Food Safety News
“It’s really a testament to how agriculture is transitioning from industrialized to pasture-based,” said AWA program director Andrew Gunther, referring to the many applications the organization received for the grants.
The grants this time around were in excess of $120,000 and went to an array of projects involving beef cattle, goats, sheep, dairy sheep, chickens, and pigs. Funding priorities included genetic improvement of animals in pasture-based systems, outdoor access and mobile housing, and non-lethal predator control. This is the fifth year of the grant program.
Open to current Animal Welfare Approved farmers as well as those who have applied to join the program, the grants are especially useful to farmers seeking a low-risk transition to sustainable, outdoor farming practices, according to the an AWA press release.
Animal Welfare Approved is based on the philosophy that animals should be provided with what they need so they can follow their natural behaviors. This, in turn, promotes their physiological and psychological health and well-being, according to the program’s website. One of the requirements is that animals be raised on the pasture or range.
“For those who can’t visit the farm themselves, Animal Welfare Approved serves as the eyes and ears of the conscientious consumer,” says the organization’s website.
What do consumers want?
Out in the marketplace, consumer preferences have been changing. Whereas in the past, consumers bought meat, dairy products and eggs according to price and perceived quality, some consumers now want to know how the animals those products come from were raised. They make their choices based on a range of labels that indicate farming practices such as “Certified Organic” and “Animal Welfare Approved.”
In a recent stakeholders’ conference hosted by the Animal Agriculture Alliance in Arlington, Virginia, Kathy Keiffer, a broadcaster who produces a food issues program on the Heritage Radio Network, told participants that consumer awareness is the biggest change occurring in the food business.
“We’re in the midst of a food revolution,” she said, pointing out that influential celebrity chefs are embracing new changes in raising livestock and progressive food companies are shifting toward more “natural” production systems.
Not only celebrity chefs, but also large fast food chains and retailers are reacting to consumer concerns about humane animal practices. Burger King, for example, decided last year that it would switch to using eggs from cage-free hens and use pork products only from pigs that aren’t kept and bred in small cages. McDonald’s, Wendy’s and other food-service companies have also adopted policies or reached agreements with the Humane Society of the United States on the humane treatment of pigs.
Food policy director for the Humane Society Matt Prescott told a CNN reporter that Burger King’s decision in favor of cage-free eggs sends the message that customers and the public don’t want animals confined for their whole lives in cages and that the food industry will have to make changes.
Out in the retail marketplace, North American pork producers Smithfield, Hormel, Olymel and Maple Leaf Foods have decided to stop the use of gestation crates for pigs at their company-owned facilities.
And grocery retailer Supervalu has expressed its commitment to animal welfare in a two-page public policy statement, in which it said, “Animal welfare and food-safety inspection audits are integral to our customer and vendor relationships.”
The retailer has also established a Consumer Interest Council “to provide guidance and counsel to Supervalu…on issues pertaining to animal welfare, food safety, consumer advocacy and corporate citizenship.”
Speaking of food safety…
A large part of consumers’ growing interest in humane animal practices was actually fueled by food safety concerns, which opened the door to a new awareness of how meat animals were being raised and slaughtered.
It wasn’t that long ago that most consumers thought that farming was still very much like the pictures of red barns and cows grazing knee-deep in lush grass or chickens wandering about in front of a farmhouse that they saw on calendars and county fair promos. Very few people even knew what an “animal feeding operation” or feedlot was. Photos of these certainly were not used to promote agriculture.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, animal feeding operations (AFOs) are those “where animals are kept and raised in confined situations. AFOs congregate animals, feed, manure and urine, dead animals, and production operations on a small land area. Feed is brought to the animals rather than the animals grazing or otherwise seeking feed in pastures, fields, or on rangeland.”
These AFOs are an essential part of the drive to produce protein as cheaply as possible for consumers. In the case of cattle, once they’re fattened up to their finished weight with grain, usually in about 3 months, they are transported to a slaughterhouse. Before going to the feedlot, they’re almost always raised on pasture or out on the range.
For a long time this system was pretty much the status quo, with no questions asked. But in 1993, E. coli O157:H7, a potentially fatal foodborne pathogen, grabbed headlines when more than 600 people fell ill and four people died of E. coli infections attributed to undercooked hamburgers served at Jack-in-the-Box restaurants. (Some of the people became infected with the pathogen after being exposed to infected people who had eaten the undercooked burgers.) From there, consumers began hearing about recalls of hundreds of thousands of pounds of meat contaminated with the pathogen.
“That burst the illusion that everything was just fine with the way meat was being produced,” Patricia Whisnant, a veterinarian, rancher and grass-fed beef producer, told Food Safety News. “People were getting sick, and we began to look more carefully at how our animals were being raised.”
Whisnant is co-owner of Rain Crow Ranch in southern Missouri, a family farm that raises grass-fed beef, heritage pork, pasture poultry and operates a processing plant, all of which are Animal Welfare Approved. The organic farm follows humane animal practices from birth through slaughter.
When asked if there’s a connection between animal welfare and food safety, Whisnant said there definitely is.
“Animals that are allowed to live within their biologic and behavioral instincts are healthier,” she said. “Many pathogens and parasite issues are taken care of in the production system making them safer.”
An example of that, she said, is rotating cows from pasture to pasture. Once the cows are gone from one pasture, the sun will kill all or most of the pathogens or parasites that might be left behind. When they return to that pasture, they’re coming back to a clean environment, in contrast to animals that are confined in filthy and overcrowded conditions.
When talking about her family’s success in being able to stay in farming while also providing jobs for her six children and four staff members, in addition to the 50 people employed at the processing plant, Whisnant said she credits people’s concerns about food safety and humane animal treatment for “being where we are today.”
She said that the ranch and its processing facility put food safety at the top of the list of priorities, going above and beyond what the USDA requires.
“If we don’t make it a priority, a recall would close our doors,” Whisnant said.
As part of their food safety strategy, the Whisnants don’t release any meat for sale until pathogen test results have come back.
Animal Welfare Approved’s Andrew Gunther said that after World War II, the drive was to feed a growing nation with cheap protein. The common goal behind animal feeding operations was to bring a lot of animals together in one place, as is the case in confinement dairies, feedlots, and caged poultry. But that, he said, meant that low levels of E. coli, Salmonella, and other harmful foodborne pathogens could multiply.
“The unintended consequence was that we created the breeding grounds for dangerous pathogens,” Gunther said. “The system is designed to make animals carry pathogens.”
Gunther said that the livestock industry reacted to the reality that people were getting sick, and in some cases dying, from foodborne pathogens. It adopted interventions such as washing carcasses with acid to remove bacteria that could sicken people and designed plans that would pinpoint critical places in the slaughtering and butchering processes where pathogens would likely be lurking. As a result, beef-related foodborne illnesses have dramatically declined over the past several decades, said Chase Adams, spokesman for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
The industry also put the consumer into the food safety equation, emphasizing, for example, that raw meat needs to be cooked to certain temperatures to kill the dangerous pathogens and handled in ways to ensure that it doesn’t cross-contaminate other foods.
