by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Food-safety

Apr 19 2011

The politics of contaminated meat

By this time, you must have heard about the study in Clinical Infectious Diseases sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts.  The study found nearly half of supermarket meat and poultry samples to be contaminated with Staphylococcus aureus. Half of the contaminated samples were resistant to multiple antibiotics.

Staph causes awful infections.  When I was a child, my mother had a Staph infection that kept her out of commission for what seemed like months in that pre-antibiotic era.  Antibiotics can keep Staph under control, but not if the Staph are antibiotic-resistant.   Staph resistant to multiple drugs are a clear-and-present danger.  No wonder this study got so much attention.

The study provides strong support for the idea that we ought to be reducing use of antibiotics as growth promoters in farm animals, an idea strongly supported by the CDC.

Even though 80% of U.S. antibiotic use is for farm animals, the meat industry strong opposes any proposal to change its practices.

The National Cattleman’s Beef Association responds by attacking the science:

Calling into question the safety of U.S. beef without conclusive scientific evidence is careless and misleads consumers. Pew Charitable Trusts, an agenda-driven organization on this issue, funded this study, which concludes that its extremely small sample size was ‘insufficient to accurately estimate prevalence rates’ and that ‘public health relevance of this finding is unclear.’ The study’s authors clearly call into question the validity of their own study. The bottom-line is U.S. beef is safe and is part of a healthy, well-balanced diet.

The American Meat Institute reassures the public that meat is safe.  After all, you are going to cook your meat, aren’t you?  In any case, the responsibility rests with you.

While the study claims that the many of the bacteria found were antibiotic resistant, it does note that they are not heat resistant.  These bacteria are destroyed through normal cooking procedures, which may account for the small percentage of foodborne illnesses linked to these bacteria.

As with any raw agricultural product, it is important to follow federal safe handling recommendations included on every meat and poultry package that urge consumers to wash hands and surfaces when handling raw meat and poultry and to separate raw from cooked foods to ensure that food is safe when served.

These sound like the arguments that the meat industry has made for years for Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7.

I see this study as another reason why we need better food safety regulation, and the sooner the better.

Postscript: Bill Marler reports that he had 100 samples of chicken tested from Seattle markets:

IEH Labs found S. aurea [sic], or staph, in 42 percent of the samples overall and Campylobacter in 65 percent. The supermarket chicken was contaminated with other pathogens as well: 19 percent of the samples tested positive for Salmonella, one tested positive for Listeria, and 10 percent showed the presence of the methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA). In an unusual finding, one of the chicken samples tested positive for E. coli 0126, Shiga-toxin producing E. coli (STEC) bacteria more likely to be a contaminant of beef than poultry. Organic Chicken proved to be slightly less contaminated than nonorganic with 7 of the 13 (54%) testing positive for harmful bacteria.

As I said….

Apr 3 2011

Food is cheaper because costs are “externalized”

My monthly Food Matters column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Food is cheap at market, but costs a lot elsewhere

Q: I pay a lot for food, and more each day, but then people like you say our food is cheap because its real costs are “externalized.” Huh? What’s that supposed to mean?

A: Food prices are indeed going up, and I can hardly keep track of the possible causes: natural disasters, crop failures, commodity speculation, corn used for biofuels, lack of research in agriculture, the declining value of the U.S. dollar and just plain greed.

But we Americans still pay relatively less for food than anywhere else because so many of the costs of industrialized food production are “externalized.” We pay for them, but not at the grocery store.

Human costs

I was reminded of externalized food costs when reading about the remarkable efforts of a Salinas teacher to educate children of itinerant farmworkers. The kids are trying to learn under disrupted, impoverished, crowded living conditions. If their parents were paid and housed better, we would pay more for food.

Last summer I visited fish canneries at the far end of the Alaskan peninsula. The fish packers were women from the Philippines, working round the clock for months to send money home to their children and families.

The canneries used to hire Alaskan high school students at wages high enough to put them through college. But to keep prices competitive, the companies reduced wages and imported labor. That money disappeared from the community.

