by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Food-safety

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.

Jan 16 2012

The latest in meat safety: another form of zapping?

Bacterial contamination of meat is an ongoing problem and everyone wishes for an easy fix—one that does not require meat producers and packers to prevent contamination.

Irradiation works, but raises feasibility and other concerns.

How about electrocution?

Food Production Daily reports that hitting meat with electrical current reduces toxic E. coli O157:H7 on meat surfaces by 2 log units.

The research report says researchers inoculated meat with the bacteria and then applied electrical current.  But by inoculation they must mean just on the surface, because they only counted surface bacteria.

Surface bacteria, alas, are not the problem.  Searing meat effectively kills surface bacteria.   Bacteria in the interior (of hamburger, for example) survive unless the meat is well cooked.

And 2 log units is unlikely to be good enough for bacteria that cause harm at low doses, as this kind does.  The FDA requires a 5 log reduction for fresh juices, for example.

I wish researchers would apply their talents to figuring out how to keep toxic bacteria from getting into and onto animals in the first place.  Then we wouldn’t have to worry about designing techno-fixes to deal with contaminated meat.

 

Dec 31 2011

Looking ahead: food politics in 2012

My monthly Food Matters (first Sunday) column in the San Francisco Chronicle takes out a crystal ball…

Q: What’s on the food politics agenda for 2012? Can we expect anything good to happen?

A: By “good,” I assume you mean actions that make our food system safer and healthier for consumers, farmers, farm workers and the planet.

Ordinarily, I am optimistic about such things. This year? Not so much. The crystal ball is cloudy, but seems to suggest:

Political leaders will avoid or postpone taking action on food issues that threaten corporate interests. Sometimes Congress acts in favor of public health, but 2012 is an election year. Expect calls for corporate freedom to take precedence over those for responsible regulations. Maybe next year.

Something will happen on the farm bill, but what? Last fall’s secret draft bill included at least some support for producing and marketing fruits and vegetables, and only minimal cuts to SNAP (food stamps). Once that process failed, Congress must now adopt that draft, start over from scratch or postpone the whole mess until after the election.

SNAP participation will increase, but so will pressure to cut benefits. With the economy depressed, wages low and unemployment high, demands on SNAP keep rising. In 2011, SNAP benefits cost $72 billion, by far the largest farm bill expenditure and a tempting target for budget cutters. While some advocates will be struggling to keep the program’s benefits intact, others will try to transform SNAP so it promotes purchases of more healthful foods. Both groups should expect strong opposition.

Childhood obesity will be the flash point for fights about limits on food marketing. The Lancet recently summarized the state of the science on successful obesity interventions: taxes on unhealthy foods and beverages, restrictions on marketing such items, traffic-light front-of-package food labels, and programs to discourage consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks and television viewing. Expect the food industry to continue to get Congress to block such measures, as it did with U.S. Department of Agriculture school nutrition standards (hence: pizza counts as a vegetable).

The Federal Trade Commission will postpone release of nutrition standards for marketing to children. Although Congress asked for such standards in the first place – and the standards are entirely voluntary – it just inserted a section in the appropriations bill requiring a cost-benefit analysis before the FTC can release them. Why does the food industry care about voluntary restrictions? Because they might work (see previous prediction).

The Food and Drug Administration will delay issuing front-of-package labeling guidelines as long as it can. The FDA asked the Institute of Medicine for advice about such labels. The institute recommended labels listing only calories, saturated and trans fat, sodium and sugars – all nutrients to avoid. Although the institute did not mention traffic-light labels, it did recommend check marks or stars, which come close. The food industry much prefers its own method, Facts Up Front, which emphasizes “good-for-you” nutrients. It is already using this system. Will the FDA try to turn the institute recommendations into regulations? Maybe later.

The FDA will (still) be playing catch-up on food safety. The FDA got through the 2011 appropriations process with an increase of about $50 million for its inspection needs. This is better than nothing but nowhere near what it needs to carry out its food safety mandates. The FDA currently inspects less than 2 percent of imported food shipments and 5 percent of domestic production facilities. The overwhelming nature of the task requires FDA to set priorities. Small producers think these priorities are misplaced. Is the FDA going after them because they are easier targets than industrial producers whose products have been responsible for some of the more deadly outbreaks? Time will tell.