“So now, you, the consumer have to take the responsibility off the backs of industry,” Gunther said, who compares the interventions and calls for consumer responsibility to applying a bandage to the problem instead of dealing with what he sees as the root of the problem — raising and confining animals in ways that run contrary to their natural behaviors.
Not everyone agrees with this view. A recently released discussion paper, “The Direct Relationship between Animal Health and Food Safety Outcomes,” by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (a research group that includes the Farm Bureau and the American Veterinary Medical Association) cited research on the difference between keeping animals indoors vs. outdoors: “Housing livestock indoors can also provide advantages in managing many foodborne organisms,” says the paper. “Because outdoor environments cannot be cleaned or disinfected easily, pathogens can persist in the soil, standing water, outdoor structures, and other micro-environments, infecting successive generations of livestock.
Also, according to the research cited in the paper: “Other studies have shown that Campylobacter and Salmonella (foodborne pathogens) are more common in chickens with outdoor exposure than in birds raised in conventional indoor housing (cages). Dairy cows were shown to be at greater risk of subclinical mastitis when kept in outdoor environments compared with cows kept in barns.”
In an e-mail to Food Safety News, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association spokesman Adams said that the association supports providing choices to meet consumer preferences for beef, whether grain-fed, grass-fed, natural or organic.
“Our expectation is the that everyone who handles cattle, regardless of the production method, follows established Beef Quality Assurance best practices to ensure animals are handled properly,” he said. “Raising healthy animals is the first step in producing wholesome beef.”
He also said that no studies have shown a significant difference between grass-fed or grain-fed cattle when it comes to safety or nutritional content.
“The bottom line,” he said, “is that consumers can be assured that regardless of whether they choose to purchase grass-fed or grain-feed beef, the cattle were raised humanely and that the product is safe for their families.”
What about antibiotics?
The subtherapeutic use of antibiotics to boost growth and to help animals raised in stressful, overcrowded and unsanitary conditions resist disease has also grabbed headlines. (Subtherapeutic use differs from using antibiotics to treat animals that are sick.)
Many scientists are pointing to the likelihood that the subtherapeutic use of antibiotics in agriculture is contributing to the dramatic rise in life-threatening antibiotic-resistant bacteria, often referred to as “super bugs.” They also say that it provides the perfect conditions for some very dangerous bacteria to mutate and become resistant to the antibiotics. That’s especially important if the same antibiotics used on animals are also used to treat human illnesses.
An example of this in the food safety arena is the 2011 outbreak of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella linked to ground turkey, which killed one person and sickened at least 136 people across 31 states.
United Kingdom Government’s Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies recently warned that the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria poses a global health catastrophe that ranks alongside the threat of climate change or terrorism.
Veterinarian and rancher Whisnant would agree. She told Food Safety News that when she started her practice she could use penicillin on animals suffering from an array of health problems.
“It made veterinary a profession,” she said. “It truly was a miracle drug. But today, penicillin is useless. By administering antibiotics at subtherapeutic levels, the industry has been breeding superbugs.”
She considers this to be the biggest food safety issue today — and one of the most serious health crises the world is facing.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, meanwhile, has said that “injudicious” antibiotic uses in agriculture are a public health risk. In a guidance paper on this topic, it proposed two “non-binding” recommendations:
1. The use of medically important antimicrobial drugs in food-producing animals should be limited to those uses that are considered necessary for assuring animal health.
2. The use of medically important antimicrobial drugs in food-producing animals should be limited to those uses that include veterinary oversight or consultation.
At the same time, there are those who think differently about this issue. Again, according to CAST’s discussion paper, antibiotics have a major, positive effect on improving animal and human health.
And while the discussion paper concedes that the use of antibiotics in food-animal production raises concerns about antibiotic resistance in bacteria and how that could affect the effectiveness of antibiotics in treating human infections, the paper points out that “concern about antibiotic resistance is not equivalent to actual risk.”
The paper also says that resistant bacteria were present long before antibiotics were discovered and found in many places without livestock exposure.
The elephant in the room
For the most part, meat, milk and eggs produced in ways that follow an animal’s natural behavior (outdoors, cage-free and on grass, for example) is more expensive than meat, milk and eggs produced in conditions where many animals are raised together in confinement situations. For that reason, supporters of confinement operations say that this industrial type of agriculture allows for efficiency of scale, which, in turn, benefits consumers by providing affordable food.
Most farmers and ranchers who raise their animals based on their natural behaviors will quickly agree that they get higher prices for their products, thanks to strong demand from health-minded consumers. But they also point out that those higher prices allow them to stay in farming.
“It provides a way to survive in the world of integrated behemoth farming enterprises,” says Rain Crow Ranch’s website.
Rob Noel, spokesman for the Washington State Beef Commission, told Food Safety News that according to a retailer he had just spoken with, wholesale prices of three different cuts of beef showed that grass-finished beef cuts were, on the average, just shy of $2 more per pound than grain-finished cuts. But because prices vary according to season and sales, no hard-and-fast figures can be supplied.
Which is healthier?
Farmers who follow Animal Welfare Approved, or similar principals, say that meat, milk and eggs produced in ways that follow an animal’s natural behavior are healthier because they contain certain substances such as beneficial fatty acids and are, therefore, less expensive in the long run because they promote human health.
However, some health experts discount this view, saying that there’s no significant difference in the nutritional value of the meat, milk and eggs from animals raised industrially or according to their natural behaviors.
Washington State Beef Commission’s Noel said that while grass-fed beef does have more Omega 3s, which are said to promote heart health, than grain-fed beef, beef is not a significant contributor to Omega 3s in a person’s diet, as is salmon, for example.
But in speaking about consumer preferences, Noel said consumers are often guided by what they hear and read from a variety of sources.
“Out in the marketplace, consumers’ perceptions are reality,” he said.
Although it’s estimated that only about 3 percent of the beef in the U.S. is grass-fed, veterinarian and grass-fed beef producer Whisnant told reporters in 2010 that there’s been a dramatic rise in demand for cattle reared on a pasture diet instead of an industrial feedlot. And she went so far as to predict that grass-fed beef should account for 10 percent of America’s beef consumption overall by 2016.
In a recent interview with Food Safety News, she said it’s been amazing to her how many traditional beef producers are looking for alternatives, in large part because of the high price of corn. She said that feedlots are also getting squeezed economically and looking for alternatives.
“I think we’ll see grass-fed beef make up more than 10 percent of America’s beef consumption by 2016,” she said.
The imported tahini paste that was linked to two Salmonella illnesses in Minnesota children last week has now been connected to a nationwide outbreak affecting at least eight people, health officials report.
