety measure
  • Bruce Smith, the Environmental Health and Safety officer of Beef Products, Inc (BPI), the company that makes pink slime
  • Bruce Silverglade, the lawyer who now represents BPI but for many years was chief counsel for Center for Science in the Public Interest

All wanted me to know that pink slime was being treated unfairly because it is safe, nutritious and healthy, and getting rid of it will make ground beef more dangerous.

These efforts to educate me must be understood as a tiny fraction of the effort that is going into lobbying in favor of BPI and its product.  Yesterday, the governors and lieutenant governors of five states toured BPI’s facilities and participated in a heated press conference, which also included the undersecretary of USDA for food safety.

This is breathtakingly high-level—and perhaps unprecedented—support for the public relations troubles of a private food company.

Helena  Bottmiller of Food Safety News has a terrific report on these events.   She quotes the remarks of Iowa Governor Terry  Branstad:

We need to stand together to clear up the misinformation that has been circulating in the media…These accusations [against pink slime] are totally unfounded… I am proud to say that for 20 years I and my family have been eating it.

Here’s his instant classic: “Dude, it’s beef!”

The press conference also featured Nancy Donley, the founder and president of STOP Foodborne Illness, and mother of a child who died from eating a contaminated hamburger in 1993.

I had seen Ms. Donley’s letter about her son and the need for safe beef in a BPI advertisement in the Wall Street Journal on March 23.  It contained one eye-popping statement:

BPI has generously supported STOP and has never asked for anything in return.

Really?  I’d say BPI has gotten plenty of return on this particular investment.

STOP posts its tax statements online and these reveal a few small contributions from named private donors ($5000 to $10,000) but one of $250,000 from “a donor who wishes to remain anonymous.”

It doesn’t take much to deduce that this must be from Eldon Roth, the owner of BPI.

My comment to Food Safety News sums all this up:

Evidently, BPI has the political clout to pull in governors, USDA officials, and even food safety advocates on its behalf. I can’t help wondering whether their support for pink slime derives from a genuine belief that the public has treated BPI unfairly, or whether they are responding to the generous campaign contributions and charitable donations by BPI’s owner…I’m willing to grant that pink slime is safe, but that doesn’t make it acceptable [see note below].

Caroline Scott-Thomas writes in NutraIngredients that pink slime is “safe, nutritious—and icky” and that the food industry needs to take action “to avoid being at the mercy of the next consumer scare.”  She suggests:

  • Tell people what you’re selling them, no matter how unsavory it may seem.
  • Spend more time preempting consumer concerns, rather than reacting to them.
  • When industry does need to react, it should – quickly and with honesty.
  • The idea of “pink slime” might be icky, but it has definite advantages, and we should have heard about them before.

Good advice. Watch for my comments on the pink slime situation in the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday.

Note added, April 4: Michael Osterholm has no financial or other ties to BPI (see post of April 4).

Feb 13 2012

Food Navigator assesses the Food Safety Modernization Act

I am a daily reader of FoodNavigator-USA.com, a newsletter aimed at the food industry.  Occasionally the site collects posts on one subject.   This collection deals with food safety since Congress passed the new law more than a year ago.  The Interactive Timeline is particularly useful.

Feb 8 2012

Listeria in hard-boiled eggs? How come?

A company called Michael Foods has recalled more than one million hard-boiled eggs because of possible contamination with Listeria monocytogenes.  These especially nasty bacteria grow happily at refrigerator temperatures.

Michael Foods packaged the eggs in buckets of brine at a facility in Wakefield, Nebraska.  Investigators suspect a room in the packaging plant as the most likely source of contamination.  Listeria do tend to lurk in wet crevices of packing plants.

The company’s recall notice says:

None of the eggs were sold directly by Michael Foods to retailers or consumers. However, food distributors and manufacturers who purchased the eggs could have used them in products that were sold to retail outlets or used in foodservice settings.

Think: commercially prepared egg salad sandwiches and potato salads.

If you can’t quite get how a million hard-cooked eggs could be exposed to Listeria, you have plenty of company, mine included.

Hard-boiled eggs are boiled.  They are sterile.  What could have happened?

I went to the Web to find out how eggs are processed for commercial use, and discovered the Sanovo Group.   This company produces machines that wash and peel hard-boiled eggs (check the video).

The company’s SB 20000 Egg Boiler, for example:

automatically boils, cools and peels up to 20,000 eggs/hour. It can handle both brown and white eggs [Huh?  Why would anyone expect a difference?]….The SB 20000 Egg Boiler centres the yolk on stainless steel rollers, improving the egg quality and yield. A uniform boiling of the eggs is obtained by the built-in conveyor working with up to 18 minutes boiling time.

The boiled eggs are cooled for 23 minutes in the SC 20000 Egg Cooler, improving the peeling of the eggs. Ice water is injected in the centre of the cooling drum for optimal cooling transmission to the egg.

The SP 20000 Egg Peeler gently cracks the eggshells. Using the hygienic and no-scratch peeling technique. The complete system is easily cleaned for optimal hygiene.

The contamination must have occurred after the eggs were peeled or while they were in the buckets.

To me, the mere thought of peeled, hard-cooked eggs sitting in pails of cold, Listeria-friendly salt water for who knows how long be should make anyone run for the nearest testing kit.

These egg recalls are a perfect example of the hazards of industrial-scale food production.

Support your local egg farmer and peel your own eggs!

Jan 24 2012

Should CDC reveal the source of outbreaks? I vote yes.

Food Safety News is always an invaluable source of information about the science and politics of food safety, but today’s items are more than enough reason to subscribe immediately.

Start with Dan Flynn’s astonishing account of his repeated attempts to discover the name of the restaurant chain responsible for Salmonella outbreaks in Southern states last winter.

After calling health officials in several states where cases occurred, he says:

The surprise is not so much that public health officials do not want to name the restaurant chain involved, but that no one wants to talk about the outbreak at all…As we search for more information about this outbreak, we will do our best to follow the CDC’s own advice and provide timely and accurate information for the public.

The CDC’s report on this outbreak—and on similar ones that occurred previously—simply identify the source as “Mexican-style fast food Restaurant Chain A.”

Don’t we have the right to know the source of the outbreak so we can choose not to go there?

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler illustrates the importance of this question with an analogy:

I wonder if public health officials would have identified the actual restaurant (McDonalds) in the 1982 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak if the 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli O157:H7 outbreak would have happened?

So what’s going on here with CDC?   Again, Food Safety News comes through with an insightful explanation by Ray Costa, who works with companies on food safety issues:

When public health officials make mistakes in foodborne outbreaks, the industry suffers and the political fallout is extreme…We should not forget that local officials are closely tied to their communities in many ways.

Local health departments rely on revenue generated from the local food service industry. After many years, bonds form between local public health agencies and industry, naturally, and out of necessity.

But, he says:

In the end, honesty is the best policy during any outbreak of disease. When the investigator is guided by a careful analysis of data, an honest presentation of the facts and truthful explanation is all we can ask for…The public understands and forgives a mistake when it occurs out an abundance of caution to protect them, but there is no forgiveness for a failure to inform them and they suffer as a result.

The failure of CDC to name names is preventing the redress that victims rightfully have for damages and also reflects the power industry has to keep our investigators silent.

Food Safety News has promised to stay on this.  Its reporters are performing a great public service.

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