by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Vegetables

Jan 6 2022

Industry marketing award of the week: California vegetables

I saw this is a tweet from @WesternGrowers, the trade association that represents “local and regional family farmers growing fresh produce in Arizona, California, Colorado and New Mexico…We grow the best medicine in the world.®”

High marks to the Western Growers Association for producing this ad.

  • It has interesting facts.  I did not know all this.
  • It does not have misleading health claims about superfoods.

My one quibble: the confusing denominator.  The percentages can’t be of all of the vegetables consumed in the US; they have to be the percentages of US grown vegetables.

Take garlic, for example.  According to the USDA, we imported $19 million worth of dried garlic in 2020, and $185 million worth of fresh or chilled garlic.  Much of imported garlic comes from China.

According to Rural Migration News, the US imports almost two-thirds of its fresh fruit and one-third of its fresh vegetables.

Even so, I like the ad.

Dec 7 2021

FDA at work: another try at produce safety

Leafy greens pose a seemingly intractable food safety problem.

  • They are responsible for many harmful and deadly outbreaks of toxic E. coli (lawyer Bill Marler has a handy table listing outbreaks from 1995 to 2019).
  • They are mostly eaten raw.
  • They are often grown on land adjacent to dairy farms or cattle grazing or irrigated with water containing waste from animal agriculture.

The FDA is now taking on this last point.  It is is proposing standards for water use on produce for human consumption:  FDA.  Standards for the Growing, Harvesting, Packing, and Holding of Produce for Human Consumption Relating to Agricultural Water: Notice of proposed rulemaking.  The key provisions:

This proposal would replace the microbial criteria and testing requirements for pre-harvest agricultural water for covered produce (other than sprouts) with provisions for systems-based agricultural water assessments that are designed to be more feasible to implement across the wide variety of agricultural water systems, uses, and practices, while also being adaptable to future advancements in agricultural water quality science and achieving improved public health protections. Additionally, we are proposing to require
expedited mitigation for hazards related to certain activities associated with adjacent and nearby lands, in light of findings from several recent produce outbreak investigations.

Translation: Farms would have to assess where contamination of irrigation water might occur and take steps to prevent it, but will not have to test the water.

In its press release, the FDA says:

Today, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a proposed rule that aims to enhance the safety of produce. It proposes to require farms to conduct comprehensive assessments that would help them identify and mitigate hazards in water used to grow produce. This is the latest step in the agency’s implementation of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), and it proposes to replace some of the existing requirements for agricultural water in the Produce Safety Rule (PSR).

This updates the FDA’s previous attempts:

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler asks: Is FDA creating a HACCP for Produce? Are assessment and mitigation going to create safer produce?

He notes that the FDA is focusing on “pre-harvest risk assessment of water risk as opposed to water testing for pathogens generally.”  This requires produce growers to evaluate local pathogen risks such as cattle operations and/or wild animal populations and then take measures to prevent them from contaminating water supplies.

But without having to test the water, it’s going to be hard to confirm that the assessment of risk actually reduces it.  Marler says:

So, in my view the jury is still out on 1) will eliminating water testing and increasing assessments make for a safer product? and, 2) should there not be a recognition that produce is essentially a “ready-to-eat” product grown outside with the risks inherent by what is directly around it or what may blow or flow to it, and therefore a broader environmental approach will be required to assure produce safety?

Is the FDA backing off of safety requirements?  The link explains how to file comments.  Now is the time to weigh in.

Nov 29 2021

Conflicted study of the week: mushroom patents?

A reader in Norway, Marit Kolby, sent me this one.

First, the press release: “Mushroom consumption may lower risk of depression.”

New research led by Penn State College of Medicine also reveals that these superfoods may benefit a person’s mental health.  Penn State researchers used data on diet and mental health collected from more than 24,000 U.S. adults between 2005 and 2016. They found that people who ate mushrooms had lower odds of having depression.

The study: Mushroom intake and depression: A population-based study using data from the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), 2005–2016Djibril M.Ba. XiangGao, LailaAl-Shaar, Joshua, E.Muscat, Robert B.Beelman, John P.RichieJournal of Affective Disorders, Volume 294, 1 November 2021, Pages 686-692.

Hypothesis: “We hypothesized that mushroom consumption is associated with a lower risk of depression in American adults.”

