by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Food-safety

Nov 24 2010

Facts and rumors: the current status of S. 510

Following the ongoing saga of S. 510, the Food Safety Modernization Act, is like taking a graduate course in political science.   And sociology graduate students everywhere should be writing dissertations on how a bill designed to help protect the public from food hazards like Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7  became a flashpoint for debates about the role of government in personal choice.

Let’s start with the rumors.   I’m hearing from sources inside the Beltway that the Senate and House have agreed to pass S. 510 in part because they can use it to get something else they want: repeal of an annoying provision in the health care reform act passed last spring that requires 1099 tax reports for business purchases.

The Senate is said to be dealing with S. 510 late in the afternoon or early evening of Monday, November 29.  It is supposed to work like this:

  • There will be a cloture motion, which will pass with 60 votes.
  • The Senate will agree that all amendments to S. 510 will require 67 votes.
  • Senator Coburn will offer amendments, but they will not get 67 votes.
  • The Senate will add language repealing the 1099 tax provision.
  • The Senate will pass the bill (this needs 51 votes)
  • The House will agree to accept the Senate bill as written with no changes.
  • The bill will get sent to President Obama to sign before Congress adjourns.
  • The President will sign the bill.

Maybe, but this does not sound like a done deal to me.  For one thing, opposition to S. 510 seems to be getting noisier.  Remember the adage “politics makes strange bedfellows?”  Take a look at the groups who now oppose the bill, united in their opposition to giving the FDA or government any additional authority:

  • The health food industry
  • The dietary supplement industry
  • The meat industry: American Meat Institute, Cattlemen’s Association, etc.
  • The Tea Party
  • The raw milk community and its legal arm, the Farmer to Consumer Legal Defense Fund
  • Some, but by no means all, small farmers and advocates for them

Missing from this list is Big Agriculture, an absence explained by the fact that the bill does not apply to feed commodities or to seeds.

As for the Tester amendment exempting small farms from certain provisions of the bill: It is opposed by 20 organizations of vegetable growers, and is also is likely to be opposed by companies like Monsanto which do not want the FDA making safety decisions based on size or anything else except risk.

Caroline Scott-Thomas writes in FoodNavigator-USA that all food producers, large and small, should be producing food safely, not least because bacteria do not care how big a farm might be: 

Think about it: If a large-scale cheese maker refused to recall potentially tainted products for financial reasons, as the Estrella Family Creamery is doing, would it inspire dewy-eyed sympathy? I doubt it.

I agree, and also with the comments of Bob Whitaker, the Produce Marketing Association’s Chief Science Officer, who points out that plenty of growers are already using preventive controls like the ones requires by S.510:

There are a lot of very small growers who are already doing this.  I think there is plenty of evidence where growers have already made this a priority and they have been able to do so in a pretty innovative manner. There is a cost to this…But it doesn’t have to be overwhelmingly expensive. A lot of this is common sense.  People need to dive in and understand that this is food and you have to take responsibility for the safety of our food, to the extent that you can… Consumers have to be confident that our products are safe.

I’ve seen this too.  Lots of small food producers do everything they can to reduce microbial risks.  They don’t need a government agency to tell them what to do.

Others, however, won’t take safety steps unless forced to.  That’s why we need this bill to pass.

In the meantime, the debate continues. USA Today, long concerned about food safety, favors the bill. Senator Coburn, however, does not.

Happy Thanksgiving holiday, everyone.

And special thanks to Carol Tucker Foreman of Consumer Federation of America for cluing me in on the latest developments.

Addition: Safe Tables Our Priority (STOP), a food safety advocacy group formed originally by parents of children harmed by eating fast-food hamburgers, strongly favors S. 51o.  Under its auspices, 80 victims of foodborne illness have written a letter to the Senate in the hope that this will help solidify support for passing this bill.

Many of us have traveled to Washington D.C. numerous times to meet with lawmakers, sharing our personal stories as to why stronger food safety laws are necessary; others of us have written opinion pieces, letters, and blog entries urging action on this important legislation. S. 510 would be the first major overhaul of the FDA’s food-safety authorities in decades. It is time to pass this legislation.

Nov 20 2010

Another reason to pass S. 510

Today’s New York Times has a story about the travails of the Estrella Family Creamery, makers of artisanal cheeses found repeatedly by the FDA to be contaminated with Listeria.

The FDA asked for a recall.  Estrella refused.

Whether Estrella should be considered heroic for fighting Big Government, as the article suggests, or instead is allowing dangerous products to go into the marketplace depends on point of view.

Mine is that every producer—large and small—who makes food should be producing it safely under a HACCP plan or its equivalent.  If the product carries special risks, as cheeses sometimes do, the producer ought to be testing to make sure it is safe.