On the bright side, the food movement will gather even more momentum. While the food industry digs in to fight public health regulations, the food movement will continue to attract support from those willing to promote a healthier and more sustainable food system. Watch for more young people going into farming (see Chronicle staff writer Amanda Gold’s Dec. 25 article) and more farmers’ markets, farm-to-school programs, school meal initiatives, and grassroots community efforts to implement food programs and legislate local reforms. There is plenty of hope for the future in local efforts to improve school meals, reduce childhood obesity, and make healthier food more available and affordable for all.

And on a personal note: In April, University of California Press will publish my co-authored book, “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics.” I’m hoping it will inspire more thinking and action on how we can change our food system to one that is better for people and the planet.

Happy new year!

 

Dec 29 2011

Food safety: it’s déjà vu all over again

In preparation for the holiday season, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack held a press conference  to promote the departments’ efforts on food safety.

They announced release of the administration’s progress report from its Food Safety Working Group.

They also highlighted additional places to get government information about food safety at home:

I didn’t pay much attention to these announcements until I read the slightly snarky account in Food Chemical News (December 22). 

The Obama administration patted itself on the back today with a new report that both lists the accomplishments over the past three years of its Food Safety Working Group (FSWG) and identifies the group’s top priorities for the coming year.

Released just minutes before a short media call that served as more of a pep rally, The Federal Food Safety Working Group Progress Report, a 31-page document, summarizes for stakeholders a host of activities that have taken place at government agencies over the past three years related to detecting foodborne pathogens, enhancing surveillance, responding to food safety problems, improving food safety at the retail level and educating consumers.

The list of the administration’s food safety accomplishments is long and detailed, and many are impressive.

But what the report does not say is telling.  Neither the USDA nor FDA have the resources or power to require the industries they supposedly regulate to produce safe food.

As Mark Bittman explains in his Opinionator column in the New York Times, politics defeats even the most rational and thoroughly science-based safety measures, leaving the FDA unable to do much more than politely request “voluntary guidance” of industry.

Bittman focuses on the political barriers to doing what the FDA has been asking for since 1977:  a ban on the use of antibiotics for non-therapeutic purposes, in this case to make food animals grow faster.   The result: “Bacteria 1, FDA 0.”

Here’s the nut: The F.D.A. has no money to spare, but the corporations that control the food industry have all they need, along with the political power it buys.

That’s why we can say this without equivocation: public health, the quality of our food, and animal welfare  are all sacrificed to the profits that can be made by raising animals in factories….Animals move from farm to refrigerator case in record time; banning prophylactic drugs would slow this process down, and with it the meat industry’s rate of profit.

Lawmakers beholden to corporate money are not about to let that happen, at least not without a fight.

For more than 20 years, the Government Accountability Office has called for creation of a single food safety agency that unites the safety oversight functions of the FDA and USDA and has the authority to require food to be produced safely.

In this Congress?  Hopeless.

But Congress can be changed—and that’s a worthy thought for the new year.

 

 

Dec 27 2011

What’s with the problems with powdered infant formula?

Mead Johnson Nutrition says it has tested additional samples of its Enfamil baby formula and still does not find the bacteria responsible for the death of one newborn infant and the illness of another.

The bacteria at fault are Cronobacter sakazakii, formerly known as Enterobacter sakazakii (bacterial taxonomists proposed this reclassification in 2007).

Last week several retailers pulled Enfamil infant formula from their shelves because of fears that Enfamil was contaminated with this organism.

Walmart was the first to issue a recall.

The retailers actions were unusually cautious.  Neither Mead Johnson nor federal investigators had evidence that the formula caused the illnesses.  Federal agencies had not asked for a recall.

But the retailers must have connected the dots:

  • The most likely source of C. sakazakii is powdered infant formula.
  • The two infants ill with C. sakazakii were fed Enfamil powdered formula (although the second ill infant drank several kinds of formulas).

In the chapter on infant feeding in my book, What to Eat, I noted that the main difference between one kind of infant formula and another is its cost.  Powdered formula is much cheaper than the already reconstituted kinds.  I asked:

Beyond the difference in cost, does it matter which level of convenience you choose?

It might.   Powdered formulas are not sterile.  In this, they differ from concentrate and ready-to-serve formulas, which have been heated to sterilize them.

In 2002, the FDA warned pediatricians that powdered milk formulas could be contaminated with Enterobacter sakazakii, a type of bacteria that causes rare but terrible and sometimes fatal infections in infants, especially those who are premature, weak, or in hospitals.

The FDA says it is not aware of any E. sakazakii infections in healthy full-term infants in home settings.

