by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Food-safety

Dec 3 2019

The latest Romaine lettuce outbreak: Just say no.

The CDC continues to track the latest outbreak of illnesses caused by eating Romaine lettuce contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.

The outbreak at a glance:

The FDA’s advice:

Consumers should not eat romaine lettuce harvested from Salinas, California. Additionally, consumers should not eat products identified in the recall announced by the USDA on November 21, 2019.

A former FDA official, Stephen Ostroff, says:

With five multistate outbreaks in less than two years, it’s clear there’s a serious continuing problem with E. coli O157:H7 and romaine lettuce. The natural reservoir for this pathogen is ruminant animals, especially cattle. Moreover, one particular strain of E. coli seems to have found a home in the growing regions of central coastal California, returning each fall near the end of the growing season.

It’s not clear where this strain is hiding. Cattle? Water sources? Elsewhere? What is clear is that additional steps must be taken to make romaine safer.

The New Food Economy emphasizes some particularly distressing aspects of this particular outbreak.

  • It is caused by the same strain of E. coli O157:H7 that caused outbreaks linked to leafy greens in 2017 and to Romaine lettuce in 2018.
  • This strain of E. coli seems particularly virulent: 39 of the 67 cases had to be hospitalized.
  • The source has not yet been traced.

Consumer Report’s advice: ”

People should avoid all romaine lettuce and that any currently in refrigerators should immediately be thrown out because of the risk of E. coli contamination…CR’s experts think it is prudent and less confusing for consumers to avoid romaine altogether, especially because romaine is also sold unpackaged and in restaurants, and customers can’t always be sure of the origin that lettuce.  “Much of the romaine lettuce on the market at this time of year is from Salinas,” says James E. Rogers, Ph.D., director of food safety research and testing at Consumer Reports.

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler says enough is enough; It’s time to put warning labels on Romaine lettuce.

Marler’s advice: when in doubt, throw it out.

My comment:  Contamination of vegetables with toxic E. coli means that the vegetables somehow came in contact with waste from farm animals or wild animals or birds.  The most likely suspect is Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) or large dairies because they produce so much animal waste.  If one animal is infected under crowded CAFO conditions, other animals also will be infected (but cows don’t show symptoms).

Preventing lettuce contamination means that CAFOs must manage their waste so that it is not infectious (USDA and EPA regulated) and vegetable farms must keep infected water from contaminating their crops (FDA regulated).  All of this means following food safety procedures to the letter, but also in spirit.

Constant Romaine outbreaks are further evidence for the need for consistency in USDA and FDA food safety policies, and a reminder that calls for a single, united food safety agency have been coming for more than 40 years.  Surely, it’s time.

Nov 19 2019

Food crime? New term, old problem

Food crime is a new term in my lexicon.  I’m used to hearing it called food fraud or intentional adulteration.

As I learned from reading an article in Food Safety News, the Food Standards Agency in Great Britain established a National Food Crime Unit in the wake of the 2013 horsemeat scandal.

Examples of food crime include the use of stolen food in the supply chain, unlawful slaughter, diversion of unsafe food, adulteration, substitution or misrepresentation of food, and document fraud…Members of the public and those working in the food and drink sector can speak up about food crime through Food Crime Confidential.

The agency says it focuses on seven types of food crime:

  • theft – dishonestly obtaining food, drink or feed products to profit from their use or sale
  • illegal processing – slaughtering or preparing meat and related products in unapproved premises or using unauthorised techniques
  • waste diversion – illegally diverting food, drink or feed meant for disposal, back into the supply chain
  • adulteration – including a foreign substance which is not on the product’s label to lower costs or fake a higher quality
  • substitution – replacing a food or ingredient with another substance that is similar but inferior
  • misrepresentation – marketing or labelling a product to wrongly portray its quality, safety, origin or freshness
  • document fraud – making, using or possessing false documents with the intent to sell or market a fraudulent or substandard product

The unit is not particularly forthcoming about its findings.  According to FoodManufacture.com, it took a freedom-of-information request to discover that the unit received 1193 reports of food crime in 2018, and 364 in the first three months of 2019.

The FOI request was filed by the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply, which reports these figures but does not seem to have a formal report online.

Bottom line: Food crime is the highest it has been in the UK since 2013.

