by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Food-safety

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.

Aug 26 2010

Egg industry response to recalls (in translation)

How is the egg industry handling the recalls?

Yesterday, major newspapers ran a full-page ad from “America’s Egg Farmers” (I saw it in USA Today and in the New York Times). The ad displays an egg and text on a white background, nothing more.

The text is spare and notable more for what it does not say than for what it does. Here it is, with my translations in red italics.

A message from America’s Egg Farmers. We want you to think that we are down home farmers of small flocks of hens in a lovely bucolic settings. We think this sounds better than “A message from egg agribusiness.”

You’ve probably heard about the recent egg recall. We wish you hadn’t.

As egg farmers, we’re concerned, and continue to work closely with the FDA and USDA to help ensure the safest and highest quality eggs possible. We don’t have to take any responsibility for this mess. We will let the FDA and USDA deal it.

The potentially affected eggs, which make up less than 1% of all US eggs, have been removed from store shelves. Whew.  The problem is solved. We don’t need to do another thing except work on public relations.

You may be wondering if eggs are safe to eat. We wish you would just forget about this.

Yes, they are.  Fingers crossed!

Thoroughly cooked eggs are thoroughly safe eggs, according to the Center for Disease control and the FDA. Eggs should be cooked until the whites and yolks are firm. We know we are producing unsafe eggs.  It’s not our fault if you don’t know how to cook them.

To find out more information on this recall and the safe handling of eggs, please visit eggsafety.org. When you do, we will tell you how safe our eggs are and how well we treat our hens, and invite you to watch an FDA video on how to cook eggs properly.

And remember, thoroughly cooked means thoroughly safe. It’s not our fault if you don’t listen.

I think the egg industry has a lot to answer for. It needs to do better than this. OK egg industry, how about placing an ad that says something like this:

  • We are devastated that this happened and our hearts go out to everyone who became ill and to their families.
  • We are taking every step to make sure that this never happens again.
  • We are deeply sorry that our industry did not voluntarily adopt safety procedures years ago, especially when the FDA first proposed egg safety rules in 2004.
  • We take full responsibility as an industry for the failure of one of our members to obey the law.
  • We will do everything possible to make sure that the victims of this incident are fully compensated for their medical costs and losses.
  • We fully support food safety legislation and urge the Senate to pass S.510 immediately. It will give the FDA the tools it needs to do its job and help us produce eggs under the safest possible conditions.
  • We apologize to the American public that our eggs are not safe enough and that we have not worked hard enough to make sure that they are safe.

I can dream, can’t I?

Aug 23 2010

The egg recall saga continues

The massive egg recalls so dominate the news today that it’s hard to talk about anything else.

For one thing, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg took to the tube and appeared on three morning shows:

“We need greater abilities to trace back products to their source,” Hamburg told NBC’s “Today” show this morning. “We need better abilities and authorities to put in place these preventive controls and hold companies accountable.”

She pointed out that it is now one year after the peanut butter recall prompted calls for increased regulation, but the FDA still has limited authority to order recalls, among other things.

What she did not say, is that the Senate continues to tie the FDA’s hands by not passing S. 510.  Fortunately, other commentators (besides me) are making that point loud and clear:

With elections looming, Washington insiders saw little chance that the Senate would complete the bill this fall – until now. The recall of about a half-billion eggs in a salmonella scare may have given new life to the legislation….At the moment—even with salmonella eggs–the FDA can’t force a company to take its products off the market. (If an egg producer violates safety standards, the FDA does have authority to divert shell eggs to a pasteurization process, which egg producers would rather avoid).

In the meantime, the industry-sponsored  Egg Safety Center says:

Consumers are reminded that properly storing, handling and cooking eggs should help prevent food-borne illness. The Egg Safety Center and the Food and Drug Administration recommend that eggs should be fully cooked until both the yolks and the whites are firm, and consumers should not eat foods that may contain raw or undercooked eggs.

Wouldn’t it be nice if this group also said: “Producers are reminded that properly taking care of hens and diligently following food safety plans should help prevent food-borne illness. The Egg Safety Center urges egg producers to immediately implement the FDA’s new regulations for preventing Salmonella that went into effect on July 9.”

And here is USA Today’s take on it (I’m quoted).

Aug 22 2010

Effects of S. 510 on small farms: Senate staff analysis

Thanks to reader Michael Bulger for forwarding the Senate staff analysis of the impact of S. 510 on small farms.   Here’s what it says (slightly edited):

No Change in Agency for Regulated Foods: Only foods already regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will be subject to S. 510. Section 403 maintains the existing firewall between FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture regulated foods and agricultural products.

No Change in Definition of Facility: Under the Bioterrorism Act of 2002, certain food businesses were considered “facilities” and had to register with FDA. Farms and restaurants were exempted. This definition is not changed in S. 510. If an entity does not need to register now, it will not need to register under S. 510.

Flexibility for Small Businesses: Small businesses are given regulatory flexibility throughout S. 510. For example, small processors are given additional time to comply with new food safety practices and guidelines created by the bill and the Secretary may modify or exempt small processors from new hazard analysis and preventive control requirements based on size and risk. The legislation also requires the FDA to publish several user-friendly small entity compliance guides to assist firms with the implementation of new practices.

Scale Appropriate Produce Safety Standards: In coordination with the Secretary of Agriculture, FDA develops science-based standards for the safe production and harvesting of fruits and vegetables. Priority is given to specific fruits and vegetables that have the highest risk of food borne illness outbreaks. Flexibility is given for different growing, production, and harvesting techniques. FDA has the discretion to limit produce safety standards for small and very small entities that produce or harvest food which pose little or no serious risk to human health. Consideration is also given to conservation and environmental standards already established by federal natural resource and wildlife agencies. Exemptions are also available for low risk commodities. FDA must minimize the burden of paperwork and, as appropriate, the number of separate standards for separate foods.

Increased Training Opportunities: The bill requires FDA to coordinate with the extension activities of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in educating growers and small processors about any new practices required by S. 510. Necessary funds are authorized to conduct these extension activities. The bill also provides for the training and education of state, local, and tribal authorities to facilitate the implementation of new standards under the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. Competitive grants are made available, for up to 3 years, to support these efforts to enhance education, training, and technical assistance.

Risk-Based Traceability: The ability to trace back potentially unsafe food in the event of a food-borne illness outbreak is important. For the purpose of traceability, farms and small businesses that are not food facilities are not expected to create new records. During an active investigation of a foodborne illness outbreak, in consultation with state and local officials, the Secretary may ask a farm to identify potential immediate recipients of food if it is necessary to protect public health or mitigate a foodborne illness outbreak. Limitations are also included for restaurants, commingled agricultural commodities, direct to consumer sales, fishing vessels and products carrying an identity preserved label.

Regulatory Flexibility for Organic Foods: Throughout the bill, consideration is given to the unique agricultural practices and requirements of organic foods under the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990.

Protections for Farmers Markets, Cottage Industries and Direct Farm-to-Market Sales: Small entities that produce food for their own consumption or market the majority of their food directly to consumers or restaurants are not subject to registration or new recordkeeping requirements under S. 510. This includes food sold through farmers’ markets, bake sales, public events and organizational fundraisers.

I hope this helps to calm things down a bit.  This bill needs all the support it can get.  It’s not perfect but it is a reasonable first step, and badly needed.

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