by Marion Nestle

Search results: peanut

May 20 2011

FDA’s focus on preventing food safety problems

Michael Taylor, FDA’s associate commissioner for foods, gave a major speech yesterday at the George Washington University School of Public Health.

In it, he talked about the origin and effectiveness of HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) controls for preventing food safety problems.  HACCP, he explained, works just like other aspects of public health practice.  It requires:

• understanding the specific food safety hazards that could affect a particular food production operation,

• devising and implementing scientifically validated controls to minimize the hazards,

• monitoring the implementation of preventive controls to verify effectiveness, and

• making corrections and adjustments as needed, based on experience.

He then went on to say how FDA plans to put the Food Safety Modernization Act into action:

We are well on our way to developing a proposed produce safety rule that addresses areas such as employee hygiene, water quality, soil amendments, and animals in the growing area, as FSMA mandates.

In food facilities, such as processing and packaging plants, we will be proposing rules that are grounded in the widely embraced principles of preventive process control for food safety, similar to HACCP.

The law requires each facility to… (1) evaluate the hazards that could affect food safety, (2) specify what preventive steps, or controls, to put in place to minimize or prevent these hazards, (3) specify how the facility will monitor these controls to ensure they are working, (4) maintain routine records of monitoring, and (5) specify what actions the facility will take to correct problems that arise.

For example, in a facility that produces peanut butter, factors such as  ingredient safety, sanitation, and cross contamination would have to be considered. After the outbreak of Salmonella typhimurium in peanut butter in 2008 and 2009, which caused 714 cases of illness, the company had to reevaluate the hazards in its facilities so this wouldn’t happen again.

Such review and correction – and a sharp focus on specific hazards – will become the norm under a system of preventive controls.

Taylor outlined FDA’s vision for preventive controls from farm to table.  Now, if Congress will just give it the resources to do all this, we might actually have a food safety system that functions.

Mar 10 2011

The industry’s view on food allergies

Food allergies pose labeling and other problems for food manufacturers.  FoodQualityNews.com summarizes recent stories on what’s happening with food allergies, from the perspective of its European food industry clients.

Enzyme treatment may remove peanut allergens, suggests study: An enzymatic treatment process may effectively reduce allergens in roasted peanuts by up to 100 per cent, according to new research.

FoodNavigator conference to address food allergy challenges: Incidence of food allergies and intolerances is on the rise in Europe, and there are big gains to be made by companies who provide products that are safe and enjoyable for sufferers. Some challenges remain, however, such as appropriate labelling, and future threshold levels. 

The balancing act of allergen labelling: The food industry has a responsibility to label allergenic ingredients as big and bold as they can – but also not to over-egg the slimmest of slim possibilities that a trace amount of an allergen may have slipped into a product.
Germany develops rapid detection systems for food allergens

German researchers are aiming to develop rapid detection systems to identify allergenic substances in foodstuffs, according to a workshop on analytical methods for allergen detection staged in Berlin this week. 

UK leads free-from launches in major European markets: Mintel data: People with food allergies and intolerances in the UK have the more new products to meet their dietary needs than consumers in other major European markets, indicates data from Mintel, but there has been a general increase in launches across the EU in the last six years.

Allergy prediction tool could revolutionise allergen labelling: As allergy diagnoses among children continue to rise, a new online calculator is said to provide fast, cheap and highly accurate predictions, with potential implications for better-targeted on-pack allergen labelling.

Allergies, as I have discussed in previous posts, are difficult to diagnose and it’s hard to avoid something you are allergic to if you can’t figure out what it is.  Rates of food allergies seem to be increasing, for reasons not well understood.  The leading hypothesis is cleaner environments, but research can’t confirm that cause.  This is one area where the trite phrase, more research needed, really means something.

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Sep 13 2010

Department of Talmudic investigation: Define candy!

