by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Food-safety

Aug 25 2021

Another food safety hazard: cake mix

The CDC is investigating an outbreak of illnesses from toxic E. coli most likely caught from commercial cake mix, of all things.

State and local public health officials are interviewing people about the foods they ate in the week before they got sick. Of the eight people interviewed, six (75%) reported tasting or eating raw batter made with a cake mix. People reported buying different varieties and brands of cake mix.

Even so, the cases are related.

DNA fingerprinting is performed on bacteria using a method called whole genome sequencing (WGS). WGS showed that bacteria from sick people’s samples are closely related genetically. This means that people in this outbreak likely got sick from the same food.

FDA is conducting a traceback investigation using purchase records from locations where sick people bought cake mix to try to determine a common cake mix brand or production facility.

I’m guessing that the source of the E. coli is contaminated flour.

This is not the first time that eating raw cake mix has caused illness.

As Food Safety News reports, another cake mix episode occurred in 2018, but that time it was from Salmonella (maybe from eggs?).

It also reports previous incidents with raw flour.

Raw flour and other ingredients can be individually contaminated and then cross-contaminate the entire mix.

Raw flour has caused two outbreaks in recent years, one in 2016 and another in 2019.

About 100 people are known to have been sickened with E. coli from eating raw flour.

I’ve posted previously about safety problems with General Mills flour.

And in 2009, there were E. coli problems with raw cookie dough; but then it was hard then to figure out whether the cause was eggs or flour.

Now, the FDA is testing cake mixes to try to identify a common source.

While all this is going on, the CDC advises:

Eating raw cake batter can make you sick. Raw cake batter can contain harmful germs like E. coli. Germs are killed only when raw batter is baked or cooked. Follow safe food handling practices when you are baking and cooking with cake mixes, flour, and other raw ingredients:

Good advice, and easier to follow with cake mixes than with cookie dough, alas.

Aug 10 2021

Good COVID news: it’s not transmitted by food or packaging

I am indebted to Food Safety News for this item: FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN) has issued a statement:  COVID-19 is not a food safety issue (see my previous posts on this).

  • Food does not spread the virus.
  • Food packaging does not spread the virus.

Highlights of the FAO’s conclusions:

  • Coronaviruses cannot multiply in food or on inanimate surfaces; they can only multiply in humans and certain animals. Once in the environment, viruses degrade and becomes less infectious.
  • It is important to note that, although the detection of virus or viral ribonucleic acid (RNA) remnants on foods and food packaging provides evidence of previous contamination and is not disputed, there is no confirmation of SARS-CoV-2, or any other respiratory illness-causing virus, being transmitted by food or food packaging and causing illnesses in people who touch the contaminated food products or packaging.
  • The virus responsible for COVID-19 is susceptible to most commonly used disinfectants and sanitizing agents used in the food processing environment. Standard cleaning and sanitizing procedures…should therefore be effective at disinfecting the food processing environment.

Well, at least that, and what a relief.

That still leaves us with these preventive measures: vaccinate, mask up, and avoid unmasked crowds.

May 26 2021

How much does foodborne illness cost?

The USDA has compiled a long list of documents related to the cost of the leading 15 foodborne microbial illnesses that affect Americans.   It also has produced a summary of this information.

Fifteen pathogens account for over 95 percent of the illnesses and deaths from foodborne illnesses in the U.S. (those for which the CDC can identify a cause).

The CDC estimates that these 15 pathogens cause about 8.9 million cases of illness, 54,000 hospitalizations, and 1,480 deaths each year.

In 2018, these cost about $17.6 billion in health care, hospitalization, lost wages, and other economic burdens, an increase of $2 billion over estimates in 2013.

Five pathogens are responsible for most of these costs.

Economists have an odd way of estimating these costs.  They factor in an economic value for preventing each death from foodborne illness.  In 2013, they estimated the value of each death prevented as $8.7 million; this estimate increased to $9.7 million each in 2018.

The bottom line: we need to do a much better job of preventing foodborne illness for reasons of cost as well as human suffering.

Apr 28 2021

FDA issues warnings to leafy green growers and their cattle raising neighbors

Leafy greens contaminated with toxic E. coli make eaters very sick (this is an understatement).

Toxic E. coli are excreted by cattle raised in the vicinity of lettuce and spinach fields.

But leafy green safety is overseen by FDA whereas everything having to do with food animals is overseen by USDA.

This is why the latest moves by FDA about leafy green safety are so noteworthy.

  • The FDA is warning leafy green growers that they must take better precautions to prevent E. coli contamination.
  • It also is warning cattle growers that they must prevent wastes from contaminating leafy green fields.

The Big Question: Will—can—the FDA force cattle ranchers and leafy green growers to adhere to food safety precautionary measures?

Let’s hope.