Cases have occurred in six states, including California (1 case), Minnesota (2), North Dakota (1), New York (1), Texas (2) and Wisconsin (1), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which issued an outbreak alert Wednesday.
The first patient fell ill on March 4, 2013, and the most recent illness onset was April 30. CDC notes that illnesses that occurred after May 10 may not yet have been recorded due to the delay between when a person falls ill and when their case is reported.
None of the victims have been hospitalized.
The source of the illnesses is thought to be tahini sesame paste made by Krinos Foods, LLC of Long Island City, New York.
Krinos issued a voluntary recall of the product on April 28 for potential Salmonella contamination, and expanded that recall May 9 after more samples tested positive for Salmonella.
Both outbreak strains of Salmonella – S. Montevideo and S. Mbandaka – were isolated from samples of the recalled paste. Salmonella Montevideo was isolated from a sample collected by the Michigan Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration detected Salmonella Mbandaka in a sample of Krinos’ tahini paste arriving in the U.S. for distribution.
The recalled lots of tahini paste have expiration dates between January 1, 2014 and June 8, 2014; or between October 16, 2014 and March 15, 2015.
However, CDC is recommending that consumers don’t eat any sesame tahini paste produced by Krinos.
Epidemiologists think they have found the source of a Salmonella outbreak linked to Las Vegas’s Firefly restaurant that is now known to have sickened at least 294 people – almost 100 more illnesses than health officials previously reported.
The Southern Nevada Health District announced Wednesday that the outbreak strain of Salmonella had been found in a sample of cooked chorizo collected from the tapas-style restaurant.
It is unclear how the chorizo became contaminated, but health officials say the meat likely came into contact with the bacteria at the restaurant, not before it arrived.
Nevertheless, “Trace-back efforts have been redirected at the chorizo products due to a small possibility that raw chorizo was contaminated prior to arriving at Firefly,” said SNHD in its third interim outbreak report, issued Wednesday.
According to the health department, the bacteria sickened 290 patrons of the restaurant and 4 workers. Of these cases, 73 have been confirmed part of the outbreak by DNA testing. The 221 others are considered probable.
The first reported illnesses began on April 22, and the last victim fell ill May 1. All identified victims reported dining at the restaurant between April 21 and April 26.
SNHD notes that the case count could change as more illnesses are reported or some are determined not to be connected to Firefly.
Health officials submitted the DNA fingerprint of the outbreak strain of Salmonella serotype I:4,5,12:i:- to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which said no other Salmonella cases in the country match those connected to Firefly at this time.
John Simmons, Firefly’s head chef, expressed his commitment to learning from this outbreak to avoid another such incident in the future.
“While we are anxious to have the final report and a better idea of what may have happened, for me, it was never about the source – it was about making sure I did everything in my power to prevent this from happening again,” said Simmons in a statement Wednesday.
“We’ve hired a food safety consultant with over 30 years of experience to double and triple check our methods and we’ll operate in the mode of continuous improvement, constantly upgrading our practices with new technology, new methods, and additional training.”
The Center for Food Safety’s tug-of-war with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration over the agency’s delayed food safety rules continued last week as a judge ruled that FDA had more time to come up with a schedule for releasing the outstanding rules.
In a ruling yesterday, Judge Phyllis Hamilton of the Oakland U.S. District Court said FDA and CFS now have until June 10 to agree on a schedule for releasing the yet-unpublished food safety rules, mandated by the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011.
CFS filed suit against FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg in August of 2012 after the FDA missed a series of deadlines for publishing the regulations mandated by FSMA, which is intended to update the U.S. food safety system by transforming it from a reactive one to a preventive one.
After numerous deadlines went by without the release of the mandated rules, CFS went to court to try to force FDA to adhere to these time constraints.
In a decision this April, Judge Hamilton ruled that FDA must come up with a new schedule for issuing the proposed rules by May 20.
But when FDA sent its updated schedule to the non-profit food watchdog May 15, the group was not happy with the timeline. Since the two parties did not have enough time to discuss these problems before the new timeline was due five days later, they filed a Joint Stipulation for Extension of Time, which Judge Hamilton granted on May 17.
According to the order, CFS and the federal food regulatory agency now have until June 10 to agree upon a timeframe for releasing the rules that’s acceptable to both parties.
Since CFS filed its complaint last year, FDA has released some of the key FSMA-mandated rules it failed to publish on time, including preventive controls for human food and standards for produce safety, both released in early January.
Other rules continue to languish at the White House Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Internal and Regulatory Affairs, which must approve the rules before they are published. FDA attributes some of the delay in its release of the FSMA rules to the hang-ups that come with this part of the process.
Among those rules that have yet to be released are the foreign supplier verification program – set to overhaul import safety, an establishment of regulations to ensure the safe transport of food products and a rule ensuring neutrality of third-party audits.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture proposal to require labeling for mechanically tenderized meats, which can be risky if pathogens are pushed into the cut beyond the exterior and the meat is not thoroughly cooked, has now been under review at the White House Office of Management Budget for eight months, far exceeding the 90-day limit the agency is supposed to adhere to. Consumer advocates, who have been calling for labeling for several years, are especially frustrated by the delay with the news that Canada will start mandating labeling in the next two months.
While there are no exact figures, USDA estimates that every month somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 million pounds of beef is tenderized, a process that utilizes needles or blades to pierce intact steaks and roasts to make them tender for consumers. While the government recommends consumers cook mechanically tenderized, or non-intact meat, to a higher internal temperature than intact steaks (160 degrees versus 145), there is no requirement to label products so consumers can tell the difference between them.
Mechanically tenderized beef products have been linked to five E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks in the past decade, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including a 21-state outbreak that sparked a large recall on Christmas eve in 2009. In those outbreaks, 174 people fell ill and four died, but most health experts assume those stats don’t capture the full health impact as foodborne illnesses are chronically underreported and usually not successfully linked to a source.
“We believe this is an important public health issue,” said Pat Buck, director of outreach and education for the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention. “We’re not happy that it has not made it out of OMB. We hope it will move forward.”
Buck, who became a food safety advocate after losing her grandson Kevin Kowalcyk to a severe E. coli O157:H7 infection in 2001, said the rule is especially imperative as the United States approaches another grilling season so that consumers know to cook tenderized steaks to a higher temperature, as is recommended for ground beef products.
“We are now going into our fifth grilling since we began asking for labeling,” she said. “It should have happened a long time ago.”
It’s not clear what is causing the lengthy review on the proposed rule, which the OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) lists as not economically significant (other economically significant regulations have undergone lengthy reviews at OIRA, which is charged with weighing the costs and benefits of federal agency actions). Inquiries about the delay were not returned by OMB or USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.
According to White House meeting records, the American Meat Institute met with OIRA staff in March about the proposed rule, the details of which are unknown to stakeholders. Mark Dopp, AMI’s senior vice president of regulatory affairs, said the meeting was to discuss a recently released abstract on the proposal.