Caroline Scott-Thomas of FoodNavigator.com poses a question to which I must confess I had never given a thought: What, exactly, is candy?

Why would anyone care?  The Streamlined Sales Tax Governing Board cares a lot (and so do candy companies).  The Streamlined Board is devoted to helping states figure out how to impose simpler and more uniform taxes.  It is asking for comments on its current definition, which says that candy is:

A preparation of sugar, honey, or other natural or artificial sweeteners in combination with chocolate, fruits, nuts or other ingredients or flavorings in the form of bars, drops, or pieces. ‘Candy’ shall not include any preparation containing flour and shall require no refrigeration.

The point of this definition is to clearly distinguish candy from cookies.  Cookies contain flour.  Candies, by this definition, do not.

Here is where things get deliciously Talmudic.  The Tax Board wants to modify the definition to explain what it means by “flour”:

For purposes of the definition of candy, “flour” does not include a product that can be called “flour” under the Food and Drug Administration’s food labeling standards if the product is not grain based. If only the word “flour” is listed on the product label, it is assumed that the product contains grain based flour. However, if the word “flour” on the label is preceded by a modifier used to describe the product the “flour” was made from and the modifier is not a type of grain, then the product is not considered to contain “flour” for purposes of the definition of candy. For example, flour substitutes or products that are not made from grain but which are finely milled so that they meet the Food and Drug Administration’s definition of “flour,” such as “peanut flour” or “cocoa flour” are not “flour” for purposes of this definition.

Isn’t this fun?  Scott-Thomas points out that under this flour rule, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Three Musketeers are considered candy and taxable, but Kit Kat and Milky Way, which contain flour, would be cookies and exempt.  Apparently, the Tax Board does not view this distinction as arbitrary.

If you think it is a loophole, and that Kit Kat and Milky Way are getting off tax free, or you have other thoughts about how candy tax policies should or should not work, you are welcome to submit comments by September 27.  The Streamlined Tax Board has posted instructions about how to file comments on its website.

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Sep 3 2010

The Plumpy’nut furor: International food politics in action

The New York Times Magazine has a long article this week about Plumpy’nut,  the peanut butter-based product designed to feed malnourished kids in emergency situations.  The product is made and patented by Nutriset, a French company.

You might think that a food product aimed at saving the lives of starving kids would be uncontroversial, but not when patents are involved.  Nutriset holds intellectual property rights to this product and defends them to the hilt.   The company extends its patent to line extensions of the product, as well.

Patents mean that people in developing countries who want to produce their own product based on local ingredients can’t do it.  It also means that anyone making the product has to follow the formula, even if ingredients are expensive and not locally available.

In September 2007, I wrote about Plumpy’nut, describing how peanut butter had become the basis of a “ready-to-use therapeutic food” (RUTF) for aiding recovery of severely malnourished children in Africa.

The study itself is published in Maternal and Child Nutrition and the authors make the point that people administering this RUTF do not need to be medically trained so this therapy can be used at home. I’m always amazed when researchers discover that feeding malnourished children helps them to recover. Peanut butter is highly concentrated in calories and the investigators mixed in some vitamins along with it, so I guess it can be considered a superfood.

Since then, much has been written about the controversy over this product, particularly about its formula, cost, and sustainability.

Its formula includes:

  • Peanut Butter
  • Dry Skim Milk
  • Vegetable oil
  • Powdered sugar
  • Minerals & vitamins

It contains about 500 calories in a 92-gram foil package.

Of these calories, one-quarter to one-third are from the added sugar.  No wonder kids like it!

What about its cost? A recent article about local production of Plumpy’ nut in Niger illustrates this particular problem.

UNICEF pays US$60 to purchase and ship a box of 150 packets from the main producer and patent holder of Plumpy’nut, Nutriset, in France. It costs $65 in Niger. The difference adds up to an extra $15,000 for the 3,000 boxes purchased in Niamey every week.