I have visited plenty of artisanal makers of raw and Pasteurized cheeses who produce them safely.  These makers worry constantly about how to make sure that their cheeses are—and stay—safe.

If you have a strong immune system and are not pregnant, Listeria is unlikely to make you sick.  If not, however, watch out: Listeria can be fatal, especially to unborn infants.

In a column I wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle last March, I responded to a question about Listeria from a reader who lost a baby after eating a Listeria-contaminated Pasteurized cheese (the contamination must have occurred later). See correction below.

Listeria has the terrifying property of flourishing at refrigerator temperatures.  In this particular case, neither Pasteurization nor refrigeration were enough to save her baby.

As I said in my column:

Without federal requirements, you are on your own to keep yourself and your unborn infant safe from food pathogens, especially Listeria…. Listeria preferentially affects pregnant women. If you are pregnant and want to stay pregnant, you must avoid Listeria.  This will not be easy.  Listeria is widely dispersed in foods. Infections from it may be rare, but they are deadly. Listeria kills a shocking 25 percent of those it infects and is particularly lethal to fetuses….With so much at stake, and so many other food choices available, why take chances?

That is why allowing Listeria-contaminated cheeses into the food supply is not a good idea.  It is also why the FDA is so concerned that Listeria-contaminated foods do not get into the food supply.

This cheesemaker’s refusal to recall Listeria-contaminated products is another reason why so many of us who care deeply about food safety want the Senate to get busy and pass S.510.

Correction: the writer of that letter has written to explain that the source of her Listeria infection was never determined.  She had eaten a Pasteurized Stilton cheese, a goat cheese, and a rare steak among other suspected foods but none was proven to be the source.  For the record, the CDC says to prevent Listeria, pregnant women should avoid eating:

  • Hot dogs, luncheon meats, or deli meats (unless reheated to steaming hot).
  • Soft cheeses such as feta, Brie, Camembert, blue-veined cheeses, and Mexican-style cheeses such as “queso blanco fresco.”
  • Refrigerated pâté or meat spreads.
  • Refrigerated smoked seafood unless cooked to steaming hot.  This includes salmon, trout, whitefish, cod, tuna, and mackerel which are most often labeled as “nova-style,” “lox,” “kippered,” “smoked,” or “jerky.”
  • Raw (unpasteurized) milk or foods that contain unpasteurized milk.
Nov 19 2010

Senate stalls action on S. 510

The Senate debated S. 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, yesterday.  I was not able to watch the debate  and was disappointed to find not one word about it in today’s New York Times. I guess it doesn’t count as news when Senators stall legislation that would give the FDA the authority it needs to ensure safe food.

Fortunately, Helena Bottemiller of FoodSafetyNews is on the job. She reports:

  • The Senate is unlikely to do anything with the bill until after Thanksgiving recess, November 29th at the earliest.
  • Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) is trying to block the bill by forcing a vote on an amendment to ban all earmark spending through 2013.
  • Although the bill ostensibly has wide bipartisan support in the Senate and the House, big agricultural groups are unhappy about the recent Tester amendment mandating exemptions for small farms. Twenty produce groups signed a letter to Senate leadership arguing against the exemptions.
  • The Senate may resume debate on the bill today.
  • All bets are off on what will happen next.

The House passed its version of the bill in July 2009.  The increasingly dysfunctional Senate has been sitting on it ever since.

Why?  The reason seems ludicrous but it’s what everyone is telling me: the Republicans do not want the Democratic administration to get credit for passing the food safety bill.

Senators: Grow up!  Lives are at stake here.

Citizens: Act up!  Tell your senators to get this bill passed.

Today’s additions: Here’s Bill Marler’s update on the competing amendments.  Apparently Coburn thinks we don’t need a food safety bill because Marler’s lawsuits will keep industry in linePhil Brasher explains all the steps that will need to be taken for this bill to get passed by the Senate and become law.

Nov 5 2010

Obama’s food tasters in India: Uh oh

I am indebted to FoodSafetyNews for a curious item about President Obama’s food tasting problem in India.  I can understand why the White House would be concerned.  It is easy for Americans unused to the local bacteria to get food poisoning while traveling anywhere, and such things happen in India (I have some personal experience with this problem, alas).

The Indian government has recruited twelve somewhat reluctant doctors at a hospital in Mumbai to join the tasting staff that usually travels with the President.  [Aside: I wonder how one gets a job like this.  It could be a lot of fun].  The Indian doctors’ view, however:

This job is often annoying because we are not professionals and are used as guinea pigs. However, it is exciting to work for Obama,” one anonymous doctor told the Mirror. “We have already started doing our homework on what he will be eating. We will be meeting the hotel chefs tomorrow.”