The CEO of a large U.S. meat company told me that if he raised wages by $3, he could hire locals and not have to deal with immigrant labor. But then he would have to raise the price of his meat by 3 cents per pound (I’m not kidding). That amount, he claimed, would price him out of competitiveness.

Environmental costs

Twenty billion dollars of our tax money goes to subsidies for industrial food production every year. Additional tax money is required to clean up the mess created by that system – polluted drinking water, infertile soil, ocean dead zones and overall misery in the surrounding areas.

While driving to give a talk at a college in rural Minnesota last year, I passed within a mile or so of an industrial pig farm. The overpowering smell – an externalized cost – was still on my clothes hours later.

Safety costs

Food safety is one casualty of a food system devoted to low cost. Companies save money by cutting corners on oversight and overlooking safety violations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says food pathogens cause 48 million illnesses, 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths each year.

Some experts say unsafe food costs Americans $152 billion annually – $1,850 for each case in health care and lost wages. Severe illnesses from E. coli O157:H7 can generate more than $1 million in health care costs alone, and ruin lives forever.

To these amounts must be added the costs to food producers of product recalls, continued loss of sales, lawsuits and ruined reputations. Sales of spinach, for example, are only now returning to levels reported before the huge E. coli outbreak in 2006.

Here again, the cost of prevention is minimal for large companies producing large volumes of food. Officials of one vegetable-packing company told me that the impressively comprehensive food safety system they instituted in the wake of recalls raised the cost of their products by only one penny a case (I’m not kidding about this, either).

Despite ample evidence from surveys that consumers are willing to pay more to guarantee safe food, large food producers perceive those few pennies as competitive barriers.

Health care costs

Let’s count obesity as another externalized result of a cheap food system. The cheapest foods are high in calories and low in nutritional value – “junk” foods. When food is cheap, people eat more of it.

Abundant cheap food leads companies to aggressively market their products to be eaten any time, any place and in very large amounts – all of which promote biologically irresistible overeating.

Current estimates of the costs of obesity and its consequent illnesses in health care and lost productivity approach $147 billion annually, almost the same as the cost of unsafe food.

Accurate or not, such numbers provide ample evidence for the need to bring agricultural policy in line with health policy.

To pick just one example: Dietary guidelines say to eat more fruits and vegetables, and cut down on sodas. But the indexed cost of fruits and vegetables has increased by about 40 percent since the early 1980s, whereas that of sodas has decreased by about 20 percent.

The high externalized cost of our present food system is a good reason to reconsider current policies when the Farm Bill comes up for renewal in 2012. Now is the time to start working toward food system policies that will better promote health, safety and human welfare.

Marion Nestle is the author of “Food Politics,” “Safe Food,” “What to Eat” and “Pet Food Politics,” and is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University. E-mail her at food@sfchronicle.com, and read her previous columns at www.sfgate.com/food.

This article appeared on page H – 4 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Mar 11 2011

Is food getting safer? Not very

Michael Osterholm writes in the current New England Journal of Medicine that despite claims that foodborne illness is declining in the United States, that is only part of the story. His editorial refers to the now-published study of Salmonella Saintpaul that I talked about in a previous post.  He says:

All these findings, however, must be interpreted with caution, since most of the decreases occurred between 1996 and 2000, and there has been little additional change since then.

When the 2009 incidence of infections with the eight primary bacterial and parasitic pathogens is compared with their incidence in the period from 2006 through 2008, no significant change can be seen for six pathogens; only the infection rates with shigella and STEC O157 show significant decreases (see graph).

In addition, recent studies have demonstrated a significant increase in the incidence of foodborne disease caused by emerging non-O157 STEC, suggesting that surveillance for O157 is no longer sufficient to determine the effect of foodborne STEC infections.

On the basis of FoodNet data for the past 14 years,we must conclude that the improvements made in the late 1990s in the safety of our food supply are still having a positive effect. But we’ve made little additional progress in the past decade.

