by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Salmonella

May 16 2016

Bill Marler on what is and is not working in the food safety system

The latest Salmonella outbreak comes courtesy of Pacific Coast Fruit Company, which produces Taylor Farms Organic Power Greens Kale Medley.


Alas, Salmonella do not care whether or not vegetables are USDA Certified Organic—even kale.

Coral Beach discusses the details of the investigation into this outbreak at Food Safety News this morning.

And food safety lawyer Bill Marler has some pointed questions about this outbreak.

  •  Why no announcement of the Salmonella Enteritidis outbreak?
  •  Why no recall of the product?
  •  Given that the product was distributed nationwide, are we seeing a spike in Salmonella Enteritis cases in states other than Minnesota?
  • Why was the announcement removed from Pacific Coast Fruit Website?

He also has plenty to say about what another recent outbreak (this one due to frozen vegetables contaminated with Listeria) tells us about what is and what is not working in our current food safety system.

His essay makes the point that foodborne illness outbreaks due to contaminated meat are becoming increasingly rare.  Most current outbreaks are due to contaminated vegetables.

How come?  For meat, the system is working.

  • Regulation: prevention controls on meat and poultry went into effect in the mid-1990s.
  • The CDC’s ability to track outbreaks is good and getting better, thanks to genetic fingerprinting.
  • Government agencies are doing more testing.
  • The US Attorney’s office has shown interest in “finding companies and their CEOs criminally responsible for manufacturing tainted foods.  Lawsuits and jail time have a unique ability to make companies pay attention.”
  • Recalls are “both disruptive and expensive.”
  • Publicity about recalls discourages the public from buying similar products.

In sum, “recall costs, slumping sales, along with civil and criminal liability, are powerful market incentives.   The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) should help once companies start following its regulations.

He ought to know.  When Congress was foot-dragging on passing FSMA, Marler sent every member of Congress a tee shirt with this image:

He better be careful.  If he’s right about market forces cleaning up food safety problems, he may get his wish.

But we still have a long way to go on vegetable safety, apparently.

Dec 28 2015

Chipotle’s food safety problems: an update

I’m fascinated by reports of Chipotle’s ongoing problems with foodborne illness.

  • The main interest of the press in these episodes is their effect on Chipotle’s stock prices.
  • The outbreaks have been linked to a bunch of different pathogens: E. coli O157:H7, E. coli STEC O26, Salmonella, norovirus, and, possibly, hepatitis A.  This means they are due to different causes at different outlets.
  • The food, foods, or individuals responsible for these outbreaks are uncertain, making them hard to know how to prevent.
  • Hence: conspiracy theories.

The outbreaks

The most recent CDC report (December 21) counts 53 cases of E. coli 026 from 9 states, with 20 hospitalizations.

12-18-2015: Epi Cruve: Persons infected with the outbreak strain of E. coli O26, by date of illness onset

The FDA reports (December 22) that there are 5 more recent cases of illness caused by a different type of E. coli 026 among people eating at Chipotle.

Food Safety News summarizes the previous Chipotle outbreaks.

  • Seattle: July 2015, 5 people sick from E. coli O157:H7, from unknown food source.
  • Simi Valley, CA: August 2015, more than 230 sick from norovirus (most likely from an ill worker).
  • Minnesota: August and September 2015, 64 people sick from Salmonella Newport (tomatoes?).
  • Boston: December 2015, at least 136 people sick from norovirus.

The consequences

  • Nearly 500 people have become ill after eating in a Chipotle since July this year.
  • Stock prices are down 30 percent from a high of $757.77 in August.

The conspiracy theory

The title says it all: “ANALYSIS: Chipotle is a victim of corporate sabotage… biotech industry food terrorists are planting e.coli in retaliation for restaurant’s anti-GMO menu.”

I don’t think so.

You don’t need conspiracy theories to explain poorly designed and executed food safety procedures.

What is to be done?

The New York Times attributes the inability to identify the food source to Chipotle’s record-keeping:

One of the challenges here has been that we have been able to identify the restaurants where people ate, but because of the way Chipotle does its record-keeping, we have been unable to figure out what food is in common across all those restaurants,” said Dr. Ian Williams, chief of the outbreak response and prevention branch of the C.D.C.

That, at least, should be an easy fix.

For the rest, Chipotle has initiated a new food safety program, and has recruited a leading food safety expert, Mansour Samadpour, to set it up.  I met Samadpour at Earthbound Farms when he was helping that company prevent further problems after the spinach outbreak of 2006.  He knows what he his doing.

Chipotle needs to follow his advice—in letter and in spirit.