Sep 10 2019

Death by backyard chicken?

The CDC reports that more than 1000 people have been infected with a toxic form of Salmonella, almost certainly from contact with backyard poultry.

Among these cases of illness, 23% are among children under the age of 5 years.

The link to backyard poultry comes from epidemiologic and laboratory evidence.

The CDC warns owners of backyard poultry to take steps to avoid acquiring Salmonella from their poultry

This problem has become so serious that the CDC has a webpage devoted to the safety of backyard poultry.

Best to follow its advice.

Aug 7 2019

Want Salmonella in your pet food?  Buy Answers brands.

Since writing two books about pet food in 2008 (Pet Food Politics) and 2010 (Feed Your Pet Right), I haven’t said much about this topic but am inspired to comment by this article in Food Safety News.

If you are a pet food maker, and the FDA finds Salmonella in your products and insists you recall them, what should you do?

A.  Recall the products immediately

B.  Apologize to your customers and promise this will never happen again

C.  Hire a food safety expert to review and revise your food safety procedures

D.  Train all employees to follow food safety procedures diligently

E.  Sue the FDA to allow you to continue selling Salmonella-contaminated pet food

The correct answer?  E, apparently.

Incredible as it may seem, Lystin LLC, the parent of Answers Pet Foods which sells raw meat and poultry, is suing the FDA on Constitutional grounds to allow it to sell foods contaminated with Salmonella. Why?

According to this company, people should be able to feed their pets whatever they like, especially because its brands already carry this warning:

WARNING: NOT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION. THIS PRODUCT HAS NOT BEEN PASTEURIZED AND MAY CONTAIN HARMFUL BACTERIA.

You want to continue buying this pet food?  OK.  You were warned.

Personally, I’d find another brand more committed to the safety of dogs and their owners.

I can’t wait to see who wins this one.

May 14 2019

Meat safety is better, but needs to be even better

I’m always interested to see what food safety lawyer Bill Marler has to say about the latest lapses.  He often represents the innocent-but-unlucky victims of food poisonings.  All they were doing was getting something to eat or feed their kids.  They had no idea the food was contaminated with a deadly form of E. coli or Salmonella.

In a recent post, Marler reflected on the enormous progress made by meat producers in reducing pathogens in their products.  Marler explains:

From the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak of 1993 until the 2002 ConAgra E. coli outbreak, at least 95% of Marler Clark revenue was E. coli cases linked to hamburger.  Today, it is nearly zero.  That is success.  To the beef industry – thank you for meeting the challenge…for now, hats off to you.

But, he points out, the meat industry must continue to act with vigilance, as demonstrated by the CDC’s recent safety warning about ground beef contaminated with toxic E. coli O103.

The CDC lists the statistics of this recent outbreak to date.

The recalls of ground beef have started.

  • Grant Park Packing in Franklin Park, Ill., recalled approximately 53,200 pounds of raw ground beef products on April 24, 2019.
  • K2D Foods, doing business as Colorado Premium Foods, in Carrollton, Ga., recalledapproximately 113,424 pounds of raw ground beef products on April 23, 2019.

Others may follow.

Meat producers: eternal vigilance, please.  Lives are at stake.

As for food safety in general: The CDC says foodborne illness cases are increasing.

During 2018, FoodNet identified

  • 25,606 infections
  • 5,893 hospitalizations
  • 120 deaths

Note: these are fully preventable.

And food producers must make sure that they are fully prevented.

May 10 2019

Weekend reading: a new book on food safety—Outbreak!

Timothy D.  Lytton.  Outbreak: Foodborne Illness and the Evolving Food Safety System.  University of Chicago Press, 2019.

Outbreak

I did a blurb for this one:

In Outbreak, Lytton gives us a legal scholar’s superb analysis of how government, lawyers, and civil society are struggling to prevent the tragic and unnecessary illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths caused by microbial food contaminants.   Foodborne illness may seem like an intractable problem, but Lytton’s suggestions for dealing with it are well worth attention, as is everything else in this beautifully written, thoughtful, and readable account.  I couldn’t put it down.

Food safety attorney Bill Marler reviewed it for Food Safety News.