Here are the relevant documents:

FDA statement on release of a report on a 2020 outbreak

The findings of foodborne illness outbreak investigations since 2013 suggest that a likely contributing factor for contamination of leafy greens has been the proximity of cattle. Cattle have been repeatedly demonstrated to be a persistent source of pathogenic E. coli, including E. coli O157:H7.

Considering this, we recommend that all growers be aware of and consider adjacent land use practices, especially as it relates to the presence of livestock, and the interface between farmland, rangeland and other agricultural areas, and conduct appropriate risk assessments and implement risk mitigation strategies, where appropriate.

Report on the 2020 outbreak investigation

The analysis has confirmed a positive match to the outbreak strain in a sample of cattle feces, which was collected during follow-up investigations on a roadside, uphill from where leafy greens or other food identified in the traceback investigation were grown. While the finding does not provide definitive information on how E. coli may have contaminated product during the growing and harvesting season, it does confirm the presence of a strain of E. coli O157:H7 that causes recurring outbreaks in a more narrowly defined growing region and a potential, continued source of contamination.

Leafy Green STEC Action Plan

As outbreaks have continued to occur, despite significant efforts in recent years, greater emphasis will be needed around such complex issues as adjacent land use, agricultural water, and understanding likely routes by which human pathogens may contaminate leafy greens.

Former FDA food safety official Michael Taylor’s comment on these documents

FDA declared the recurring strain implicated in the 2020 outbreak to be a “reasonably foreseeable hazard,” which FDA attributed to the presence of cattle on land adjacent to growing fields.  This finding seems obvious and shouldn’t be surprising. The surprise, however, is that FDA used regulatory language to express its finding and spelled out the implications: farms covered by the FSMA produce safety rule “are required to implement science and risk-based preventive measures” to minimize the risk of serious illness or death from the E. coli hazard…I do not anticipate FDA taking judicial action to enforce its April 6 finding, absent egregious practices or clear negligence in a particular leafy green growing situation. I do see, however, a heightened sense of urgency at FDA and frustration that efforts to date have not solved the leafy greens safety problem. I share that frustration.    

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler’s comment

The FDA took specific aim at California growers as the cause of repeated and ongoing outbreaks, putting the responsibility of combating the outbreaks squarely on the growers.

FDA’s investigations into foodborne illness outbreaks are available from its outbreak page.  These are the ones from 2020.

 

Apr 16 2021

Weekend reading: Safety First for Restaurants

The Aspen Institute’s Food & Society initiative, in collaboration with several other groups, has jointly issued a guide for restaurants on how to protect staff and customers from Covid-19.

The new guide includes:

  • The Diner Code of Conduct, which lays out expectations for dining indoors.
  • The COVID-19 Pledge, which explains the expectations of restaurant operators and workers to create a safe indoor dining environment.
  • Ventilation Guidelines, which give restaurants practical, affordable, and accessible help with ventilation systems and best practices.

You can get the whole thing here.

As Corby Kummer, Food & Society’s director, explains,

We’ve fine-tuned Safety First to meet the on-the-ground needs of restaurants as they reopen as quickly, economically, and safely as possible—translating the science of health officials and engineering associations into the day-to-day realities of businesses small and large. That’s what restaurants told us they needed, and health departments told us too.

The guide puts everything in one place: how Covid-19 is transmitted; how to prevent it,; what diners, waiters, cooks, and everyone else in a restaurant should do there and at home; how to deal with restrooms; and how to deal with any number of possible scenarios.

It’s short, easy to read, and amazingly comprehensive and useful.

We all want restaurants to re-open safely.  Here’s how, with thanks to Aspen and its heavy-duty collaborators:

  • World Central Kitchen
  • The National Restaurant Association
  • The James Beard Foundation
  • The Independent Restaurant Coalition
Apr 13 2021

The latest pet food recalls: a food safety system issue

A decade ago, I wrote or co-authored two books about pet food (Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mineand Feed Your Pet Right).  Why?  Pet foods are part of the US food system, not only because they are a good use of the waste products of human food production, but also because if there are problems with pet foods you can bet that similar problems will occur in production of foods for humans.

The FDA has a web page where it tracks recalls and market withdrawals of pet foods.  To search for pet food recalls, you need to filter for Animal and Veterinary.  This shows that there have been five product recalls in March 2021 alone, four of them because of possible Salmonella contamination.

The largest is of products from Midwestern Pet Foods.  This recall is especially noteworthy for the length of the list of recalled products.

These involve multiple products in each of several brands:

  • Earthborn Holistic
  • Meridian
  • Pro Pac
  • Sportmix
  • Unrefined
  • Venture
  • Wholesomes

Midwestern Pet Foods issued a press release explaining what happened and what needs to happen.