Method: Analysis of dietary recall data from NHANES vs. self-reported depression.

Conclusion: “Mushroom consumers had a lower odd of depression. However, we did not observe a dose-response relationship.”

Funding: none.

Declaration of competing interest: none.

Comment: Ordinarily, beyond noting the conditional “may be linked” (which also could be “may not”  and the lack of dose-response, I would not bother to comment on this study except that Marit Kolby wrote:

As usual, the health effects (this time from mushrooms) are greatly exaggerated, especially given the study type and the lack of a dose-response relationship.  One compound in mushrooms suggested to explain the association is ergothioneine. The authors list no conflicts of interest.  But look at the patent list of the author Beelman.

This called for a look at the patent list.  Beelman does indeed hold several patents related to ergothioneine from mushrooms, but most of them are assigned to the Penn State Research Foundation.   This is not unusual for universities, but called for a look at Penn’s State’s policy on faculty intellectual property.

Penn State’s policy on patents requires research faculty to negotiate patent income according to a formula.

  1. PSRF [the foundation]: 40%
    Inventor(s): 40%
    Administrative Unit of College: 20%
  2. The inventors’ portions of the income are divided according to the contribution percentage that the inventors establish. A memo to establish the percentages to be paid to each invention will be sent to the Inventors before making payment .

Without knowing the details of Beelman’s arrangement with the university, it is difficult to be sure that a conflict of interest exists (he might have turned all the proceeds over to the university), but this situation clearly gives the appearance of a conflict, and an undisclosed one at that.

If professor Beelman is entitled to any percentage of profits from the patents, he has a competing interest and should have disclosed it.

Regardless, his declaration should have acknowledged his patent ownerships, as should the university’s press release.

Are mushrooms a “superfood” as the press release maintains?

Marit Kolby thinks it is more likely that mushrooms are an indicator of usual consumption of whole rather than ultra-processed foods, and points out that a couple of studies have linked ultra-processed foods themselves to depression.

Oct 26 2021

USDA says it will try to reduce Salmonella in poultry. What about FDA-regulated onions?

In a press release, the USDA says it is going to take action against Salmonella contamination of poultry in order to get closer to the national target of a 25% reduction in Salmonella illnesses.

Despite consistent reductions in the occurrence of Salmonella in poultry products, more than 1 million consumer illnesses due to Salmonella occur annually, and it is estimated (PDF, 1.4 MB) that over 23% of those illnesses are due to consumption of chicken and turkey…USDA intends to seek stakeholder feedback on specific Salmonella control and measurement strategies, including pilot projects, in poultry slaughter and processing establishments. A key component of this approach is encouraging preharvest controls to reduce Salmonella contamination coming into the slaughterhouse.

The North American Meat Institute says its members are happy to assist (Salmonella is a problem for poultry, not beef).

The National Chicken Council also pledged to assist with the pilot projects, but then put the onus of responsibility squarely on you.

Even with very low levels of pathogens, there is still the possibility of illness if a raw product is improperly handled or cooked. Increased consumer education about proper handling and cooking of raw meat must be part of any framework moving forward. Proper handling and cooking of poultry is the one thing that will eliminate any risk of foodborne illness. All bacteria potentially found on raw chicken, regardless of strain, are fully destroyed by handling the product properly and cooking it to an internal temperature of 165°.

The newly formed Coalition for Poultry Food Safety Reform, led by Center for Science in the Public Interest, welcomes the USDA’s announcement, but insists that USDA’s food safety oversight needs to extend from farm to fork.

Comment: The USDA’s jurisdiction starts at the slaughterhouse, but chickens coming into the plant are already contaminated with Salmonella.  This means prevention has to start on the farm, and poultry producers would have to institute procedures to keep their flocks free of Salmonella. They would much rather you cooked your chicken properly.

The latest big Salmonella outbreak is due to onions, an FDA-regulated food.

FDA’s traceback investigation is ongoing but has identified ProSource Produce, LLC (also known as ProSource Inc.) of Hailey, Idaho, and Keeler Family Farms of Deming, New Mexico, as suppliers of potentially contaminated whole, fresh onions imported from the State of Chihuahua, Mexico.

Keeler Family Farms issued a voluntary recall.   ProSource Produce LLC also issued a voluntary recall.