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler advises Chipotle to follow a 12-step program to create an effective culture of food safety from top down and bottom up within the company.  For example, he advises the company’s CEO, Steve Ells to say:

  • It is time to have a culture of food safety added to the “integrity” of the food. I have now learned that bacteria and viruses do not care a whit if my food’s ingredients are organic, sustainable, non-GMO and humanely raised.
  • I am going to hire a vice-president of Food Safety. That person will report directly to me and to the Board of Directors. Like Dave Theno being brought in to address the Jack-in-the-Box crisis of 1993, this person will have the resources and access to decision makers to create a culture of food safety from the top down.
  • The company’s new mantra – “Safe Food with Integrity” – will be completely transparent and shared with all – including our competitors.

Will Ells take his advice?  I hope so.

May 22 2014

A roundup on pet food items

I haven’t said anything about pet food in a while, but plenty is happening with it since my pet food books came out—Pet Food Politics (2008) and Feed Your Pet Right (2010).

A few items I’ve collected over the past month or so.

  • FDA regulations: The FDA finally issued its proposed rule for processing standards for all facilities engaged in manufacturing, processing, packing or holding animal feed and pet food.  These include  Good Manufacturing Processes (GMPs) and risk-based preventive controls (formerly known as HACCP), among other provisions.
  • Safety tips: Food Safety News lists ten ways to make pet food safer—pay attention and follow food safety procedures diligently, for one thing.
  • Double standard: Bill Marler complains that the FDA is constantly announcing recalls of Salmonella-contaminated pet foods, even though few of them result in cases of Salmonella in pets or humans, whereas foods for humans take forever to get recalled even when they cause illness.
  • Pet food recalls: The FDA certainly lists plenty of pet food recalls, and even has a web page for them.
  • FDA oversight: The FDA is on the job and testing.  Bravo issued recalls because of potential Listeria contamination.  It did so because the FDA says an independent lab detected the bacteria in a sample.
  • Marketing wars: Pet Food Industry, the excellent publication for manufacturers, has a juicy story about the marketing claims war between Nestlé (no relation) Purina PetCare and Blue Buffalo.  Each has sued the other.  Blue Buffalo has already been called on its advertising claims, perhaps in response to a complaint from  Hill’s Pet Nutrition.
  • The ongoing mystery: Pet jerky treats, mostly imported from China, linked to at least 3 human illnesses and more than 1,000 dog deaths and 4,800 dog illnesses, mostly from gastrointestinal problems, liver and kidney disease, and neurological and skin conditions.  The FDA says it still can’t figure out the cause, despite 7 years of trying. symptoms in their pets,” said FDA.

If we can’t get pet food right, there’s not much hope for human food either.

Mar 28 2014

Salmonella is NOT an inherent part of chicken, proves Denmark

Yesterday, Food Safety News republished the last of a four-part series in the Portland Oregonian about how Denmark was able to get rid of Salmonella in chickens, but we can’t. 

This one explains why.

[USDA] announced a plan last year to stem Salmonella. Its goal is to reduce illnesses by 25 percent by 2020. The plan, which is still being rolled out, includes a controversial overhaul of inspections, enhanced testing and a first-ever limit on allowed Salmonella in cut-up chicken.

Denmark opted for a more comprehensive approach, attacking Salmonella in flocks, poultry barns, animal feed and slaughterhouses.

Why can’t we do that too?

  • The U.S. chicken industry is too big.
  • Reforms would cost too much.
  • Chicken prices would rise.
  • Chicken would cost more than beef.
  • Nobody–industry, regulators or retailers—wants to bother.
  • The U.S. food safety system is too fractured; no federal agency has the authority to mandate such reforms.
  • USDA food safety authority only starts at the slaughterhouse, not the farm.

An impressive number of excuses, no?

Better make sure you handle chicken as if it were radioactive and cook it thoroughly.

This series is well worth a read if you want to understand what’s wrong with our food safety system.


Nov 4 2013

Feds must take stronger action against salmonella

My monthly (first Sunday) column in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Q: When I read that people are getting sick from salmonella in Foster Farms chicken, I don’t know what to do. Are we supposed to stop eating chicken?

A: I share your frustration.

Last month, the Department of Agriculture warned that chicken produced by Foster Farms plants in California was linked to illnesses caused by a strain of salmonella Heidelberg which is resistant to multiple antibiotics.

Although these antibiotics are not the ones usually used to treat salmonella, antibiotic resistance in general makes bacteria more virulent.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now reports 362 people ill with this strain, three-quarters from California, with a shockingly high – 38 percent – rate of hospitalization.

And because most food-borne illness is never reported, some estimates suggest that there could be 9,000 cases of chicken-induced illness in California alone.

The USDA’s response? It did not require Foster Farms to recall the chicken; it just told the company to clean up its act.