The recall was as the result of a routine sampling program by the company which revealed that the finished products may
contain the bacteria.
Retailers and distributors should immediately pull recalled lots from their inventory and shelves. Do not sell or donate the
recalled products. Retailers are encouraged to contact consumers that have purchased the recalled products if the means
to do so exists.
Do not feed the recalled products to pets or any other animals. Destroy the food in a way that children, pets and wildlife
cannot access them. Wash and sanitize pet food bowls, cups and storage containers. Always ensure you wash and
sanitize your hands after handling recalled food or any utensils that come in contact with recalled food.

On its website, Midwestern Pet Foods says:

At Midwestern Pet Foods, we’ve been feeding pets for generations. We’re a family-owned business now in our fourth generation. Over the years, we’ve learned a lot about family, pet companions and making high-quality pet food & treats. We still have those same Midwestern values that Grandpa Nunn had back in 1926!

If Salmonella is in or on pet foods, there has been a breakdown in food safety procedures.  Salmonella does not usually make pets sick, but it does sicken their owners.  This particular recall demonstrates the same problem I wrote about in Pet Food Politics: one manufacturer makes lots and lots of different products.  Recall information does not always get to individual pet foods stores.  It’s best to keep up with what the FDA is posting.

Caveat emptor.

 

Feb 11 2021

The cost of foodborne illness

The USDA publishes estimates of how much foodborne illness costs Americans.  It does this for 15 pathogens, one at a time:

The Cost Estimates of Foodborne Illnesses data product provides detailed data about the costs of major foodborne illnesses in the United States, updating and extending previous ERS research. This data set includes the following:

  • Detailed identification of specific disease outcomes for foodborne infections caused by 15 major pathogens in the United States
  • Associated outpatient and inpatient expenditures on medical care
  • Associated lost wages
  • Estimates of individuals’ willingness to pay to reduce mortality resulting from these foodborne illnesses acquired in the United States.

If you click on the links below, you get an Excel spreadsheet.

I clicked on Salmonella (non-typhoidal); the estimate for its costs in 2018 is basically $4 billion ($4, 142,179.161).

It would be really nice if USDA’s Economic Research Service would add these all up for us, but it’s short staffed (remember the forced move of the agency to Kansas City that I complained about so much last year.

But foodborne illness costs a lot, in health care costs, lost work and productivity, and all the other bad things that happen when people get sick.

It’s best to do everything possible to prevent foodborne illness before it occurs.

Last Updated
Current Pathogen Files
Cost of foodborne illness estimates for Campylobacter (all species) 1/29/2021
Cost of foodborne illness estimates for Clostridium perfringens 1/29/2021
Cost of foodborne illness estimates for Cryptosporidium parvum 1/29/2021
Cost of foodborne illness estimates for Cyclospora cayetanensis 1/29/2021
Cost of foodborne illness estimates for Escherichia coli O157 1/29/2021
Cost of foodborne illness estimates for non-O157 Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli 1/29/2021
Cost of foodborne illness estimates for Listeria monocytogenes 1/29/2021
Cost of foodborne illness estimates for Norovirus 1/29/2021
Cost of foodborne illness estimates for Salmonella (non-typhoidal) 1/29/2021
Cost of foodborne illness estimates for Shigella (all species) 1/29/2021
Cost of foodborne illness estimates for Toxoplasma gondii 1/29/2021
Cost of foodborne illness estimates for Vibrio parahaemolyticus 1/29/2021
Cost of foodborne illness estimates for Vibrio vulnificus 1/29/2021
Cost of foodborne illness estimates for Vibrio (all other non-cholera species) 1/29/2021
Cost of foodborne illness estimates for Yersinia enterocolitica 1/29/2021
Jan 27 2021

More good news: USDA reverses increase in poultry line speeds

President Biden has blocked the Trump Administration’s allowance of increased speeds on poultry processing lines.

I first heard about this from an announcement from Food and Water Watch.

As described by The Counter, the Trump rule allowed facilities “to slaughter chickens at a rate of 175 birds per minute—equivalent to 3 birds a second—up from the industry standard of 140 birds per minute.”  

As the Washington Post describes, poultry processing plants with higher line speeds are more dangerous for workers.

The history of the rule changes over the past few years is given on the USDA website.

But line speeds are only one of the problems with poultry safety.  Salmonella is another.  The history of attempts to reduce Salmonella in poultry is summarized by Michael Taylor, former USDA official, at FoodSafetyNews.com: “Our poultry safety regulation isn’t working: It’s past time to fix it.”

This is why food safety groups have filed a petition

urging FSIS [USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service] to modernize its food safety standards by establishing enforceable standards targeting Salmonella types of greatest public health concern while reducing all Salmonella and Campylobacter in poultry. We also ask that FSIS ensure the safety of the food supply chain from farm to fork by requiring slaughter establishments to adopt and implement effective supply chain programs, and by publishing finalized versions of its “DRAFT FSIS Compliance Guidance for Controlling Salmonella and Campylobacter in Raw Poultry.”

Biden’s first 100 days seems like a terrific opportunity to make poultry production safer for workers and for people who eat the poultry produced in these plants.