The abstract posted on the government’s regulatory dashboard said that FSIS is proposing to require the term “mechanically tenderized” on the labels of raw or partially cooked needle or blade tenderized beef products, including products that are injected with marinade or other solutions, unless these products are going to be fully cooked before heading to customers.
According to the outline, FSIS is also “proposing to require that labels of raw and partially cooked needle or blade tenderized beef products destined for household consumers, hotels, restaurants, or similar institutions include validated cooking instructions that inform consumers that these products need to be cooked to a specified minimum internal temperature, and whether they need to be held at that minimum internal temperature for a specified time before consumption, i.e., dwell time or rest time, to ensure that they are thoroughly cooked.”
FSIS estimates that labeling mechanically tenderized products would cost the industry about $3.6 million and would save between 191 and 239 illnesses, thereby saving between $627,000 and $784,000 in medical costs each year.
“We expressed our concerns that the abstract’s characterization of the proposed rule includes a labeling recommendation that is too broad,” said Dopp, when asked about AMI’s meeting with OIRA. “We believe any label should have a distinct purpose and benefit and be something consumers will act on. At this point we have not seen the proposal nor do we know when OMB will issue the proposal. However, we look forward to reviewing it and offering our comments at the appropriate time.”
Carol Tucker-Foreman, distinguished policy fellow at the Consumer Federation of America, said the problem is that while Washington delays ordinary consumers have no way of knowing if the steak they are buying and cooking is intact or not and, with a sputtering economy and high unemployment, many consumers are buying cheaper products, which are often tenderized.
“The steaks we’re talking about are not the ones being served at the Palm. The steaks we’re talking about are the ones ordinary folks are buying,”said Tucker-Foreman. “Maybe the folks who work at OMB make too much money, but that should not mean that ordinary folks are the ones put at risk.”
“Labeling can help consumers protect themselves and their families. We hope OMB finishes its review so the rule can be finalized soon,” said Ami Gadhia, senior policy counsel at Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports.
Consumer Reports, which has over 7 million subscribers, featured mechanically tenderized meat and the potential risks in its June issue.
James Marsden, a food safety professor at Kansas State University, weighed into the debate on the industry trade publication Meatingplace this week.
“This isn’t the first time the issue has been raised in the popular press and until the issue is addressed, it won’t go away,” wrote Marsden. He believes there are two options for the industry: label the products so consumers know to cook them to 160 degrees, which may not be the “most desirable solution,” or add an intervention to to reduce the risk of contamination before tenderizing products to significantly reduce the chance that pathogens can be translocated to the center of cuts.
“It’s up to the industry to decide whether to wait for a regulation that dictates labeling and cooking requirements or to invest in technologies that eliminate the problem before mechanically tenderized products ever reach consumers,” he said.
Down in Pass Christian at Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, as the adjoining waters of the Gulf of Mexico warm, Crystal Seas Seafood is offering its customers something new that the seafood company is calling “Crystal Clear Oysters.” The “live,” in-shell oysters are kept cold from reef to table for a promised reef-fresh flavor. Oh, and they’ve been irradiated to eliminate Vibrio to non-detectable levels and tested for quality assurance.
Vibrio are dangerous bacteria that can cause serious foodborne illness in those who eat contaminated shellfish. They are the summer’s bug-a-boo for raw oysters, causing illnesses and harvest area closures.
But this summer, Vibrios won’t threaten sales for Crystal Seas Seafood because the Mississippi Gulf company will be using a new $5 million food irradiation facility located at the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport.
The irradiation service is built into a $12 million cargo warehouse at the airport, which has completed a $51 million expansion since Hurricane Katrina. The company that runs the irradiation business, Gateway America, LLC, says it is offering the Gulf oyster industry a way to increase food safety and extend the shelf life of its shellfish.
Before the arrival of irradiation at the airport, the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources recognized three post-harvest processing options for oysters. They included:
- Individually Quick Frozen (IQF) – Oysters are frozen to reduce microorganisms including Vibrio bacteria and increase shelf life.
- Heat-Cool Pasteurization (HCP) – Oysters are put through a patented hot-cold pasteurization process, often used for packing for the half shell market.
- High Hydrostatic Pressure (HHP) – Oysters are subjected to a patented high-pressure system that decreases microorganisms including Vibrio, used for both half shell and shucked meat.
The state’s education materials for oystermen does recognize the potential for irradiation, high pulse magnet and value-added product technologies for post harvesting, but that future has arrived at the airport.
In a region where aficionados will discuss and debate the taste and texture of raw oysters almost by reef, many will be watching the reaction to the Crystal Clear Oysters. Crystal Seas Seafood can make the claim their oyster will be keep cold until served because irradiation only increases the temperature by about a half degree and it’s then brought back down. That’s far less “heat” applied than other intervention methods.
Gateway’s food customers at the new airport facility are not limited to oystermen. It says exotic produce and imports going through the port of entry will have to go through irradiation.
Vibrio vulnificus (V. vulnificus) and Vibrio parahaemolyticus (V. parahaemolyticus) are bacteria that occur naturally in warm coastal areas, such as the Gulf of Mexico, and their presence often leads to harvest area closures after raw or undercooked oysters are consumed and make people sick, or after water temperatures are deemed to amenable to the bacteria.
V. parahaemolyticus can causes non-bloody diarrhea as soon as 2 to 48 hours after exposure. V. vulnificus infects the bloodstream of immune compromised persons and after a 1 to 7 day incubation period can result in death within two days.
Vibrio bacteria occur naturally in the Gulf of Mexico. During warm-water months high concentrations can occur.
Early in the Obama Administration, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tried to ban raw oysters during the more dangerous summer months, but reaction from the Gulf caused the federal government to back off the idea—at least for the time being.
Ground beef served by Coco Loco A&M, located on George Bush Drive not far from the Texas A&M Golf Course was the likely source of an April E. coli outbreak that sickened ten people in the College Station/Bryan area.
Health officials announced their findings at press conference Tuesday after a collaborative investigation involving local, state and federal agencies. The final piece was an investigative report from the Texas Department of State Health Services (Region 7) that was delivered to the Brazos County Health Department Monday.
The health officials said that although not 100 percent, it is highly likely that the 5 confirmed cases were linked to the Mexican style restaurant. At the press conference, they said it is not known if the cause was due to improper temperature, improper cooking, or cross-contamination.
Five other cases involved in the outbreak went unconfirmed.
The sickened adults recovered fairly quickly without hospitalization, but two College Station boys were admitted for a long stay at Children’s Hospital in Houston as they fought off Shiga toxins attacking their kidneys. Four-year-old Jack Melton has been released from Children’s, while his 18-month-old brother was released today.
The investigation was made more difficult by the fact that there were no food samples available so the source could not be tested.
The Texas officials said they view the April outbreak as an isolated incident, not on ongoing threat to public health in the communities that surround one of the largest universities in the Lone Star State.