Reports from other countries, however, suggest that even healthy babies may sometimes acquire such infections [see Kwan Kew Lai, “Enterobacter sakazakii infections among neonates, infants, children, and adults: case reports and a review of the literatur,”(see:  Medicine, Vol. 80, pp. 113-122, March 2001.]

In 2001, the CDC published a case report on this type of infection.  It pointed out that “…in 50-80 % of cases, powdered infant formula is both the vehicle and the source (direct or indirect) of E. sakazakii-induced illness.”

The CDC’s conclusion:

Clinicians should be aware of the potential risk for infection from use of nonsterile enteral formula in the neonatal health-care setting.

The World Health Organization has a Q and A:

3. How does infant formula get contaminated with Enterobacter sakazakii? Can other foods also be contaminated?

Basically there are three routes by which Enterobacter sakazakii can enter infant formula:

a) through the raw material used for producing the formula;

b) through contamination of the formula or other dry ingredients after pasteurization; and

c) through contamination of the formula as it is being reconstituted by the caregiver just prior to

feeding.

Enterobacter sakazakii has been detected in other types of food, but only powdered infant formula has been linked to outbreaks of disease.

So the recalls were precautionary.  It’s hard to argue with that—unless you are a stockholder; Mead Johnson stocks declined by 5% as a result.

At the moment, the source of these particular C. sakazakii infections is unknown.  Let’s give the retailers credit for taking precautions to protect the public.

As for infant feeding in general: Breastfeeding is best, of course.  If you are using formulas to feed your infant, the liquid ones are safer—but much more expensive.

Dec 15 2011

More problems with FDA’s ability to inspect food facilities

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the Department of Health and Human Services, FDA’s parent agency, has just issued a report sharply criticizing FDA’s oversight of State food inspections.

This report is one more piece of evidence for how FDA’s lack of resources makes our food supply less safe.

Because it does not have the personnel to do its own inspections, FDA increasingly delegates them to State agencies.  The Salmonella outbreak from peanuts in 2009 is a prime example of why the State system is too diffuse to work.  As the report explains,

The peanut processing plant responsible for a 2009 salmonella outbreak was inspected multiple times by a State agency working on behalf of FDA. This outbreak resulted in one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history and has led to serious questions about the effectiveness of State food facility inspections.

FDA has long been unable to inspect more than a tiny fraction of food processing facilities and the situation is getting worse, not better: the overall number of facilities inspected decreased from just over 17,000 facilities in 2004 to about 15,900 in 2009 (4%-5% of the total number).

FDA increasingly goes to States to fill the gap.  In 2009, it contracted with 41 States to conduct inspections, and these conducted 59% percent of FDA’s food inspections.  In 2004, State inspections comprised just 42% of inspections.

FDA says it has good reasons for relying on States:

According to FDA officials, one reason FDA relies on States is that these inspections are conducted under State regulatory authority, which often exceeds FDA’s own authority. For example, several FDA officials noted that, under certain conditions, State inspectors can immediately shut down a facility or seize unsafe food products, whereas FDA would have to go through a lengthy legal process to achieve similar results.

But this is not enough.  The current report is only the latest of a series of OIG reports detailing problems with FDA’s food inspections.  Previous reports found that more than half of all food facilities have gone 5 or more years without an FDA inspection.

The report concludes:

Taken together, the findings demonstrate that more needs to be done to protect public health and to ensure that contract inspections are effective and prevent outbreaks of foodborne illness.

Yes, of course they do.  But how is FDA supposed to fix the problem?

Bizarrely, and at great risk to the public, FDA gets its funding from congressional agriculture appropriations committees, not health committees.

In this era of cost cutting, FDA was lucky to get a $50 million increase in funding, or so everyone says.

But this is nowhere near enough to hire and train enough inspectors to do the job right.  It’s not that the States can’t do a good job.  It’s that the dispersion of authority leaves much room for flexibility in interpretation and lack of accountability, as the OIG reports consistently show.

For reasons of politics, this may not be the time to demand a stronger food safety system.  But if not now, when?

Sep 29 2011

Since when did cantaloupe become a WMD*?

Are you as puzzled about the latest cantaloupe outbreak as I am?  This time it’s Listeria again (see previous post on this particular pathogen).

According to the CDC, 72 people have been infected with the strains of Listeria associated with the outbreak in 18 states.  Most appalling,  13 people have died.

The CDC says that the people who have become ill range from 35 to 96 years, with a median age of 78 years.  Most are over age 60 or have health conditions that weaken the immune system.  Pregnant women are at especially high risk as are their fetuses.