“The luxury of having no production delays and not fully depending on an external provider is a price we are willing to pay,” UNICEF’s nutrition manager, Eric-Alain Ategbo, told IRIN. Ategbo said it took at least eight weeks for the nutritious peanut butter-like paste to arrive from France.

Here are some other cost concerns:

Electricity is expensive, taxes are high and money is expensive as interest rates are high. It would be cheaper if the products we use were bought locally, but they are not available.  Peanuts are the only ingredient from Niger. Others, such as milk, sugar and oil, are purchased internationally. We also have the obligation to buy specific products [such as micronutrients and packaging] from Nutriset in order to respect the formula.

As for its sustainability:

  • Who is going to pay for these products?  And for how long?
  • Does it make sense to promote a peanut-based product in countries that do not grow peanuts?
  • Is it a good idea to give packaged, sweetened products to kids whose families cannot continue to provide such things once the crisis is over?
  • Is it a good idea to give kids the idea that sweet things in packages are what they supposed to eat?
  • Will products like this pave the way for other sweetened products in packages—soft drinks, for example?

These are all complicated issues.  Read the article and ponder.

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).

Jun 1 2010

Thinking about food safety

Food safety is in the news again.

Congressman John Dingell (D-Mich) is calling on the Senate to get busy and pass the food safety bill that it has been sitting on for the last ten months: “I urge my Senate colleagues to acknowledge this important threat and make legislation addressing it a priority. Until the Senate acts, American families will continue to be at risk.”

If this bill ever passes it will require food companies to develop food safety plans, authorize the FDA to order recalls, and give the FDA better access to company records.

But will it do any good?

Here is one view from Dennis Stearns, counsel in the Seattle law firm, Marler & Clark, which represents victims of foodborne illnesses.  In a piece in Food Safety News, “What the oil spill can teach us about food safety,” he notes the endlessly repetitive responses–all talk, no action–to food safety and other crises involving corporate irresponsibility.

He quotes USDA Secretary Vilsack saying, “You can’t have two [food safety] systems and be able to reassure people you’ve got the job covered…This [referring to the peanut recalls of last year] is a grand opportunity for us to take a step back and rethink our approach.'”

Stearns’ piece concludes with this comment on Vilsack’s remarks:

Sadly, this was not the first time that someone had pointed out the need for systemic revision to food safety regulation and inspection in the United States. And neither was it the first time that expressions of outrage over people dying from foodborne illness were followed by no real changes at all. And all I can say about that is: I’m shocked! No, really, I’m shocked!

In contrast, Jim Prevor,who writes as the Perishable Pundit, writes in the online New Atlantis: A Journal of Science and Technology that fixing the FDA will do little to address food safety problems.  Instead, he recommends:

  • Fix the liability system so retailers as well as producers are liable and make it legal negligence, not strict liability.
  • Root out bribery and corruption in food safety certification.
  • Invest in state testing laboratories.
  • Invest in food safety research.
  • Revitalize the Agricultural Extension Service.
  • Educate consumers.

I’m not sure about the legal liability issues, but most of the rest are really good ideas and would help a lot.  Of course consumers should follow food safety procedures but how about getting safe food to them in the first place?

None of this will happen without policy changes, which is why the food safety legislation matters so much.  It’s a national scandal that the Senate is still sitting on that bill.

Oct 13 2009

School food makes news, endlessly

I can think of many reasons why school food is such a hot topic these days: kids eat a significant portion of their daily calories in schools, schools set an example for what is appropriate for kids to eat, and schools are a learning environment.  Here’s the latest on what’s happening on the school food scene:

1.  The New York City Education Department announces new rules for school vending machines, as part of its new school wellness policies.  According to the account in the New York Times, the vending machines have been empty since the Snapple contract ended in August (Really?  That’s not what I observed a couple of weeks ago).  The new standards will exclude the worst of the products but the lesser evils will still be competing for students’ food dollars, thereby continuing to undermine the solvency and integrity of the school meal programs.