Lytton said his goal was to help readers understand the science, practicality, liability, enforcement and self-monitoring measures necessary to achieve higher levels of food safety. Meeting that goal includes helping readers understand the following:

  • Why government spends so much more money justifying food safety regulations than evaluating whether they actually work.
  • The need for greater experimentation in food safety regulation.
  • Improving private third-party food safety auditing through greater liability exposure for negligent auditing.
  • The potential for liability and recall insurance to improve food safety.
  • The history of third-party food safety auditing (which goes back much earlier than AIB in the 1920s).
  • The litigation dynamics of food safety lawsuits.

 

Mar 27 2019

GAO’s 40-year plea for better oversight of food safety

Food safety seems very much on the agenda this week.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has released its latest biennial High Risk list of programs “vulnerable to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement, or that need transformation.”

Of interest is this listing: Improving Federal Oversight of Food Safety. The report finds not much change from goals set two years ago; the goal for an action plan is still not met:

Without a government-wide performance plan for food safety, Congress, program managers, and other decision makers are hampered in their ability to identify agencies and programs addressing similar missions and to set priorities, allocate resources, and restructure federal efforts, as needed, to achieve long-term goals. Moreover, without a centralized collaborative mechanism—like the FSWG [Food Safety Working Group]—to address food safety, there is no forum for agencies to reach agreement on a set of broad-based food safety goals and objectives that could be articulated in a government-wide performance plan on food safety.

The GAO explains why inadequate federal oversight of food safety poses a high risk.  Safety issues, it says,

are governed by a highly complex system stemming from at least 30 federal laws that are collectively administered by 15 federal agencies. For more than four decades, we have reported on the fragmented federal food safety oversight system, which has caused inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient use of resources. We added federal oversight of food safety to the High-Risk List in 2007. In recent years, moreover, we have made recommendations aimed at helping to reduce fragmentation in federal food safety oversight. As of November 2018, two of three recommendations related to this high-risk area had not been implemented.

In 2017, I wrote about how the GAO has been calling for decades—more than 40 years—for better coordination of food-safety oversight, and my post lists a selection of GAO reports dating back to 1970.

The GAO is still at it.

We should not give up either.

Mar 20 2019

Another Romaine lettuce outbreak takes its toll

I occasionally write about disease outbreaks caused by food and am especially interested in those caused by romaine lettuce, because it’s so hard to trace back where it came from and how it got contaminated.

This post is about two outbreaks of toxic E. coli O157:H7 from Romaine lettuce.

Outbreak #1: This one pretty much ended in November 2018.  My post on it is here.  The CDC’s page on it  is here.

It was especially serious:

  • 210 reported illnesses from 36 states
  • 96 hospitalizations
  • 27 cases of hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS)
  • 5 deaths

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler posted a slide show analyzing this outbreak on his website: “Thanks to FOIA, the CDC and FDA, the 2018 E. coli Romaine Outbreak becoming more Transparent.”  At least that.

Outbreak #2.  In February, the FDA published its “Investigation Summary: Factors Potentially Contributing to the Contamination of Romaine Lettuce Implicated in the Fall 2018 Multi-State Outbreak of E. coli O157:H7.”

The FDA’s web page on this outbreak is here, and the CDC’s is here.

Bill Marler, whose firm represents victims of these outbreaks, posted annotated comments on the announcement.  He titled his post: “The FDA to Leafy Green Growers – “Please voluntarily stop poisoning your customers.”

Despite finding that E. coli outbreaks spanning years likely came from the same are or farm and was most likely caused by the same factors enumerated above, the FDA only sets forth “recommendations” that growers of leafy greens assess their growing operations for compliance with applicable requirements of the FSMA Produce Safety Rule and GAPs, including (see my snide comments in bold).

I will just give one example of his comments:

FDA continues to recommend (suggest, plead, beg, whine) that leafy green growers, buyer/shippers, and retailers be able to trace product back to the specific source in real time and make information about the source, such as harvest date and standardized growing regions, readily available for consumers on either packaging, point of sale signs, or by other means.

Voluntary, alas, isn’t good enough.  The FDA needs authority to require, demand, insist on.  Now.

If you want to see what this is about, take a look at the documents:

  • FDA’s final guidance for leafy green growers is here.
  • FDA guidance documents for leafy green growers are posted here. There are lots of them.
  • FDA guidance documents for retailers selling leafy greens are posted here.