As always, the recall occurred after most of the cases were reported to the CDC.  The cantaloupe were traced to Jensen Farms, which issued a recall on September 14.

Why cantaloupe?  They are, after all, grown in dirt and their skin is rough, textured, and has plenty of places for bacteria to hide.  People pick up Listeria by handling the fruit and cutting into it.  FDA’s information page lists the recalls and press releases on the Jenson Farms outbreak.

The FDA’s advice: throw it out.

Do not try to wash the harmful bacteria off the cantaloupe as contamination may be both on the inside and outside of the cantaloupe. Cutting, slicing and dicing may also transfer harmful bacteria from the fruit’s surface to the fruit’s flesh.

What do food safety experts say you have to go through to avoid getting sick from eating cantaloupe?

  • Wash the melon under running water with a clean vegetable brush.
  • Blot with paper towels to remove excess water.
  • Put melon on a clean surface, one that hasn’t come into contact with meat or poultry or other foods that could cause cross-contamination.
  • Cut off the stem end about 3/4 to 1 inch from the end, using a clean kitchen knife.
  • Place melon on a clean cutting board, plate, or other clean surface with the cut end facing down.
  • Using a clean knife, cut the melon from the blossom end to the stem end.
  • Follow this by washing the knife with clean running water and setting it aside.
  • Gently scrape out the seeds with a clean spoon and cut the melon into slices or whatever is desired.
  • Don’t use dish soap or detergent; cantaloupes can absorb detergent residues.
  • Do not allow the rind to touch any part of the edible fruit.
  • Melon that isn’t eaten should be peeled, covered and refrigerated.
  • Discard any melon that has been at room temperature for longer than 2 hours, or 1 hour when the temperatures are over 90 degrees F.
  • Follow these procedures for all melons, no matter where they were grown.

What?  No HazMat suit?

We are talking about cantaloupes here.

How about a food safety system where everyone makes sure—and tests—that Listeria don’t get on cantaloupe in the first place.

Single food agency anyone?

_____

*Translation: Weapon of Mass Destruction

Aug 30 2011

Don’t like bothering with food safety rules? Sue the FDA!

In an astonishing display of what can only be described as chutzpah* Del Monte sued the FDA for insisting on a recall last March of its cantaloupes likely to be contaminated with a toxic form of Salmonella Panama. Now Del Monte is also suing the State of Oregon.

On what grounds?

Notably, “[t]he FDA investigation ultimately found no connection between Del Monte Fresh cantaloupes and any cases of Salmonella Panama, including in Oregon,” the company says. “FDA issued a notice ending the recall on July 29, 2011.”

The CDC thinks otherwise.  Its investigations pointed to imported Del Monte cantaloupes as the source of an outbreak that affected 20 people in several states:

Twelve of 16 ill people reported eating cantaloupe in the week before illness. Eleven of these 12 ill people ate cantaloupes purchased at eight different locations of a national warehouse club. Information gathered with patient permission from membership card records helped determine that ill persons purchased cantaloupes sourced from a single farm. Product traceback information indicated these cantaloupes were harvested from single farm in Guatemala.

FoodSafetyNews reviews the history of this particular recall.  It agrees with Del Monte that tests performed in April on cantaloupe samples from the Guatemala farm came out negative for Salmonella and that the FDA has now ended the recall.  But:

Del Monte had announced the recall in March, after the suspect melons had passed their shelf-life date. It is not clear whether any of the cantaloupes tested were actually the suspect melons. In foodborne illness investigations, samples of the food from the same batch eaten may no longer available by the time the connection to an outbreak is made. Epidemiology, rather than a contaminated sample, is the evidence that points to a likely source.

For these reasons, attorney Bill Marler terms the lawsuit “frivolous.”  He is suing Del Monte on behalf of a sick client.

Public health agencies doing their jobs to protect the public now have to defend against lawsuits like this?  Putative cause is no longer enough to order recalls?

U.S. courts are not famous for understanding epidemiology or other aspects of public health and I’m wondering what effect this suit will have on public protection against foodborne illness.  What standard of proof will the courts require?

Lawsuits are chilling.  Congress has just granted the FDA the authority to order recalls.  Food producers were not happy about that provision.  This is one way to get around Congress and the FDA.

It is worth asking who gains and who loses from lawsuits like this.

*Hence: chutzpah, which if you aren’t familiar with the term, is the Yiddish word for outrageous audacity.

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