No indication was found that it would link the illnesses to meat distribution, the health officials said. They said Coco Loco was cooperative throughout the investigation.
The restaurant was inspected before and after the incident. It has implemented a glove only policy, will keep a log for holding and cooking temperatures for meat. BCHD will continue to monitor with an increased number of inspections. They have been following accepted methods for thawing of meats.
And most importantly, health officials said, there have been no further cases.
Eco-Cuisine of Boulder, Colorado is recalling all lots of several types of food mixes, including: Basic Brownie Mix, Betty Brownie Mix with Vanilla, Ground Beef Style Quick Mix, Sausage Style Quick Mix, Chocolate Cookie Mix, Lemon Muffin Mix, English Scone Mix, Basic Cookie Mix (25 lb. bag), Basic Muffin Mix (25 lb. bag), Basic Scone Mix (25 lb. bag), because the products may be contaminated with Salmonella, which can causes serious infections, especially in those with a compromised immune system.
The baking mix products were distributed nationwide through direct sales and food service distribution centers and include the following products:Product Code Description Packaging Size T3314 Eco-Cuisine Basic Brownie Mix 1 lb. bag/10 bags per box or 25 lb. bulk box T3333 Eco-Cuisine Betty Brownie Mix with Vanilla 17.5 oz bag/10 bags per box T3388 Eco-Cuisine Ground Beef Style Quick Mix 10 lb box T3394 Eco-Cuisine Sausage Style Quick Mix 10 lb box T3416 Eco-Cuisine Chocolate Cookie Mix 1 lb. bag/10 bags per case T3417 Eco-Cuisine Lemon Muffin Mix 1 lb. bag/10 bags per case T3418 Eco-Cuisine English Scone Mix 1 lb. bag/10 bags per case CM25COOK Central Milling Basic Cookie Mix 25 lb bag CM25MUFF Central Milling Basic Muffin Mix 25 lb bag CM25SCON Central Milling Basic Scone Mix 25 lb bag
According to the company, the recall was as the result of notification by CHS Foods that ingredients used in the aforementioned products were being recalled for Salmonella. The company has ceased the production and distribution of the product as FDA and the company continue their investigation as to what caused the problem.
The public comment period for new labeling rules on flavored milk an 17 other dairy products will end May 21 at 11:59 p.m. eastern time, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration proposal posted on the Federal Register Feb. 20.
If implemented, the rules would change the “standard of identity” for milk to allow certain artificial sweeteners considered “safe and suitable” to be included in the product without additional information on the label such as “reduced calorie.” Any sweetener would still be required to be listed among the ingredients.
The proposed rule change was suggested in a joint petition from the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) and the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) submitted to the FDA back on March 16, 2009.
Currently, milk products containing artificial sweeteners — most commonly chocolate milk — are required to include a claim regarding the nutrient content that notes a calorie reduction caused by the lack of nutrients. Products sweetened with artificial flavorings such as aspartame or sucralose contain fewer calories than equivalent products sweetened with nutritive flavorings such as sugar.
As depicted in the FDA graphic reprinted here, the rules would make it so that the labels of artificially sweetened milk products would look the same as their counterparts made without those sweeteners.
The dairy groups say that the additional label information is unappealing to children, who prefer flavored milk over conventional milk. They also say that updating the standard of identity for milk would “promote honesty” and establish consistency across dairy labels.
Other products that would be affected by the rule change include nonfat dry milk, eggnog, half-and-half and sour cream.
Ever hear the one about how the well‐dressed accomplice caused a scene at the front door of the bank, while the masked robbers snuck in through the back and made off with the loot? Let that be a lesson to us: when we all train our eyes in one direction, we may miss the real danger lurking behind.
As USDA appears to be ramping up a pre‐release publicity campaign on the new poultry inspection system, the agency is struggling with the commotion at the front door, where the food inspector’s union is firmly opposed to changes that could make the slaughter inspection business even more dangerous for employees. The agency continues to try to highlight the cost savings to companies and to the government, without acknowledging the harm that could be done to workers and consumers. But there is another equally troubling element in the proposal: that there is no requirement for plants to test for the pathogenic organisms that are nearly omnipresent in raw poultry.
When USDA proposed its poultry inspection overhaul in 2011, unions were right to be concerned. The agency’s changes are both serious and sweeping: in addition to dispensing with much of the existing testing protocols, they propose to reduce inspectors and increase speed on the slaughter lines, and to shift responsibilities in the sorting room from inspectors to plant employees without requiring training, among others. Many of those changes would make a dangerous business even more so, and would do it without waiting for the findings of even a single long‐range study from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration about how it would affect slaughterhouse workers.
This is no small affront, given that these workers serve as the first line of defense for ensuring that safe food reaches consumers (just as farm workers do for produce). But it is not just workers who should be concerned about the possible rules—anyone who eats poultry should be concerned about the proposal on public health grounds.
The Obama Administration’s idea of “modernizing” poultry inspection is to permit each regulated company to decide what it wants to test for and how frequently. If you liked the results of letting banks regulate themselves, you may like the results of having big poultry companies controlling efforts to prevent contamination of meat and poultry. The tests and results would vary by company, making meaningful comparison impossible and limiting USDA’s ability to assess its program’s effectiveness or conduct strategic planning and reduce threats.
These threats aren’t theoretical either. Hundreds of outbreaks and thousands of illness each year are linked to poultry, many from dangerous bugs like Salmonella and Campylobacter. CSPI’s recent report, Risky Meat, showed chicken and turkey on the top two tiers of a risk pyramid that ranked not just foodborne illness, but severe foodborne illness. That means the illnesses linked to poultry aren’t just inconvenient—they are far more likely to require hospitalization than many of the other meats we commonly eat. By the way, do you think USDA will stop at poultry or is this the future of beef and pork inspection too?
In 2011, Congress passed an important law to improve the safety of foods that FDA regulates (foods other than meat and poultry). It’s high time that Congress updated the Poultry Inspection Act, which was passed more than 40 years ago, and makes USDA more prevention‐oriented as well.
But rather than making wholesale change through rulemaking—and doing so in a sly manner that makes consumer advocates immediately wary that they have been disenfranchised—wouldn’t it be better to gather all stakeholders together to begin the difficult, necessary process of making meat and poultry safer? For an administration that lauds transparency, it is shocking for USDA to propose dramatic changes to poultry inspection without even the benefit of a single public hearing.
If the goal of the project is truly to maximize public health, the agency should institute each change separately, spacing them out and gathering data at each new phase. It is not only common sense, but good science to assess each new change individually in representative slaughterhouses to determine if it has a measurable effect—positive or negative— on the frequency of contaminated birds.
If the experience of passing a new food safety law for FDA taught us anything, it is that consumers, industry, and regulators can work together to further the goals of public health. Similar consensus was reached in the mid‐1990s, when then‐Secretary Dan Glickman convened all stakeholders in a series of public meetings to map out a modern program for preventive controls in meat and poultry products.
