by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Food-safety

Jun 19 2024

FDA says (quietly) CAFOs contaminate leafy greens

The FDA has issued its boringly titled Southwest Agricultural Region Environmental Microbiology Study (2019 – 2024).

The report seems designed to be boring.  Its subject, however, is anything but.

Let me do some translating (in Italics).

  • “The study was designed to improve understanding of the environmental factors that may impact the presence of foodborne pathogens in the Southwest agricultural region.”  [Leafy greens contaminated with pathogenic bacteria make lots of people really sick, undoubtedly because they come in contact with CAFOs, confined animal feeding operations].
  • “Samples were collected from irrigation waters, soil, sediments, air/dust, animal fecal material, wildlife scat, and other sources across approximately a 54 mile (7,000 acres) area of the southwest growing region.” [It’s about time the FDA did this].
  • “Special attention was given to the geography of the study region and the types and locations of agricultural and other adjacent and nearby land use activities relative to produce production areas.  For example, there is a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) with more than 80,000 head of cattle and an associated compost operation in proximity to some of the produce production areas studied. [Oh.  What a surprise].

The investigation’s findings

  • “STEC [Shiga toxin-producing E. coli] can survive in the air and that dust can act as a transfer mechanism for both pathogens and indicator organisms (e.g. generic E. coli) from adjacent and nearby land to water, soil, and plant tissue “[toxic bacteria spread from CAFOs by air and dust].
  • “The research team repeatedly observed that generic E. coli concentrations and STEC prevalence and isolation frequency increased as irrigation canal water flowed past an adjacent livestock and compost operation” [toxic bacteria spread from CAFOs by water].
  • “…birds and other wildlife do not appear to be significant sources of STEC or Ecoli O157:H7 ” [blaming wild birds for contaminating leafy greens is not going to work].
  • “STEC strains detected in water, sediment, and plant tissue harvested from our research plots genetically matched strains isolated in air samples providing evidence that bacteria in air can transfer to other locations and surfaces.”  [Toxic bacteria get around easily].

The conclusions

Having proven that CAFOs contaminate air, soil, and water with toxic bacteria, the report concludes:

The preliminary results of this study stress the interconnectedness between people, animals and the environment and serve as an important model for how to foster productive dialogue among diverse stakeholders to improve food safety.


Foster dialogue?  They have to be kidding.  CAFOs need to be held responsible for the waste produced by their animals.  Human wastes are not allowed to be released untreated into the environment; neither should animal wastes.

Here is food safety lawyer Bill Marler’s comment.


May 21 2024

FDA unapproves tara flour as a food ingredient

Last week, the FDA essentially took tara flour out of the food supply.

Today, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) posted on its website its determination that tara flour in human food does not meet the Generally Recognized As Safe (or GRAS) standard and is an unapproved food additive. The FDA’s assessment of the ingredient is detailed in a memo added to the agency’s public inventory.

The FDA explained what this is about.

In 2022, Daily Harvest used tara flour in a leek and lentil crumble product which was associated with roughly 400 adverse event reports. The firm took prompt action to voluntarily recall the product and conduct their own root cause analysis, during which they identified tara flour as a possible contributor to the illnesses. To date, the FDA has found no evidence that tara flour caused the outbreak; however, it did prompt the agency to evaluate the regulatory status of this food ingredient.

Daily Harvest makes frozen vegan meals for home delivery.  One of these meals contained tara flour.  Of 26,000 such meals sent out, 400 caused eaters to become desperately sick, some needing hospitalization, some needing surgery (I’ve met some of them).

In my posts, I speculated about why tara flour could cause such severe reactions.

Bill Marler, the food safety lawyer representing a great many of the victims, pushed the FDA to get tara flour out of the food supply before anyone else got sick.  His December 2023 letter reviews what is known about this situation to date.  The FDA paid attention!

Now, two years later, the FDA is doing what it can to prevent tara flour from getting into the food supply.  Good.

Here’s what I’ve had to say about this:

Here’s what Food Safety News has to say.  It notes more cases than are reported by the FDA, many of them represented by food-safety attorney Bill Marler.