The graph he refers to comes from Pathogen. It represents the percent change in laboratory-confirmed foodborne infections from 2006–2007 to 2009.  The horizontal line represents no change.



Mar 2 2011

Way to go GAO! A single food safety agency

Thanks to FoodSafetyNews for the heads up on the latest Government Accountability Office(GAO) attempt to get Congress to consolidate federal food safety functions on one agency.

The GAO’s latest 345-page report on how the federal government can save money lists its proposals in alphabetical order by area.  Agriculture comes first and, therefore, so does food safety.  You have to love the way GAO titles its sections: “Fragmented food safety system has caused inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient use of resources.”

GAO has been saying this for 20 years.  In 1990, for example, it published reports on who does what in the federal government about food safety and the inconsistencies in oversight.

As I wrote in Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2010),

Today, an inventory of federal food safety activities reveals a system breathtaking in its irrationality: 35 separate laws administered by 12 agencies housed in six cabinet-level departments….

At best, a structure as fragmented as this one would require extraordinary efforts to achieve communication let alone coordination, and more than 50 interagency agreements govern such efforts.

Among the six agencies with the broadest mandates, all conduct inspections and collect and analyze samples, and at least three–though not necessarily the same ones–have something to do with regulating dairy products, eggs and egg products, fruits and vegetables, grains, and meat and poultry.

Until recently, the system had no mission statement (for whatever such statements are worth) and it still does not have consistent rules, clear lines of authority, a rational allocation of resources, or standards against which to measure success.

With such a system, some issues–such as use of animal manure to fertilize food crops—inevitably fall between the cracks and are governed by no rules whatsoever.

Not much has changed in the subsequent 20 years, as this new report attests.  As is inevitably the case, some of the areas of overlap are simply absurd:

The 2008 Farm Bill assigned USDA responsibility for catfish, thus splitting seafood oversight between USDA and FDA. In September 2009, GAO also identified gaps in food safety agencies’ enforcement and collaboration on imported food.

Specifically, the import screening system used by the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection (CBP) does not notify FDA’s or FSIS’s systems when imported food shipments arrive at U.S. ports.

But the worst is the situation with shell eggs, seemingly unfixable, given the 2010 recall of 500 million eggs:

FDA is generally responsible for ensuring that shell eggs, including eggs at farms such as those where the outbreak occurred, are safe, wholesome, and properly labeled and FSIS [USDA] is responsible for the safety of eggs processed into egg products.

In addition, while USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service sets quality and grade standards for the eggs, such as Grade A, it does not test the eggs for microbes such as Salmonella.

Further, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service helps ensure the health of the young chicks that are supplied to egg farms, but FDA oversees the safety of the feed they eat.

I repeat.  This is not a new issue.  The hope was that the food safety act passed in January would pave the way to establish a single food safety agency.  The GAO report, while urging its creation, doubts that it will cut costs.

But it might save lives.

Feb 24 2011

Closure (?) on Salmonella Saintpaul

The New England Journal of Medicine has just published a CDC report bringing the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak of 2008 to an apologetic close (for a quick rundown on the history of this incident, see my previous posts).

The investigation of this outbreak first implicated tomatoes, with devastating effects on the tomato industry.  As the paper concludes:

Although an epidemiologic association with raw tomatoes was identified early in this investigation, subsequent epidemiologic and microbiologic evidence implicated jalapeño and serrano peppers. This outbreak highlights the importance of preventing raw-produce contamination.

Yes it does.   Jalapeño and serrano peppers turn up in salsas and guacamoles.  These are mixtures of many ingredients that are often eaten with chips or prepared foods.  People have a hard time remembering whether they ate peppers or not, particularly when the peppers are chopped fine.  As the investigators explained:

This outbreak investigation highlights the recurring challenges of epidemiologic identification of ingredients in foods that are commonly consumed, rapid identification and investigation of local clusters, the need to continue exploring hypotheses during an ongoing outbreak, and produce tracing in the supply chain.