According to the USDA, it’s your responsibility to make sure you don’t get sick. You should be following basic household food safety rules, cooking chicken to 165 degrees, and using a food thermometer to make sure.

Fine, but shouldn’t chicken be safe before it gets to you? You should not have to run your kitchen like a maximum-security biological laboratory.

Besides, cooking chicken to 165 degrees may not be enough. Costco, to its credit, recalled rotisserie – cooked – chickens from its store in South San Francisco when people reported getting sick after eating them. Nobody knows whether the cooking temperature wasn’t high enough or the chickens got cross-contaminated later.

Salmonella, alas, is hardly a new problem. In 1971, public health advocates petitioned the USDA to put salmonella warning labels on chicken. But the USDA said no. Salmonella, it said, is an inherent contaminant of raw meat, not an adulterant. The USDA had no need to act. You just needed to learn how to cook chicken properly.

In the 1990s, the USDA finally issued better rules for poultry safety. Despite them, the CDC reports a steady rise in salmonella outbreaks and illnesses.

The industry responds that the salmonella issue is a complex one because the bacteria are inherent in bird species.

Sorry, but salmonella illnesses are preventable.

If people are getting sick from eating contaminated chicken, the companies are not following safety rules, and the USDA is not enforcing them.

This is about politics, not public health.

For decades, advocates have complained about the USDA’s conflicting missions to promote agricultural production and protect consumer health. We have called on Congress to unite federal food safety oversight within one independent agency. Failing that, we insist that the USDA enforce its own rules.

The USDA’s recent decision to allow American poultry meat to be shipped to China for processing is hardly reassuring. The mind boggles to think that chickens raised and slaughtered in America would go to China to be turned into chicken nuggets and then come back here to be sold.

Also for decades, safety advocates have called for an end to the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in meat and poultry production. Antibiotics not only induce resistance, they induce virulence. Fortunately, the Foster Farms bacteria are still susceptible to the kinds of antibiotics most effective against salmonella, but victims of the next outbreak may not be so lucky.

Why do Congress, federal agencies and the White House permit meat and poultry producers to continue reckless use of antibiotics? Chalk this up to industry lobbying and campaign contributions.

If you can afford it, buy chicken that has not been factory farmed. Even so, you must cook the meat to a temperature that will kill bacteria, avoid cross-contamination, and sterilize everything the chicken comes near.

But the salmonella problem goes way beyond your own kitchen.

We all need to press for a food safety system that holds public health as its first priority. This means empowering the USDA to enforce its own rules, uniting the functions of USDA and the Food and Drug Administration, and using antibiotics in meat and poultry production only for therapeutic purposes.

Marion Nestle is the author of “Eat, Drink, Vote,” “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics,” “Food Politics” and “What to Eat,” among other books. She is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University, and blogs at E-mail:

Feb 21 2013

Grand jury indicts Peanut Corporation of America officials

The wheels of justice really do grind slow, but they sometimes do grind.  A federal grand jury has indicted four officials of the Peanut Butter Corporation of America for “conspiracy, wire fraud, obstruction of justice and others offenses related to contaminated or misbranded food.”

Translation: Salmonella that sickened more than 500 people and killed at least 8.

The documents in the case have just been unsealed:

I’ve been following this particular food safety tragedy for several years now.  The offenses were so egregious—officials blatantly ignored positive tests for Salmonella, for example—that some kind of punishment seemed warranted.

According to the account in USA Today:

The indictment alleges that PCA officials affirmatively lied to their customers about the presence of salmonella in PCA’s products,” said Stuart Delery, principal deputy assistant attorney general.

Delery also said some officials at PCA, no longer in business, fabricated lab results certifying to customers that the products were salmonella free “even when tests showed the presence of salmonella or when no tests had been done at all.”

As lawyer Bill Marler writes,

These indictments will have a far reaching impact on the food industry.  Corporate executives and directors of food safety will need to think hard about the safety of their product when it enters the stream of commerce.  Felony counts like this one are rare, but misdemeanor charges that can include fines AND jail time can and should happen.

Is this a sign that courts might be taking food safety problems more seriously?  If so, it’s about time.

Addition, February 22:  Food Safety News has a handy timeline of the Peanut Corporation events.

Jan 24 2012

Should CDC reveal the source of outbreaks? I vote yes.

Food Safety News is always an invaluable source of information about the science and politics of food safety, but today’s items are more than enough reason to subscribe immediately.

Start with Dan Flynn’s astonishing account of his repeated attempts to discover the name of the restaurant chain responsible for Salmonella outbreaks in Southern states last winter.

After calling health officials in several states where cases occurred, he says:

The surprise is not so much that public health officials do not want to name the restaurant chain involved, but that no one wants to talk about the outbreak at all…As we search for more information about this outbreak, we will do our best to follow the CDC’s own advice and provide timely and accurate information for the public.

