by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Food-safety

May 9 2012

FDA’s Global Engagement

The FDA has just released a classy new report on Global Engagement, summarizing its efforts to deal with issues raised by the globalization of drugs, medical devices, and foods.

This is a big deal.  In 2009, 300,000 foreign facilities in more than 150 countries exported $2 trillion worth of FDA-regulated products to the United States.

Given these numbers alone, the FDA has some challenges.

In 2011, one out of every six FDA-regulated food products in the U.S. came from abroad.  Imports of fresh fruits, vegeta­bles, coffee, tea, and cocoa have more than doubled since 2000.

We import:

  • 80 percent of seafood
  • ~50 percent of fresh fruit
  • ~20 percent of fresh vegetables

As the report explains,

  • Many products entering the United States are made or grown in countries that lack the necessary regulatory over­sight to ensure their quality and safety.
  • Greater numbers of suppliers, more complex products, and intricate multinational supply chains introduce risks to product safety and quality, including more oppor­tunities for economic adulteration and the spread of contaminated products.
  • FDA can only realistically inspect a small percent­age (less than 3 percent) of the enormous volume of food products arriving at U.S. ports of entry, making it crucial that the Agency focus on ensuring that food products meet U.S. standards before they reach the United States.

To deal with this problem, the FDA has opened offices in:

  • China: Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou
  • India: New Delhi and Mumbai
  • Latin America: San Jose, Costa Rica; Santiago, Chile; and Mexico City, Mexico
  • Europe: Brussels, Belgium; London, United Kingdom; and Parma, Italy
  • Asia-Pacific: FDA headquarters
  • Sub-Saharan Africa: Pretoria, South Africa
  • Middle East and North Africa: Amman, Jordan

The FDA seems seriously concerned about its global initiatives and the safety problems posed by our globalized food supply.

The volume seems impossible to manage.  Let’s hope the FDA’s efforts do some good.

May 6 2012

Tuna scrape: a case study in international food safety

My Q and A column in the San Francisco Chronicle appears on the first Sunday of every month.  This one is about safety problems with tuna scrape.

Q: I had no idea that the tuna in my sushi roll was scraped off the bones in India, ground up, frozen, and shipped to California. Is this another “slime” product? Can I eat it raw?

A: No sooner did the furor over lean, finely textured beef (a.k.a. “pink slime”) die down than we have another one over sushi tuna. On April 13, the Food and Drug Administration said Moon Marine USA, an importing company based in Cupertino, was voluntarily recalling 30 tons of frozen raw ground yellowfin tuna, packaged as Nakaochi scrape.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigations linked consumption of Nakaochi scrape sushi to about 250 diagnosed cases and an estimated 6,000 or so undiagnosed cases of illness caused by two rare strains of salmonella. Among the victims who were interviewed, more than 80 percent said they ate spicy tuna sushi rolls purchased in grocery stores or restaurants.

Scrape refers to the meat left on fish skeletons after the filets are cut off. This is perfectly good fish, but difficult to get at. I once visited an Alaskan salmon packing plant and asked what happened to the delicious looking meat between the bones. The answer: pet food. (Lucky cats.)

A hot commodity

But tuna is too valuable to leave behind, and companies in India use special devices to scoop out the meat, combine it with scrapings from many other fish, chop the mixture, freeze it in blocks, and ship it to importers in the United States. Unlike “pink slime,” tuna scrape is not treated with ammonia or anything else to kill harmful bacteria.

Nevertheless, it is supposed to be safe. The FDA requires producers of imported foods to follow established safety plans. Although the United States imports about 80 percent of seafood sold domestically, the FDA only inspects 1 or 2 percent.

This means we have to rely on the diligence of international food producers in following safe-handling procedures, and of U.S. importers in verifying safety through pathogen testing. But even well-intentioned producers can make safety errors, especially when dealing with high-risk foods.

Tuna scrape is very high risk. Its supply chain is long, complicated and international, leaving many opportunities for contamination. And it is eaten raw.

This tuna scrape came from a single processing plant in India owned by Moon Marine International of Taiwan. Tuna are plentiful off the Indian coast, and the tuna processing industry is expanding rapidly. India has dozens, perhaps hundreds, of fish processing facilities, but most are relatively small and their number, size and geographical dispersion make monitoring difficult.

Safe handling issues

The frozen scrape blocks are supposed to be held at subzero temperatures throughout shipping. Even so, they pose a safety risk. They combine the scrapings from many fish. One contaminated scraping can contaminate the entire lot.

And subzero freezing may kill some salmonella, but large fractions can survive, remain viable, and multiply when the blocks are thawed.

Once the tuna scrape arrived in America, I’m guessing it was trucked to Cupertino and from there to retailers and distributors who further trucked them to restaurants and grocery stores. There, sushi chefs thawed the scrape and used it to make spicy tuna rolls.

Tuna scrape is used in supermarket-grade sushi, not the fancy stuff. Sushi used to be – and still is, in places – an art form requiring exceptional skills. In Japan, sushi chefs can train for as many as 10 years to learn how to recognize the freshest, safest and most delicious fish. Sushi served by such chefs is made to order. It is never pre-prepared. It can be breathtakingly expensive.

But in America, sushi has gone mainstream. You can find prepackaged sushi rolls at practically any supermarket or convenience store, at a cost equivalent to hamburger.

Cheap sushi is made with cheap ingredients – hence, Nakaochi scrape – by chefs with far less training. A typical certification program for sushi chefs in this country can be completed in two or three months. Some offer certification online. Although these programs address safe food-handling procedures, the training is necessarily superficial.

What are the odds?

Sushi aficionados argue that while raw fish is never perfectly safe, the safety odds are much better when the chef is well trained, and the fish are freshly caught and cut to order in front of you. By their standards, tuna scrape is suitable only for pet food, which is at least cooked to kill pathogens.

If anything, the tuna scrape outbreak teaches why it is so important to know where food comes from and how it is made. Caveat emptor.

Nutrition and public policy expert Marion Nestle answers readers’ questions in this monthly column written exclusively for The Chronicle. E-mail your questions to food@sfchronicle.com, with “Marion Nestle” in the subject line.

Addition, May 14Bill Marler reports that the FDA “483 Inspection Report” on the Indian tuna processing facility is now available.  Here are excerpts from the most revealing section:

Tanks used for storage of process waters have apparent visible debris, filth and microbiological contamination…There is no laboratory analysis for water used in ice manufacturing at the [redacted] facility to show the water used to make ice is potable…Apparent bird feces were observed on the ice manufacturing equipment at Moon Fishery; insects and filth were observed in and on the equipment…Tuna processed at your facility, which is consumed raw or cooked, comes in direct contact with water and ice.

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.

Page 5 of 25« First...34567...Last »