Traceback issues such as commingling, repacking, varying degrees of product documentation throughout the supply chain, difficulty in linking incoming with outgoing shipments to the next level in the distribution chain, and the complexity of the distribution chain continue to hinder product-tracing efforts….

In addition, an understanding of the mechanisms and ecologies that can lead to contamination of produce on farms and the institution of additional control measures from the source throughout the supply chain are critical for preventing similar outbreaks in the future.

In other words, we badly need farm-to-table safety controls for all foods, no exceptions.

But, as the accompanying editorial by Michael Osterholm explains,

The new law has a major shortcoming: dollars. There was no appropriation approved by the Congress for the act or authorization in the bill for the FDA to assess fees on the companies that it inspects. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that implementing this legislation would require $1.4 billion between 2011 and 2015….

Recent reports in the media calling this act “historic legislation” must be tempered by the reality that without the necessary resources, requiring the FDA to carry out the law’s required activities will be like trying to get blood out of a rock.

Blood out of a rock?  The House just passed a bill that would CUT the FDA’s food safety budget by $241 million.

Of course the FDA doesn’t need the funds.  After all, only 21% of the 1,500 people known to have gotten sick with Salmonella Saintpaul had to be hospitalized, and only 2 died.  And Salmonella Saintpaul is in foods that real Americans don’t eat anyway, like peppers with funny foreign names and alfalfa sprouts.

I used to say that Congress would never move on food safety until a close relative of a senior Senator became seriously ill with food poisoning.   Now I have to include a senior House member.

Feb 18 2011

Michael Taylor goes international

Michael Taylor, the FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods, gave a talk in London yesterday at a meeting of the Global Food Safety Initiative (GSFI).

GSFI, for the policy wonks among you, is a project of the Paris-based Consumer Goods Forum (formerly CIES), which brings together CEO-level food industry executives to discuss topics of mutual interest—a World Economic Forum for food companies, as it were.

I’ve given several talks at these meetings over the years, presumably because the organizers like to stir up some controversy once in a while.

Mr. Taylor’s speech, which you can read here in its entirety, does not seem particularly controversial—unless you think that making business responsible for ensuring food safety is controversial:

For those of you who live and work in the European Union countries, imported food is a fact of daily life.

And many emerging economies recognize that food exports can help drive their economic growth.

It is for these reasons – high public expectations and expanding trade in food – that the effort to improve food safety and to build prevention in from farm to table is a global movement…and is good business.

It is a global movement that, very importantly, recognizes that the primary responsibility for prevention rests with business – with those who produce, process, import, and market food.

Consumers certainly have a role to play as food handlers and preparers.

And, of course, government plays a vital role in providing scientific leadership, setting standards for effective prevention of food safety problems, and ensuring through inspection and other means that those standards are understood and met.

But everything we do to improve food safety rests on the foundation of the food industry fulfilling its duty to do everything it reasonably can to make food safe.

FoodSafetyNews has more details on what the meeting was about.   Taylor’s speech is a sign that the FDA is on the job.

Jan 29 2011

Michael Taylor tells food industry: FDA intends to enforce new food safety mandate

Michael Taylor, deputy commissioner for food at FDA and long a proponent of food safey, gave a speech on January 27 outlining the FDA’s plans for implementing the new food safety law.

He pointed out that the new law says:

  • Food producers and processors must institute preventive controls.
  • FDA has new legal powers to ensure that they do.
  • FDA can focus efforts on riskiest foods.
  • Food importers must meet accountability requirements.

Taylor got right to the point:

So, let me give you a sense of what you can expect from FDA.

First, we’ll hit the ground running…So we embark on implementation with considerable momentum.  

Second, the vast workload that comes with the new law – over 50 new regulations, guidances, programs and reports to Congress – means we have to set priorities for our work…you can expect timely completion of the rulemakings required to set standards for produce safety, preventive controls, and intentional adulteration…And you can count on us giving high priority to building the new import oversight system.