2. The CDC reports (MMWR, October 5)  that junk food is rampant in schools, but the percentage of schools in which children are not permitted to buy junk food or sodas is increasing in at least 37 states.

3.  The Government Accountability Office (GAO) takes the USDA to task for not alerting schools when foods in the school meals programs – meat or peanut butter, for example – have been recalled because they are contaminated with dangerous bacteria.  Usually, the GAO talks straight to government.  I don’t know what happened in this case but here is its first, rather incoherent, recommendation to USDA regarding the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS):

To better ensure the safety of foods provided to children through the school meal programs, and to make improvements in three areas related to recalls affecting schools: interagency coordination; notification and instructions to states and schools; and monitoring effectiveness, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct FNS and that the Secretary of HHS should direct FDA to jointly establish a time frame for completing a memorandum of understanding on how FNS and FDA will communicate during FDA investigations and recalls that may involve USDA commodities for the school meal programs, which should specifically address how FDA will include FNS in its prerecall deliberations.

The other recommendations make somewhat more sense.  They begin by repeating the first part up through “the Secretary of USDA should direct FNS to”:

  • develop guidelines, in consultations with the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) and the Farm Service Agency (FSA), to be used for determining whether or not to institute an administrative hold on suspect commodities for school meal programs.
  • work with states to explore ways for states to speed notification to schools.
  • improve the timeliness and completeness of direct communication between FNS and schools about holds and recalls, such as through the commodity alert system.
  • take the lead among USDA agencies to establish a time frame in which it will improve the USDA commodity hold and recall procedures to address the role of processors and determine distributors’ involvement with processed products, which may contain recalled ingredients, to facilitate providing more timely and complete information to schools.

This needs an editor, but you get the idea.

4.  The GAO has produced yet another report, this one devoted to getting states to comply with federal rules about meal counting and claims.  These are measures designed to make sure that ineligible kids don’t get fed.  I wish I knew how much money such measures cost.  They are a tragic waste.  We need universal school meals.  Period.

5.  And then there is Jamie Oliver, who has transformed the British school meals system and is now attempting to bring his school food revolution to the United States (see the food issue of the New York Times magazine).  One can only wish him luck.

Aug 14 2009

Labeling GM foods: if the U.K. can do it, we can too!

You will recall that the FDA’s 1994 stance on labeling of genetically modified (GM) foods was that labeling foods as GM or non-GM would be misleading  because the foods are no different.  Despite overwhelming evidence that the public wants to know whether foods are GM or not, GM foods do not have to be labeled.  Worse, those that are labeled non-GM have to include a disclaimer that this makes no difference (I explain how all this happened in Safe Food).

At present, there is no way to know whether GM foods that have been approved by FDA (such as potatoes, tomatoes, squash, papayas) are actually in the produce section of supermarkets.  When I was writing What to Eat, I paid to have some papayas tested.  Most were not GM.  But you have no way of knowing that.

The GM industry (translation: Monsanto) has opposed labeling from the very beginning, no doubt because of fears that people will reject GM foods.  The makers of processed foods object to labeling because practically everything they make contains GM ingredients: about 90% of the soybeans and 50% of the corn grown in America is GM.  Ingredients made from these foods – corn and soy oils, proteins, and sweeteners – are widely used in processed foods.

The Europeans are faced with the same problem but insist on labeling GM.  Guess what?  No problem.  Hershey’s Reese’s NutRageous candy bars in the U.K. disclose the GM ingredients in exactly the way our products disclose allergens: “Contains: Peanuts, Genetically Modified Sugar, Soya and Corn.”

Here’s the label (borrowed from Mike Grenville at flickr.com/photos):

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Hershey is an American company.  If labeling in the U.K. is this simple, we ought to be able to do this here, no?  Here’s a chance for the FDA to fix an old mistake and give consumers a real choice.