“We taste samples and also store some for the cops,” explained one doctor on the assignment. “If anything goes wrong, we can use these samples for investigation.”

These physicians live in India and must have built up some immunity to the local flora.

And I can’t figure out how the tasting would work.  It often takes some hours after eating before the effects of food poisoning to show up.  Just because a food is safe early in the day does not necessarily mean it would still be safe after sitting around for some hours.

I’m guessing the President has to follow the same food safety rules as the rest of us when traveling in tropical countries with questionable water supplies:

  • Do not drink tap water and do not use it to brush your teeth.
  • Do not drink bottled water if the seal on the bottle has been broken.
  • Do not use ice unless you’re sure it’s made from purified water.
  • Do not drink milk or eat dairy products that have not been pasteurized (heated to a temperature that kills all germs).
  • Do not eat raw fruits or vegetables unless they can be peeled and you are the one who peels them.
  • Do not eat cut-up fruit salad.
  • Do not eat lettuce or other leafy raw vegetables (such as spinach).
  • Do not eat raw or rare (slightly cooked) meat or fish.
  • Do not eat food from people who sell it on the street.

I hope he enjoys his trip.  The food is likely to be supremely delicious—as soon as it cools down enough to enjoy.

Sep 18 2010

Restaurant safety grades: creativity in action

I haven’t said anything to date about New York City’s new safety grades for restaurants.  Their purpose is to encourage restaurants to do a better job on safety procedures so customers don’t get sick.

As the Health Department explains, the grades are awarded on a point system.  Points go to violations of food safety regulations.  The fewest points get an A.  Those with the most get a C.  The B grade is someplace in between.

Wall Street Journal blogger Aaron Rutkoff discovered a restaurant with an exceptionally creative method for dealing with its embarrassing B grade.

Enjoy the weekend and watch out for those grades!

Sep 2 2010

Fish fight: FDA to hear comments on GM salmon

The FDA has scheduled meetings September 19-21 to hear advice about whether the agency should approve GM (genetically modified) salmon.

These, you may recall are Atlantic salmon bioengineered by AquaBounty Technologies.   Atlantic salmon only grow for a few months per year; they do not produce growth hormone in non-growth months.  AquaBounty scientists combined growth hormone genes from an unrelated Pacific salmon with DNA from the anti-freeze genes of an eelpout fish.

The result is that the GM salmon produce growth hormone throughout the year and grow at twice the rate of non-GM salmon.

In preparation for these hearings, a coalition of 31 advocacy groups issued a statement urging the FDA not to approve the fish.

Each year millions of farmed salmon escape from open-water net pens, outcompeting wild populations for resources and straining ecosystems…We believe any approval of GE salmon would represent a serious threat to the survival of native salmon populations, many of which have already suffered severe declines related to salmon farms and other man-made impacts….FDA’s decision to go ahead with this approval process is misguided and dangerous, and is made worse by its complete lack of data to review…FDA has been sitting on this application for 10 years and yet it has chosen not to disclose any data about its decision until just a few days before the public meeting.

According to press accounts, salmon are only the first in a long line of potential GM fish and animals.  AquaBounty also raises GM trout and tilapia.  Other companies are working on GM pigs and cows.

AquaBounty lost no time in responding to the Coalition’s objections:

This press release is inaccurate, deliberately misleading, and intended to create fear and misunderstanding. AquAdvantage salmon are, quite literally, the most studied fish in the world. In addition, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has spent the last fifteen years creating a robust regulatory process to ensure these fish and other transgenic animal applications are appropriately evaluated and regulated.

Comment: In the early 1990s, I was one of four consumer representatives on the FDA’s 30-member Food Advisory Committee.  This was the time when the FDA was considering approval of the first GM crops.   All four of us voted to delay the decision until more information became available or to make sure that GM foods were labeled as such.  Obviously, the FDA did not listen to our excellent advice.

Indeed, when our term on the committee was up, the head of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition explained to us that our committee had not really been advisory.  The FDA had already decided the issues that it brought to the committee for discussion.  All the agency wanted from the committee was some indication of the kind of public reaction its decisions might raise.

Is this still the case with FDA advisory hearings?  I really don’t know, but I hope the FDA will listen carefully to concerns about these fish.

Aug 31 2010

The FDA’s egg inspection reports. Yuck.

The FDA has just posted the “483” reports from inspectors who examined the Iowa egg factories responsible for the recent Salmonella outbreak and recalls.  These, as the New York Times puts it, go into “nose-pinching detail.”

I happen to have a strong stomach for these kinds of things, perhaps because I have had children. Birds, like babies, produce waste. Babies create some smelly sanitation issues.  But tens of thousands of birds in one place create waste on an entirely different scale—for the birds themselves, for the workers who handle them, and for people who eat their eggs.