When all parties trust that they share a common goal—to prevent illness—alliances like these can move mountains of public health policy in the right direction.
When consumer and worker advocates speak out so strongly against a proposal like the one put forth by USDA to overhaul poultry, it should give everyone pause. Rather than speeding up the process and dashing for the getaway car, the agency should slow down and heed the alarms of its stakeholders.
At a press conference today, the Brazos County Health Department is expected to name both the restaurant and beef supplier involved in the April E. coli outbreak that sickened ten people, including two local boys.
The investigation has determined that five confirmed cases and five probable cases of E. coli O157:H7 infection are associated with an outbreak that occurred during the week of April 15-22.
The local restaurant is said to be cooperating with the investigation, which may have involved such contributing causes as not cooking to a proper temperature or cross-contamination.
Employees and health department monitors have implemented control measures such as mandatory glove use to prevent further cases.
Adults who became ill recovered without hospitalization, but the two College Station boys required extensive care at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston.
The two small businesses, FoodQuestTQ, LLC and Projectioneering LLC are charging that FDA took patent-protected computer automated risk management tools they developed and are now making them available on the government’s website for free.
These include the FDA Food Protection Plan, Food Defense Plan Builder, Food Defense Mitigation Strategies Database, iRisk, and the Food Related Emergency Exercise Box (Free-B). Over the past weekend, the two companies issued a warning to all food companies that all five products on the FDA website are “owned intellectual property” being offered without their permission.
Intellectual property experts not involved in the case say that while information on a government website generally cannot be copyrighted, it is possible that if the government entity acquired copyrighted material without permission, it might be protected.
Bruce H. Becker, president of FoodQuestTQ, and John H. Hnatio, president of Projectioneering, say they don’t really want the patent dispute to extend to third parties, but acknowledged it would happen: “We are trying to be responsible here and warn everybody as soon as we can; it was never our intent to drag the industry into this mess but folks at FDA wouldn’t work with us in a way to resolve the matter.”
Food Safety News invited FDA to comment, but hadn’t received any response by Monday night. Becker and Hnatio are circulating a 34-page “technical paper” on their issues with FDA to federal executive and legislative branches. It includes a ten-page letter from Dale D. Berkley of the Office of the General Council for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), FDA’s parent agency.
“We have uncovered no evidence that FDA or its contractors took or used any trade secrets that you might own,” Berkley’s letter concludes.
He says FoodQuestTQ failed to provide the documents FDA requested in order to be able to do a thorough investigation.
Further, Berkley says no statues were violated in either FDA’s or their contractors’ dealings with the two small businesses. The general council’s office pushed back frequently in the letter by pointing to alleged non-cooperation by the two companies with the investigation.
Needless to say, Becker and Hnatio do not see it that way.
Like others in the private sector, they saw opportunity in the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act.
They began introducing their risk management software to FDA in 2009.
“Our ideas and trade secrets are based on a patent that looks at risk in a new way,” says Hnatio.
The pair say that after working with FDA and investing millions of their own money and that of an angel investor, they learned last fall that the agency had brought on the giant Battelle Memorial Institute. They claim the patent infringement followed.
Once they understood what FDA was doing, the pair offered to give the agency a $1 per year software license to cover all government employees while salvaging its potential for private sales. But they say FDA would not do that.
They then asked for a “good faith review, “ but say that turned into the general council’s defense of FDA’s and HHS’s decision-making on the issue. They’ve now responded with their technical paper.
Hnatio says FDA wants to force them out of business, and the two men have launched a cautionary campaign for other small businesses that might want the federal government as a client.
“The way the system works now the government can steal from small businesses with impunity,” Hnatio says.
Hnatio warns against “sharing anything of value with FDA even if they promise to protect it under the law (Title 18 USC); always remember that anyone including the government can steal your ideas when there’s no one willing to enforce the law.”
Seven previously reported cases of E. coli O157:H7 in Stephens County, GA have become 11, and 10 of those reported eating at the BBQ Shack in Toccoa over the weekend of May 2-4, local health officials say.
Georgia District 2 Public Health spokesman Dave Palmer said 10 of the victims are residents of the Peach State, while the 11th is from South Carolina, according to AccessNorthGa.com.
Announced on May 16, the outbreak involved illness onsets that ran from May 4 to 8. Of the 11 who were sickened, 7 required hospitalization and 5 of those people developed Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS), a complication of E. coli infection, Palmer said.
The Georgia Department of Health (GDPH), North Health District 2, and the Stephens County Health Department are cooperating in the continuing investigation.
The agencies have not detected any cases that began after May 8.
While the victims shared dining experiences at the BBQ Shack, the precise source of the bacteria has not been pinpointed. Palmer says the restaurant is “working closely” with the investigation.
“Epidemiologic, environmental, and laboratory investigations are ongoing. Investigation includes conducting surveillance for any new cases and interviewing case patients and community members. The exact source of infection has not yet been identified,” he said.
The incubation period for the E. coli bacteria is usually two to three days to a week after exposure. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and diarrhea – sometimes bloody.
Anyone experiencing symptoms should seek immediate medical attention and, in the meantime, drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated.
At least 70 people have likely fallen ill with Salmonella after dining at two restaurants within the Holiday Inn Bordeaux in Fayetteville, N.C., according to the Cumberland County Department of Public Health.
Five people have been hospitalized. Twelve of those reporting illness were visiting from out of state.
The hotel has two restaurants inside, the All American Sports Bar and Grill and the Café Bordeaux, both of which appear to be connected to the outbreak.
Health investigators are currently tracing back foods shipped to the hotel in attempt to pinpoint the outbreak source.
The number of Minnesotans sickened with Salmonella poisoning after eating unpasteurized, homemade queso fresco – a Mexican-style cheese – more than doubled before the outbreak ran its course. Health officials said Monday that the number of illnesses in the outbreak have reached 25, up from the 12 cases originally reported two weeks ago. They said the outbreak illustrates the dangers of consuming unpasteurized dairy products.
The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) and the City of Minneapolis have been investigating the outbreak and the source of the raw milk used to make the cheese since the first cases were detected in late April.
MDH confirmed 18 cases of infection with the same strain of Salmonella. An additional seven cases of illness occurred among family members or other contacts of confirmed cases, but no laboratory specimens were available. The individuals fell ill between March 28 and April 24. Of the 25 people sickened, 15 were hospitalized.
All have since recovered. Many patients reported eating unpasteurized queso fresco purchased or received from an individual who made the product in a private home.
Investigators have determined that the individual made home deliveries and also may have sold the product on a street corner near the East Lake Street area of Minneapolis.
The local health officials says anyone who may have purchased or received this product recently should not eat it but should throw it away.