Daily Harvest seems to have survived this tragedy, is still in business, and right on top of currents trends.  Its latest:

Daily Harvest’s January Jumpstart program features GLP-1-focused meal plans:  Daily Harvest’s debut of its GLP-1 Companion Food Collection as part of its quick-to-prep January Jumpstart plan includes “meals made with only real foods that are calorie-conscious while delivering ample vitamins and minerals,” Carolina Schneider, MS, RD, Daily Harvest’s nutrition advisor, told FoodNavigator-USA…. Read more

May 8 2024

Uh oh. Bulk organic walnuts associated with toxic E. coli

I learned about this one from Bill Marler’s blog: This is Nuts – California and Washington E. coli Outbreak linked to Gibson Farms Walnuts 

This refers to the CDC announcement: E. coli outbreak linked to organic walnuts

The CDC issued a warning: CDC warns of E. coli outbreak linked to organic walnuts sold in bulk

The FDA has its own investigation: Outbreak Investigation of E. coli O157:H7: Bulk Organic Walnuts (April 2024): Do not eat, sell, or serve recalled organic walnuts sold in bulk bins at natural food and co-op retailers in multiple states. FDA’s investigation is ongoing.

The CDC points out:

  • Almost all sick people purchased organic walnuts from bulk bins in food co-ops or natural food stores in California and Washington.
  • FDA determined that Gibson Farms, Inc supplied these walnuts and Gibson Farms, Inc has recalled these products.: These walnuts have expiration dates between May 21, 2025, and June 7, 2025.
  • FDA has a list of stores that may have received these walnuts.

Comment:  All toxic E. coli outbreaks are troubling because the illnesses are so serious and all are preventable if producers were doing what they were supposed to be doing.  But walnuts?  My first question is how could walnuts, firmly encased in shells, get contaminated with animal fecal wastes, the usual source of this strain of E. coli.  This reminds me of the Odwalla juice E. coli problems; the company had harvested apples that had fallen on the ground. Did Gibson harvest walnuts off the ground?  Whatever it did, the company should have been following a food safety plan mandated by the Food Safety Modernization Act, which requires prevention controls and testing to make sure things like this donn’t happen.

Are non-organic walnuts harvested any differently from organic walnuts.   Here’s what one producer says.

The nuts are removed from the tree using a mechanical shaker, a machine that grasps the trunk and shakes the whole tree. The nuts drop to the ground, are then swept into windrows and picked up with harvest machinery. This operation is completed quickly to reduce the time nuts remain on the ground.

Uh oh indeed.  I hope this incident causes some changes in this procedure.

In the meantime, Marler has more to do.

May 2 2024

USDA finalizes rule declaring Salmonella an adulterant in ONE chicken product. More to come I hope.

As I’ve said before, USDA is at long last taking a first step toward declaring Salmonella an adulterant on poultry products.

Here’s the headline: USDA Finalizes Policy to Protect Consumers from Salmonella in Raw Breaded Stuffed Chicken Products:  an adulterant in raw breaded stuffed chicken products when they exceed a specific threshold (1 colony forming unit (CFU) per gram or higher) for Salmonella.

And here’s the Advance Copy of Final Rule: Salmonella in Not-Ready-To-Eat Breaded Stuffed Chicken Products.  

What this rule means: raw breaded stuffed chicken shown to have more than one colony forming unit of Salmonella (basically none) cannot be sold.  Period.

I have long argued:

  • Chicken should be free of pathogenic bacteria when we buy it.
  • We should not have to run our kitchens like biohazard laboratories.
  • Poultry producers should be responsible for eliminating pathogens in their flocks.

Finally, the USDA is taking some action on this.  It promises to start rulemaking on other chicken products.  This can’t come too soon.

As for the chicken industry, alas: NCC [National Chicken Council] Expresses Grave Concerns with New FSIS Salmonella Regulation

NCC is gravely concerned that the precedent set by this abrupt shift in longstanding policy has the potential to shutter processing plants, cost jobs, and take safe food and convenient products off shelves, without moving the needle on public health….“NCC estimates that on an annual basis, over 200 million servings of this product will be lost, 500-1000 people will lose their jobs, and the annual cost to industry is significantly higher than USDA’s estimates. It is likely that this proposal would drive smaller producers of this product out of business entirely.

