by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Meat safety

Sep 12 2018

South Africa’s record-setting (not in a good way) Listeria outbreak: an update

In April, I wrote about the deadly outbreak of Listeria-contaminated processed meat (“polony”) in South Africa.  Back then, the country’s Health Department explained what it was doing to try to stop the outbreak.  It’s now pretty much over, and the Health Department has issued an updated report on it.

  • Cases reported: 1060
  • Deaths: 216

Listeria is deadly.  For this outbreak, the death rate is 27% (216 of 806 cases in which the outcome is known).

As is typical of foodborne disease outbreaks, most cases occurred long before the products were recalled.

 

Of those cases interviewed after the recall

38/65 (58%) of ill people or their proxy reported consuming polony prior to their illness onset; brands manufactured by Enterprise Foods were most commonly reported to have been consumed where brand of polony was known.

The health department is doing a lot to try to understand what happened here.  But it faces challenges:

There are challenges regarding the turn-around time of testing of environmental swabs from facility inspections. Challenges are arising on account of the volume of specimens received during the last three weeks, machine failure and in some cases, challenges regarding test result interpretation. Each challenge is being addressed through appropriate interventions.

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler offers advice to the CEO of Tiger Brands, and to any other CEO of a company selling a product that makes people ill, beginning with an explanation of “why it’s always a bad idea to poison your customers.”

His advice:

  1. Know your regulators.
  2. Stop making the implicated product and recall the ones at risk.
  3. Launch your own investigation.
  4. Be transparent.
  5. Admit fault.
  6. Do not blame your customers.
  7. Reach out to customers who have been harmed.
  8. Teach what you have learned.

Marler has put money behind this advice.  Let’s hope the CEO takes him up on it.

Apr 4 2018

South Africa’s really bad Listeria outbreak: record-setting and not over yet

Outbreaks of foodborne illness occur frequently but some of them grab my attention more than others.

Take, for example, the Listeria outbreak still going on in South Africa, reasonably well understood, and now under litigation.

I’ve been tracking it by reading Food Safety News, following food-safety lawyer Bill Marler’s blog, and now keeping up with the class action suit filed in that country.

As of late March, the outbreak, which started in January 2017, has caused at least 982 cases of illness—and that’s just how many have been reported.

Of these, the final outcome is known for 70% (687 cases).  Among these, the death rate is distressingly typical for Listeria infections—28% (189 deaths).

The South African version of the CDC has produced an epi curve:

Note that products were not recalled until most cases were identified.  This outbreak was hard to solve.

Marler tweeted an Infographic on how the Listeria spread.

The good news: new cases are declining.

But in January this year, long before these figures were reached or the cause identified, the World Health Organization called this the largest Listeria outbreak ever recorded.

Its cause?  “Polony,” a ready-to-eat meat product produced by a company called Tiger’s Enterprise Food.  This company holds about one-third of South Africa’s $412 billion processed meat market.

A large number of meat products have tested positive for Listeria and have been recalledTiger brands says cost of the recalls will be high.

More bad news:

Tiger Brands knew for at least a year that its polony had been contaminated with Listeria, but apparently even when warned in March that

listeria was rampant at its Polokwane factory, the Tiger Brands operation continued to churn out tons of potentially dangerous products, choosing to do only a  “silent recall” of one brand, Mielie Kip,  on February 14. The factory was shut down only last weekend, after the listeria strain was confirmed as being the deadly ST6.

South Africa had developed food-safety standards for the processed meat industry in 2014, but the industry blocked them.

Bill Marler has now teamed up with  Richard Spoor Incorporated Attorneys to file a class action lawsuit against Tiger Brands.

A forensic investigator plans to bring murder charges against the company.

One other interesting aspect is the suspected ingredient in polony:

Remember “pink slime?”  Meet “white slime,” a slurry of chicken part leftovers (bone marrow, bone fragments, cartilege, and even meat) thought to be the cause of the outbreak and imported from Brazil, no less.

Brazil, however, pleads innocent and says its products are not to blame.

Marler has offered some free advice to the CEO of Tiger brands, but it may be too late.

Stay tuned.

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Dec 26 2017

Rattlesnake pills? Really? Contaminated with Salmonella?

I am indebted to food safety lawyer Bill Marler for enlightening me about these pills in the first place, and their contamination with Salmonella.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment have linked one  person’s Salmonella Oranienburg infection to taking rattlesnake pills. Rattlesnake pills are often marketed as remedies for various conditions, such as cancer and HIV infection. These pills contain dehydrated rattlesnake meat ground into a powder and put into pill form. CDC recommends that you talk to your health care provider if you are considering taking rattlesnake pills, especially if you are in a group more likely to get a severe Salmonella infection.

Can’t wait to hear what your health care provider says about these.

 

Apr 5 2017

The Brazil meat scandal: A Global Meal News roundup

Global Meat News is another one of those industry newsletters I follow closely.  It’s been tracking what’s been happening with meat in Brazil.  This is a great place to find out about this quickly.