The FDA reports make interesting reading. The inspection violations at the Hillandale facility ranged from the seemingly trivial (unsigned forms) to the disturbing (rodent holes) to the alarming (leaky manure) to the utterly damning (egg wash water testing positive for Salmonella enteriditis).

The comments on the Wright Egg facility sometimes approach the poetic (these are direct quotes):

  • Approximately 2×6 inch wood board was observed on the ground with approximately 8 frogs living underneath.
  • Layer 3 -House 8 had a bird’s nest and birds were observed under the edges of metal siding on the south wall.
  • The outside access door to the manure pits at these locations had been pushed out by the weight of the manure, leaving open access to wildlife or domesticated animals.
  • Dark liquid which appeared to be manure was observed seeping through the concrete foundation to the outside of the laying houses.
  • Uncaged birds (chickens having escaped) were observed in the egg laying operation…The uncaged birds were using the manure, which was approximately 8 feet high, to access the egg laying area.
  • There were between 2 to 5 live mice observed inside the egg laying houses.
  • Live and dead flies too numerous to count were observed…inside the egg laying houses.
  • Birds were observed roosting and flying, chicks heard chirping in the storage and milling facility. In addition, nesting material was observed in the feed mill closed mixing system, ingredient storage and truck filling areas.

Take home lesson: If you just have a few chickens, waste is not a problem. If you have millions of chickens in one place, you have a disaster in waiting.

Let’s put concentration in the egg industry in some historical context. My partner, Dr. Malden Nesheim, trained originally as a poultry scientist. He points out that according to the USDA about 450 egg facilities in the United States house more than 100,000 egg laying hens, and these account for nearly 80% of all egg production.

Just for fun, he looked up the figures in his 1966 textbook, Poultry Production (10th edition).  A table in the first chapter lists more than 100,000 poultry farms in 1959.

The change may be more efficient, but it is certainly not healthier for anyone concerned.

Clarification, September 1: In 1959, there were more than 100,000 farms for which poultry products constituted the main source of income—50% or more. In 2007, 146,000 farms reported to USDA that they had laying hens. But 125,000 of these farms had less than 50 hens. Only 3,360 farms accounted for 97% of the total laying hens. For the vast majority of farms reporting laying hens, eggs do not account for much of the income. The same is true for broilers. The data illustrate the massive concentration in the poultry industry that has occurred in the last half century.

Aug 29 2010

Further thoughts about the egg recalls

Yesterday’s print edition of the New York Times carried a front-page story on the egg recalls: “U.S. ties farm to Salmonella; town is tense.”  The reporter, Monica Davey, wrote from Clarion, Iowa, the town where the tainted eggs came from.

Her story reminded me of Eric Schlosser’s movie, Fast Food Nation.  The film was intended as fiction, but much of what we are hearing about these egg operations makes it seem like fact.

Here’s what struck me most about her article.

  • So far, nearly 1,500 illnesses have been linked to these eggs, a record.
  • The FDA found matching strains of Salmonella in samples taken from bone meal and barns owned by the DeCoster family.
  • The DeCosters produce 2.3 million dozen eggs per week from their Iowa operations.
  • Iowa is expected to produce 15 billion eggs from 60 million hens this year.
  • The DeCosters have a long history of violations of health and safety laws at their operations.
  • The DeCosters contribute generously to the Clarion community.
  • The plant workers are Mexican.

It’s hard to know where to begin, but the take home lessons seem obvious:

  • Industrial egg operations have gotten out of hand in size, waste, and lack of safety.
  • Immigration issues are very much involved.  If places like this are going to hire immigrants to work in them, we need to protect the rights of those workers.
  • The Senate needs to pass the food safety bill and enable the FDA to do more inspecting.  The accompanying New York Times editorial emphasizes that point.

Today’s New York Times editorial says it all again:

It wasn’t simply that the operation is out of scale with the Iowa landscape. It is out of scale with any landscape, except perhaps the industrial districts of Los Angeles County. What shocked me most was the thought that this is where the logic of industrial farming gets us. Instead of people on the land, committed to the welfare of the agricultural enterprise and the resources that make it possible, there was this horror — a place where millions of chickens are crowded in tiny cages and hundreds of laborers work in dire conditions.

I’m hoping some good will come of all this.  Maybe this is our version of The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s 1906 muckraking book that got Congress to act immediately to pass the Food and Drug Act that governs our food safety system to this day.   The Senate has been sitting on S.510 for more than a year.   For shame!

Addition, August 30: Michele’s Simon’s list of favorite articles on the egg recalls.

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