The CDC’s report on this outbreak—and on similar ones that occurred previously—simply identify the source as “Mexican-style fast food Restaurant Chain A.”

Don’t we have the right to know the source of the outbreak so we can choose not to go there?

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler illustrates the importance of this question with an analogy:

I wonder if public health officials would have identified the actual restaurant (McDonalds) in the 1982 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak if the 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli O157:H7 outbreak would have happened?

So what’s going on here with CDC?   Again, Food Safety News comes through with an insightful explanation by Ray Costa, who works with companies on food safety issues:

When public health officials make mistakes in foodborne outbreaks, the industry suffers and the political fallout is extreme…We should not forget that local officials are closely tied to their communities in many ways.

Local health departments rely on revenue generated from the local food service industry. After many years, bonds form between local public health agencies and industry, naturally, and out of necessity.

But, he says:

In the end, honesty is the best policy during any outbreak of disease. When the investigator is guided by a careful analysis of data, an honest presentation of the facts and truthful explanation is all we can ask for…The public understands and forgives a mistake when it occurs out an abundance of caution to protect them, but there is no forgiveness for a failure to inform them and they suffer as a result.

The failure of CDC to name names is preventing the redress that victims rightfully have for damages and also reflects the power industry has to keep our investigators silent.

Food Safety News has promised to stay on this.  Its reporters are performing a great public service.

Aug 11 2011

Q. What’s with the turkey recall? A. Same old, same old

I’ve been rounding up information about the Cargill recall of ground turkey contaminated with Salmonella Heidelberg.  William Neuman at the New York Times related the story on August 3. Same old same old.

Cargill is a huge company with, as Bill Marler counts them, a long history of food safety problems.  Did Cargill not bother to test for pathogens?   As I explain in my book Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, no meat company wants to test for pathogens.  If they found pathogens, they would have to recall the products.

And where was the USDA in all of this?  Best not to ask.

The USDA was testing.  The testing found Salmonella.  The USDA did nothing.

According to the Wall Street Journal,

Federal officials said they turned up a dangerous form of salmonella at a Cargill Inc. turkey plant last year, and then four times this year at stores selling the Cargill turkey, but didn’t move for a recall until an outbreak killed one person and sickened 77 others.

How come?

Food-safety specialists said the delay reflected a gap in federal rules that don’t treat salmonella as a poisonous contaminant, even if inspectors find antibiotic-resistant forms such as the Heidelberg strain implicated in the latest outbreak.

But CDC investigations show that turkey-related illnesses have been reported for months.  Despite the reports, the USDA took its own sweet time insisting on a recall.

The rationale for the delay is—get this—the USDA believes it does not have the authority to order recalls for any contaminant except E. coli O157:H7.  It has no authority to recall meat contaminated with Salmonella or other toxic forms of E. coli.

Or at least that’s how USDA interprets the legal situation (for the history of all this, see Bill Marler’s summary.

One reason for the USDA’s foot-dragging must surely be pressure from the meat industry which wants as little testing as possible and preferably none.  The meat industry would rather leave it up to you to cook your food safely.

According to a report by Elizabeth Weise in USA Today,

The reasons these bugs aren’t currently regulated are a mix of politics, money and plain biology — the bacteria are constantly evolving and turning up in new and nastier forms, making writing rules about them a bit of a nightmare. For example, the German E. coli variant that sickened more than 4,075 in Europe and killed 50…wasn’t known before this spring.

The meat industry takes advantage of this situation and argues:

“We don’t have a true baseline determining the prevalence of these organisms in the beef supply,” says Betsy Booren of the American Meat Institute (AMI) Foundation, the research arm of AMI. Without knowing how common they are, it’s impossible to say whether they should be considered adulterants, she says.

What they seem to be saying is that meat always has bacteria on it.  And just because these particular bacteria can kill people doesn’t mean the industry is responsible if anyone gets sick.  But shouldn’t the industry be doing a better job?

In Food Safety News, Michele Simon has a terrific analysis of the safety loopholes that allow this absurd situation to continue:

How did the meat industry get so powerful that it can keep USDA from doing its job? Now, instead of preventing illnesses from occurring by requiring testing with teeth, we have USDA regulations that are so lax they allow almost half the samples tested at ground turkey plants to be contaminated with Salmonella — a pretty easy standard to meet. And one that allowed this outbreak to occur.

I keep asking: how much worse does it have to get before Congress does something about ensuring safe food.  Cargill’s inability to protect the public from unsafe meat is reason alone to create a single food safety system that unites the functions of USDA and FDA.

If Congress isn’t ready to take that step, it could at least give USDA the power to act and the FDA the funding it needs to do its job.

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