If you want to know why it’s taken the USDA so long to get this done, and only in one product, the NCC is your answer.

Additional resources

Feb 16 2024

Weekend reading: food animal markets and disease transmission

I thought this 2023 report was well worth a look.


Microbial diseases of animals can be transmitted to humans, and vice versa (witness COVID-19 in mink and zoo animals).  Some of these have led to serious epidemics.  Lots of people are worried that Confined Animal Feeding Operations could easily become the source of new and deadly forms of influenza.

But what interested me in this report is that industrial farm animal production is one of a great many sources of potential infectious disease transmission.

A few of the many examples, some well known to have caused Salmonella infections:

  • Pets
  • Hunted animals
  • Production of bat guano and coyote urine (who knew?)
  • Backyard chickens
  • Crocodile farming
  • Petting zoos
  • Research animals

The report is cautious on the topic of the origin of COVID-19:

At the time of this writing, scientists continue to debate the precise origins of the virus but there is no question as to the impact it has had. Indeed, few aspects of daily life in the United States remain untouched.

The implication is clear.  We need much better monitoring of animal markets for pathogens.

The United States has no comprehensive strategy in place to address the threat of zoonotic disease. There are serious regulatory deficiencies across almost every animal industry. Large information gaps exist, and disease can seep between these cracks.

Lots to learn here and think about here.

Feb 7 2024

An endless saga, alas: contamination of leafy greens

Last summer, food safety lawyer Bill Marler wrote a blog post:

28 years of Leafy Green E. coli Outbreaks – We can and should do better!  E. coli outbreaks associated with lettuce, specifically the “pre-washed” and “ready-to-eat” varieties, are by no means a new phenomenon. In fact, the frequency with which this country’s fresh produce consuming public has been hit by outbreaks of pathogenic bacteria is astonishing. Here are just a sample of E. coli outbreaks based on information gathered by the Center for… Continue Reading

It includes a long list of illness outbreaks (more than one case attributed to a particular source) from 1995 through 2022 caused by contaminated salad greens.

I did not add them up but the FDA reports a total of 78 foodborne disease outbreaks linked to leafy greens (mainly lettuce) from 2014–2021 reported to the CDC.  During this period, the CDC issued outbreak notices for several of the outbreaks.

Their cause: leakage of animal waste from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) onto vegetable fields.  This happens often enough to be worth advising against eating bagged salads from California or Arizona.

Bill Marler doesn’t eat bagged salads at all (see the 6 foods he won’t eat):

Prewashed or precut fruits and vegetables. “I avoid these like the plague,” Marler says. Why? The more a food is handled and processed, the more likely it is to become tainted. “We’ve gotten so used to the convenience of mass-produced food—bagged salad and boxed salads and precut this and precut that,” Marler says. “Convenience is great but sometimes I think it isn’t worth the risk.” He buys unwashed, uncut produce in small amounts and eats it within three to four days to reduce the risk for listeria, a deadly bug that grows at refrigerator temps.

Buy greens from farmers’ markets or grow your own.  If that seems impossible, buy them whole and grown in places unlikely to be neear CAFOs.  And wash them well in running water.

Dec 6 2023

Yet another Salmonella outbreak from cantaloupe

I’m having a hard time with this one.

Once again, the FDA is warning all of us : “Do not eat, sell, or serve recalled cantaloupes or recalled products containing pre-cut cantaloupe.”

The warning lists the products implicated and all the ones that have been recalled.

The CDC says much the same:

CDC is concerned about this outbreak because the illnesses are severe and people in long-term care facilities and childcare centers have gotten sick. Do not eat pre-cut cantaloupes if you don’t know whether Malichita or Rudy brand cantaloupes were used.

As of November 30, the toll is:

Total Illnesses: 117
Hospitalizations: 61
Deaths: 2

But that’s only in the U.S.  Canada reports illnesses too: 63 sick, 17 hospitalized and 1 death.

This, mind you, is from eating cantaloupe.

It’s not that nobody knew cantaloupe poses special safety problems.  It’s grown on the ground and is hard to wash.  If it is grown anywhere near animal wastes, it has a high risk of getting Salmonella on its rind.  Cutting through the rind can move harmful bacteria on the rind into the interior.