The CDC has the statistics:

Comment: I wrote about a previous onion recall last year.   Food safety lawyer Bill Marler asks: What did we learn – or not – from the 2020 Salmonella Outbreak linked to onions?  That investigation, as he emphasizes, identified probable causes:

  • potentially contaminated sources of irrigation water;
  • sheep grazing on adjacent land;
  • signs of animal intrusion, including scat (fecal droppings), and large flocks of birds that may spread contamination; and
  • food contact surfaces that had not been inspected, maintained, or cleaned as frequently as necessary to protect against the contamination of produce.

The FDA lists all the products that have been recalled so far.  It also displays their labels.  If you have onions from these companies, treat them like biosafety hazards.  If you can’t bear to throw them out, at least boil them and sterilize everything they could have contacted.

Oct 8 2021

Weekend reading: Selling salad in China

Xavier Naville.  The Lettuce Diaries: How a Frenchman Found Gold Growing Vegetables in China.  Earnshaw Books, 2021. 

The publicist for this quirky book sent it to me and I have to admit being charmed by it.  The French author started out in international corporate food, managing canteens in 70 countries for the Compass Group and based in Paris.

At age 27, almost on a whim, he went to Shanghai to sell salads to the Chinese (who didn’t eat salads) and oversee the production of vegetables for KFC and other fast food places.

He was, to say the least, ignorant of Chinese language and culture but learned a lot during the twenty years or so he spent there.

His book is about how his naivete and uncertainty got in the way of getting small farmers to grow lettuce and other vegetables consistently and safely, and how he slowly and painfully learned to speak and write Chinese, and learn the importance of guanxi (personal relationships essential for getting anything done in China).

He is so modest, so hard on himself, and so likable that I wanted him to succeed—which he did, and quite well.

Among other things, his company produced bagged salads for Chinese supermarkets.  Food safety maven that I am, I won’t even buy bagged salads in the U.S.  His descriptions of small-scale food production are terrifying.

He reports no outbreaks due to his products, although he talks about plenty of others, including the melamine-in-infant-formula scandal predicted by the earlier melamine-in-pet-food scandal I wrote about in Pet Food Politics.  

I liked his thoughtfulness about his experience.

All these years, I had viewed the microscopic farming plots as a barrier to the modernization of China’s agriculture.  But after a few hours with my Chinese friends, I was beginning to see things differently.  Where would all these seasonal foods come from if there were fewer farmers?  Would there still be regional differences?  If China follows the developmental path of the West, the number of farmers will shrink while operations increase in size.  Farms will focus on scale and productivity, specializing in fewer crops, breeding the most productive ones and neglecting some that have a higher nutritional content but lower returns per acre.  Is that really what Chinese consumers want?

…family farmers weren’t necessarily just an obstacle on China’s path toward modernization; they might actually be its cultural gatekeepers, protecting the local food industry and underpinning a renaissance of Chinese beliefs that will be key to the health of both the Chinese people and the safety of the foods they cherish.  (p. 246)

Quirky?  Definitely for a business book, but in a good way.  I enjoyed reading it.

[The author is now a food business consultant in Oakland, CA].

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.

 

Jan 18 2021

Annals of nutritional epidemiology: Can cabbage mitigate the severity of Covid-19?

Why, you must be asking, am I even asking a question like this?

Because of this study, obviously, which I somehow missed when it came out in August (thanks to toxicologist Marc Stifelman for sending it to me).

The study: Cabbage and fermented vegetables: From death rate heterogeneity in countries to candidates for mitigation strategies of severe COVID‐19.  Bousquet U, et al.  Allergy.  2020 Aug 6;10.1111/all.14549. Online ahead of print.

The hypothesis:

CAUTION:  Correlation does not necessarily mean causation.  The diets—and other lifestyle characteristics—of people in Romania and Latvia differ from those in the UK and Italy in other ways besides diet; other differences might well account for these variations.

Personally, I love cabbage in any form.

But for prevention of bad outcomes from Covid-19, I’m counting on vaccination, not kimchi or sauerkraut.

Dec 25 2020

Have a happy, healthy holiday

Let’ keep doing what we can to get through this year and hope that we can all be together in the next one.  Happy holidays!

(Thanks to VeggieQuest for the inspiring image)