Samples of unpasteurized queso fresco collected from the cheese maker were found to contain the same strain of Salmonella as the illnesses. Investigators determined that the milk used to make the cheese was purchased by the cheese maker from a Dakota County farm. Unpasteurized milk samples collected at the farm were also found to match the outbreak strain.
Dr. Heidi Kassenborg, director of MDA’s Dairy and Food Inspection Division, said: “It only takes a few bacteria to cause illness. Milking a cow is not a sterile process and even the cleanest dairy farms can have milk that is contaminated. That’s why pasteurization – or the heat treatment of milk to kill the harmful pathogens – is so important.”
Minnesota law allows consumers to purchase raw milk products directly from the farm for their own consumption, but they may not be further distributed or sold. Additionally, cheese production facilities need to follow proper food safety laws and regulations, including licensure.
Dr. Carlota Medus, foodborne illness epidemiologist, said the outbreak may be over, as there are no suspect cases pending. However, it is still possible that investigators will learn of additional cases that have not yet been reported from people who consumed cheese prior to health officials’ interventions, which occurred April 23-26.
Health officials are also concerned that this may not be an isolated incident – that there may be other instances of people buying foods like unpasteurized queso fresco prepared by neighbors, friends or family.
“It’s important for people to be aware of the inherent risk of consuming any raw dairy product from any source,” Medus said. “We encourage people to think carefully about those risks and know that the risks are especially high for young children, pregnant women, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems.”
Salmonella bacteria can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections, especially in high-risk groups. Healthy people infected with Salmonella generally experience diarrhea, fever, and abdominal pain. Symptoms normally begin between 12 and 72 hours after consumption of contaminated food but can begin up to a week or more later.
Anyone who believes they may have become ill with a Salmonella infection should contact their health care provider.
The U.S. Department of Justice announced that it was seeking a preliminary injunction against New York City Fish, Inc. and several of the company’s employees on Friday for allegedly manufacturing and distributing ready-to-eat fish products under unsanitary conditions.
According to a FDA press release, the injunction is intended to restrain the fish company “from distributing these products into interstate commerce until they comply with the requirements of the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (Act).”
A complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York states that the FDA conducted 7 inspections at the New York City Fish facility between 2006 and 2013 and that during 6 of those inspections, environmental samples collected later revealed contamination with Listeria monocytogenes, a potentially deadly foodborne pathogen.
The FDA inspectors also allegedly found that the company repeatedly failed to have and implement a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) plan for seafood products; verify required records in a timely manner; and implement required corrective actions. All manufacturers of seafood products must have and implement a HACCP plan for each of its locations that address each process and kind of product processed at the facility and associated food safety hazards that are reasonably likely to occur.
“These companies have ignored previous warnings by the FDA and have continued to produce and distribute products in violation of federal law,” said Melinda Plaisier, the FDA’s acting associate commissioner for regulatory affairs. “This lawsuit shows that the FDA will aim to protect public health by seeking enforcement action against companies that are identified as violating federal requirements.”
At its recent policy conference in Washington, D.C., the Organic Trade Association (OTA) heard from Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack about the future of organic farming.
Vilsack told OTA members that he views organic as “its own separate commodity,” and he is committed to treating it that way. He wants to increase coverage options for organic producers under the federal crop insurance program provided by USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) and promised to remove a 5 percent organic rate surcharge on future crop insurance policies, beginning in 2014.
The Secretary of Agriculture also announced that he will be giving all USDA agencies new directives to take into account concerning the documentation and inspection required for organic certification for eligibility for the department’s programs and policies.
“Organic agriculture is one of the fastest growing segments of American agriculture and helps farmers receive a higher price for their product as they strive to meet growing consumer demand,” said Vilsack. “These new options will extend the safety net provided by crop insurance and provide fair and flexible solutions to organic producers. Coupled with the new guidance for agencies to support this growing sector, USDA recognizes that organics are gaining market share and is helping boost this emerging segment.”
USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) is credited with helping create an organic industry in the U.S that includes 17,000 organic businesses with an estimated $35 billion in retail sales. Organics now ranks fourth in U.S. food and feed crop production in farm-gate values, when viewed as a separate category.
All crops are being evaluated for establishing organic prices for the 2014 crop year. Current pricing options only allow farmers to insure organic crops at the conventional prices, with the exception of eight crops (corn, soybeans, cotton, processing tomatoes, avocados, and several fresh stone fruit crops) that already have premium organic price elections. RMA is working to provide organic price elections for six to ten crops in 2014. Oats and mint are two crops that have already been selected for organic price elections in 2014, and apricots, apples, blueberries, millet, and others are still under consideration.
Organic certification allows farmers and ranchers to receive premium prices for their value-added products. Over the past 10 years, the number of certified organic farms and businesses in the United States has expanded to approximately 17,750, representing a 240 percent increase since USDA first began collecting this data.
The NOP’s standards address conservation, food safety, risk management, export certifications, and other issues. The organic industry is looking for less overlapping requirements and reduced redundancy in paperwork in the new guidance.
USDA’s 2010 Strategic Plan calls for a 25 percent increase in U.S. certified organic businesses by 2015.
The family of a Canadian woman who died from an E. coli infection filed suit against producer grower Tanimura & Antle last week in U.S. District Court in California, alleging her death was caused in part by the consumption of contaminated lettuce sold by the company.
According to court documents, prior to falling ill with fatigue, nausea and bloody diarrhea during the last week of August, 2012, Gail Bernacki of Calgary had consumed a Tanimura & Antle lettuce product that was contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.
Bernacki was allegedly taken by ambulance to Rockyview General Hospital for treatment on August 25. While there, she submitted a stool sample that returned positive for E. coli O157:H7.
The complaint states that subsequent analysis of the E. coli O157:H7 bacteria isolated from her stool showed that it was a genetic match to E. coli O157:H7 bacteria isolated from a sample of Tanimura & Antle romaine lettuce that triggered the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to issue a “Health Hazard Alert” on August 17 and an expanded alert on August 20.
While she was able to return home by the end of Spetember, the court documents state that Bernacki was re-admitted to the hospital for medical care for congestive heart failure and failure to thrive in January, 2013. The lawsuit alleges that her original E. coli O157:H7 infection contributed to her decline and, ultimately, her death on January 16, 2013.
“Although growers of leafy greens have made huge strides in food safety since the E. coli outbreak of 2006,” said Bill Marler, attorney for the Bernacki family and publisher of Food Safety News, “this case shows that there is more to do.”
On its face, the upcoming trial of Vernon Hershberger, which starts today, is about food and dairy licensing and the Wisconsin farmer’s refusal to seek out certain permits. Hershberger is accused of four criminal misdemeanors. The first three include failing to have a retail food establishment license, operating a dairy farm as a milk producer without a license, and operating a dairy plant without a license. The fourth accusation is that Hershberger violated a holding order from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (DATCP) in June 2010, when he cut the agency tape shuttering his farm store, and resumed serving his food club members.