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler, who tracks such things, reminds us of previous lawsuits over cantaloupe food poisonings.

He also has some useful things to say about Salmonella during a Cantaloupe Outbreak – Symptoms and Treatment

Cantaloupes, he points out, might still be in season, but Salmonella should not be.

He quotes Perdue (sic Purdue) Extension on how to make cantaloupe safer: scrub and wash in very hot water.

But Marler has been quoted as saying he does not eat cut fruit (implying you should not either).

What’s infuriating about all this is that Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act to give the FDA the power to require safety plans from producers of every food under its jurisdiction.  This means cantaloupe growers are supposed to take steps—and test—to make sure the fruit is not contaminated with pathogenic bacteria.

Clearly, the system isn’t working.

The FDA needs to find out why not.

The FDA is chronically and infamously underfunded for what it is supposed to do.

Congress needs to pay attention to this issue.

Nobody should get this sick from eating cut fruit.

And if you haven’t seen the film featuring Marler (I’m in it too, briefly), take a look at Poisoned on Netflix.  It talks about cantaloupe, among other things worth knowing.

Nov 28 2023

The hazards of feeding babies and young children: What to do?

I’ve been collecting items on feeding kids.  Here are four.

I.  FDA Warning Letters: The FDA has sent warning letters to ByHeart, Mead Johnson Nutrition (Reckitt), & Perrigo Wisconsin for violating basic food safety standards in manufacture of infant formula.

They [letters] reflect findings from FDA inspections of these facilities over the last several months. At the time of each inspection, the FDA issued inspectional observations and exercised oversight of each firm as they initiated recalls (in December 2022February 2023 and March 2023) to remove product potentially contaminated with Cronobacter sakazakii from the marketplace…The FDA is issuing these letters now as part of its normal regulatory process and to reinforce to these firms the importance of instituting and maintaining appropriate corrective actions when they detect pathogens to ensure compliance with the FDA’s laws and regulations. As part of this, the firms must, among other things, thoroughly conduct root cause investigations and perform subsequent cleaning and sanitation activities. Notably, firms also need to properly evaluate their cleaning and sanitation practices, schedules, and procedures before releasing product. 

Comment: What shocks me is the implication that the companies are not already doing this as part of their normal routines.

II.  Baby food pouches with lead sicken children.   

At least 18 more children have been sickened by the recently recalled applesauce fruit pouches due to dangerous lead contamination, the Food and Drug Administration said, in a recent update.  That brings the total number of affected children to 52. Applesauce pouches recall timeline:From recalls to poisoned kids in multiple states

Comment: Yes, I know self-feeding pouches are convenient, but I sure don’t like them much.  They are usually loaded with sugar and they don’t teach kids about diverse food flavors and textures.  Quality control, apparently, is a big issue.  My vote: avoid.

III. Environmental Working Group study finds 40% of commercial baby foods to contain toxic pesticides.

  • EWG sampled 73 products from three popular brands: 58 non-organic, or conventional, baby foods and 15 organic.
  • At least one pesticide was detected in 22 of the conventional baby foods.
  • No pesticides were detected in any of the 15 organic products.

Comment: Pesticides may be in all foods but they get concentrated in baby foods.  The moral here is clear; if you want baby foods free of harmful pesticides, buy organic.  For more on this, see article in The Guardian.

IV. The marketing of ultra-processed foods especially targets infants and young children.   A study done in the UK provides ample documentation of anything you would want to know about this practice.

Comment: Food companies say they have to market to young children in order to meet sales growth targets.  Ethics is not a consideration here.

Given that situation, what to do?

Understand: commercial infant and baby foods are convenient, but enormously profitable to manufacturers.  Profits induce corporations to cut safety and health cautions.  This tension should make you think twice about using commercial infant and child feeding products.

To the extent you can:

  • Breast feed when possible, for as long as possible
  • If you use infant formula, switch around the brands (they are all the same, nutritionally); buy organic if you can afford it.
  • Make your own baby foods (put whatever healthy foods you are eating or have around in a tiny blender).; buy organic foods if you can afford them.
  • Feed kids real foods as soon as they can grab, chew, and swallow them without choking.

If you eat a generally healthy diet, get your kids eating it as soon as they can.