Third, we are absolutely committed to full, transparent engagement with all stakeholders – industry, consumers, public health experts, and other government colleagues – to take advantage of their expertise and diverse perspectives.   

Finally, you can count on FDA to maintain its strong commitment to public health and to achieving the new law’s public health goal in a manner that is in keeping with the consensus that gave rise to the legislation. 

As for the vexing question of how the beleaguered FDA is going to be able to pay for all this?

And, in a world of finite resources, we’ll change how we work to make the best use of every resource we have…Make no mistake, resources will be a continuing issue as we work to build the new food safety system. 

As I hope I’ve made clear there is a lot FDA can and will do to put the new law into action and build the foundation for a new system, but completing the system – fulfilling the Congressional vision embedded in the new law – will require new resources and investment.  

We look forward to working on this issue with our colleagues in industry and the consumer community, and with leaders in Congress. 

Well, good luck with that last one. Members of agricultural appropriations committees have already threatened no new resources for FDA.

Recall: FDA, an agency of the public health service (like NIH or CDC), gets its funding from agricultural appropriations committees—not health committees.  Nobody talks about this bizarre historical anomaly very much but I see it as a huge problem for FDA and one that badly needs fixing.

The fix isn’t likely to happen in this administration but without adequate resources, FDA is severely constrained in what it can do.  Taylor is telling the industry that FDA is not going to wait for resources to get started on its new legal authority to protect public health. 

Let’s hope this works.

Jan 14 2011

If I had a food safety magic wand…

 Bill Marler, the food safety lawyer in Seattle, is asking for responses to the question, “if you had a magic wand, how would you fix the food safety system?” 

I’ve been mulling over his question in light of the recent enactment of the food safety bill, as yet unfunded.  Magic wand in hand, here’s what I’d do:

Create a single food safety agency: the new law is designed to fix the FDA.  It does nothing to fix the USDA’s food safety functions.  These remain divided between the two agencies, with USDA responsible for the safety of meat and poultry, and FDA responsible for everything else.  This division pretends that animal wastes have nothing to do with the safety of fruits and vegetables which, alas, they do. 

Require safety control systems for all foods.  Everyone who produces food should do it safely using proven methods for identifying where hazards can occur, taking steps to prevent those hazards, monitoring to make sure the steps were taken, and—when appropriate— testing to make sure the system is working. 

Apply safety controls from farm to table.  The new law does this for FDA-regulated foods.  But USDA safety regulations begin at the slaughterhouse after animals have already been contaminated in feedlots or in transport.  Everyone involved in food production, even farmers large and small, should be actively engaged in food safety efforts.

Fund food safety through congressional health committees.  For irrational reasons of history, the FDA gets its funding through agricultural committees, not health—even though FDA is an agency of the Public Health Service within the Department of Health and Human Services.   As a consequence, the FDA is at the mercy of appropriations committees whose mandate is to protect agricultural interests.  This anomaly explains why 80% of food safety funding goes to USDA, and only20% to FDA.  The new chair of the House agricultural appropriations committee has made it clear that he does not believe FDA needs any more funding.   Health appropriations committees might view FDA’s role in food safety in a more favorable light.

Fund food safety adequately.  To protect the domestic food supply—and to ensure the safety of imported foods—more money is needed to pay for inspection, testing, and research. 

Give the food agency cabinet-level status.  Everyone eats.  Food safety affects everyone.  Food has critically important economic and food security dimensions, domestically and internationally.   

Require election campaigns to be publicly funded, with no loopholes. This is the only way we will be able to remove corruption from our political system and elect officials who care more about public health than corporate health.

Require Wall Street to rate corporations on long-term sustainability.  Wall Street pressures on corporations to report growth every quarter are at the root of corner-cutting on food safety.  Food corporations should be valued for excellent food safety records and for maintaining high ethical standards in every aspect of their business.

Even a magic wand may not be enough to do this.  It will take more than a magic wand to do this, I fear.  Hey, I can dream.

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