Mar 30 2017

Global Meat News Special Edition on Food Safety

Special Edition: Food Safety

Food safety is an issue every meat business takes considerable careover as the financial costs of a recall, not to mention the reputational risk, can be devastating. In this special newsletter, GlobalMeatNews takes a look at the latest recalls, changes to food safety regulation and other key developments across the supply chain.

Sep 30 2016

Weekend reading: “Chickenizing”

Ellen K. Silbergeld. : How Industrial Meat Production Endangers Workers, Animals, and Consumers.  Johns Hopkins Press, 2016.

Ellen Silbergeld, a professor of environmental health sciences, epidemiology, and health policy at Hopkins, has long been a strong advocate for getting toxic substances out of our food supply.  Here, she takes on our system of industrial farm animal production in a plea for better treatment of everyone and everything involved in it.

Big issue #1: the use of antibiotics as growth promoters.  This not only induces bacteria to become resistant to those drugs, but also is unnecessary.

Big issue #2: the failure of HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point—the method for preventing food safety problems) to prevent harmful, antibiotic-resistant bacteria from reaching the public.

Overall, she says:

The inextricable relationship between industrial food animal production and the environment challenges us in two ways.  First, we are all at risk–not just those of us who consume the products of industrially raised animals–and second, decontaminating food products will not contain the public health problems of this industry.  It is time to think about industrial food animal production as an industry in terms of environmental pollution, and it is long overdue to recognize that its pollution footprint, like its production, is industrial in scale (p. 127).

As for the remedy, “agriculture is an industry, and as such it carries certain obligations.”  These include, among others:

  • Industries must abide by laws that prevent monopolization, price fixing, and overconcentration.
  • Industries must bear full liability for unsafe products.
  • Industries must obey the labor laws of the country.

She has plenty more to say about government’s role in all this.

Our role is to insist that industry and government follow and apply laws.  We had best get busy.

Sep 14 2016

Food is getting safer, baby step by baby step

Chase Purdy writing in Quartz says “The system for catching dangerous pathogens in America’s food supply is finally working.”

Here’s the best evidence: the remarkable decline in cases of STEC (Shigella Toxin E. Coli).

Quartz quotes food safety lawyer Bill Marler: “You look back over time and, from 1993-2003, about 90% of my firm’s revenue was from E. coli cases connected to hamburger.”

What changed?  Regulation.

The USDA now considers STEC to be an adulterant and does not permit meat and poultry contaminated with it to be sold.

But then there’s Salmonella.  It is not considered an adulterant.  Why not?  Because it occurs so frequently that USDA considers it normal.  Cases of Salmonella have not declined as much as they should.

In the meantime, the FDA is diligently following through on its food safety rulemaking.  On August 24, it opened three more sets of draft guidance documents for public comment.

FDA officials explain:

When we were drafting and seeking public comment on the rules that will implement theFDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), we promised that we would do whatever we could to help the regulated industry understand and meet the new requirements….Meeting the FSMA mandate involves cooperation between the FDA and the food industry. From the smallest food operation to the largest company, we want to be sure that we’re all on the same page and these draft guidances will help get us there.

Onward and upward.  This is progress.  It would be nice if it went faster but it’s real progress—even if Bill Marler still has plenty of work to stay busy.

 

 

Aug 31 2015

Bacteria in ground beef dangerous or natural? Depends on point of view, apparently.

Consumer Reports has just done a major report on the safety of ground beef.

In its announcement of the report, Consumer Reports says:

All 458 pounds of beef we examined contained bacteria that signified fecal contamination (enterococcus and/or nontoxin-producing E. coli)…Almost 20 percent contained C. perfringens, a bacteria that causes almost 1 million cases of food poisoning annually. Ten percent of the samples had a strain of S. aureus bacteria that can produce a toxin that can make you sick…One of the most significant findings of our research is that beef from conventionally raised cows was more likely to have bacteria overall, as well as bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, than beef from sustainably raised cows.

For public health people, results like this should send alarm signals.  The presence of E. coli, even the non-toxic type, indicates fecal contamination.  This is more than a yuck problem.  If E. coli is there, dangerous fecal pathogens could be there too.

But the North American Meat Institute headlined its response: “Consumer Reports Ground Beef Study Confirms Strong Safety of Ground Beef.”

The “bacteria identified in the Consumer Reports testing are types that rarely cause foodborne illness. Bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus, Enterococcus, and generic E. coli are commonly found in the environment and are not considered pathogenic bacteria…Bacteria occur naturally on all raw food products from beef to blueberries so finding certain types on some foods in a grocery store is not surprising and should not be concerning,”

For the meat industry, fecal contamination is normal, natural, and you don’t need to worry about it—just be sure to cook your meat to a temperature high enough to kill all pathogens.

Good luck with that.

My advice: if you like ground beef rare, go to a butcher shop and ask to have one piece of meat ground for you in a freshly cleaned grinder.