While some of Hershberger’s supporters have wanted to see the trial turned into a debate over raw milk, the judge in the case, Guy Reynolds, reaffirmed the narrow focus on regulation when he ruled during a pretrial hearing Tuesday that issues related to raw milk can’t be introduced by either the prosecution or defense.
The technical legalities of the case, however, fail to convey the case’s national political importance. Other cases similar to Hershberger’s have sprouted around the country, from Maine to California, where owners of small farms are selling meat, raw dairy products, and other staples directly to consumers in search of wholesome food. The controversy, and attendant legal problems, stem from the fact that the farmers are increasingly selling their food via private contracts, outside the regulatory system of state and local licenses and inspections that govern public food sales.
Federal and state regulators have responded by seeking legal sanctions against farmers in Maine, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and California, as well as in Wisconsin. These sanctions include injunctions, fines, and even possible prison time. Food sold by unlicensed and uninspected food is potentially dangerous, say the regulators, since it can carry pathogens like Salmonella, Campylobacter, and E.coli O157:H7, leading to mild or even serious illness.
While these cases are testing the limits of food regulation, they raise deeper and more fundamental questions. Why would hard-working, normally law-abiding farmers be teaming with educated urban and suburban consumers to flaunt licensing and permitting regulations and statutes that have held sway for decades? Why would parents, who want only the best for their children, be seeking out food that regulators say could be dangerous?
Indeed, if you talk to individuals who belong to Hershberger’s food club, many of them from the Madison, WI, area, they talk about food choices and health rather than permits and licenses. Jenny DeLoney, a Madison, WI, mother of three young children., says she buys food from Hershberger because she wants food from animals that are treated humanely, allowed to roam on the pasture. “I really want food that is full of nutrients and the animals to be happy and content.”
Jennifer Bell, a Madison mother of two children, has been buying eggs, beef, honey, and raw milk from Hershberger for the last three years. “I’ve seen a lot of improvements in my digestive system” during that time, she says. Her son’s stomachaches have disappeared as well. She believes Hershberger’s farm-raised food is more wholesome and nutritious than mass-produced food in the supermarkets, and that her and her family’s health improvements are testimony to that reality.
Another member, Joy Martinson of Mt. Horeb, says the fact that her health has improved has reinforced her sense that she should have a choice in her food: “I am an informed consumer and I choose to obtain healthy food directly from the farmer without government intervention.”
Hershberger himself talks about “the fundamental right of farmers and consumers to engage in peaceful, private, mutually consenting agreements for food.”
These individuals are clearly interpreting “health” and “safety” differently than the regulators. The consumers have seen such things as videos of downer cows being prodded into slaughterhouses and chickens so crammed into coops they can barely breathe. They have seen the statistics showing that eight percent of children today have allergies and nine percent have asthma. To these individuals, safety is much more than the single-minded focus regulators place on pathogens. To many of them, who are parents, safety means not only food free of pathogens, but food free of pesticides, antibiotic residues, genetically modified (GMO) ingredients, and excessive processing.
Some consumers are going further than claiming contract rights—they are pushing their towns and cities to legitimize private farmer-consumer arrangements. In Maine, residents of nine coastal towns have convinced town meetings to pass so-called “food sovereignty” ordinances that legalize unregulated food sales; towns in other states, including Massachusetts and Vermont, have passed similar ordinances.
The new legal offensive hasn’t gone over well with regulators. Maine’s Department of Agriculture filed suit against a two-cow farmer, Dan Brown, in one of the food-sovereignty towns, Blue Hill, seeking fines and, in effect, to invalidate the ordinances. A state judge in late April sided with the state, issuing an injunction barring Brown from continuing his unregulated food sales, and in effect invalidating the Blue Hill ordinance. Brown is planning an appeal.
At its heart, this is a struggle over a steady erosion of confidence in the integrity of our industrial food system, which has been hit by disturbing disclosures seemingly on a weekly basis. Members of Congress and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control have in recent weeks escalated warnings about the growing danger of antibiotic-resistant pathogens emerging from farm animals, which consume about 80 per cent of all antibiotics in the U.S. The Atlantic reported last summer that medical specialists are seeing a spike in women with urinary tract infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria, likely transmitted by chicken meat. Voters in a number of states have mobilized to push for laws requiring labeling of foods for the presence of GMO ingredients.
Eroding confidence in the food system is no small matter. It threatens large corporations in serious ways if long-established food brands come under prolonged and severe public questioning. It threatens economic performance if foods deemed “safe” become scarcer, and thus more expensive. And it is potentially explosive politically if too many people lose confidence in the competence and expertise of the food regulators, and encourages folks to seek private solutions.
The battle seems almost certain to intensify, as more farmers like Hershberger hook up with consumers for private food sales and regulators hunker down to deter the end run around existing regulatory protocols. No matter what the jury’s decision in this case, we will hopefully see the emergence of a new broader view and discussion about the meaning of food safety.
Without necessarily knowing the term “traceability,” consumers have been calling for it in their food system for a long time. The evidence of that comes from the food industry itself, with its increased emphasis on where food came from. Many companies now highlight certain locations or farmers in brand names, commercials, or through packaging and labels.
Food marketing has become more and more about the story of the product and how it got to the shelf at the grocery store or onto the plate at a restaurant.
But now that question has been taken one step further, as consumers wonder whether the information they are given is accurate, or whether the company has the whole picture. In the European Union, consumer confidence in labeling information was shaken during the recent horsemeat scandal, when beef sold at retail and in restaurants was widely found to contain horsemeat.
The ability to follow meat to its source is important not only from an integrity standpoint but from a safety standpoint. In the case of a foodborne illness outbreak, tracing contaminated meat back to its source quickly is key.
What’s happening in the United States to ensure that meat can be traced back through every step of production, and that what’s on the label reflects exactly what’s in the package?
Proactive industry coordination for better traceability
Part of the recent Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law in 2011, emphasizes more rapid and accurate determination of foodborne illness outbreak sources, a feat that requires accurate traceback information. While FSMA affects the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and has no regulatory impact on the meat industry (meat is under USDA’s jurisdiction), the yet-to-be-defined traceability requirements in the 2011 law have influenced the meat industry to analyze its own traceback systems. Industry leaders have formed mpXML, a non-profit trade association focused on data tracking along the supply chain.
Earlier this month, mpXML released a “model for critical tracking event traceability.” Board member Douglas Bailey, who also works for USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Service, said the model was “a deliberative document that should be used to educate and inform future discussions about what we should change about traceability here in the U.S.”
“We don’t take a position in the paper on whether this is too burdensome or whether we should do more,” Benson said in an interview with Food Safety News. “This is just an example of what [a traceability system] would look like.”
The mpXML model, which included contributions by employees at Tyson Foods, Safeway, Wegmans, GS1 US, Food Services of America, and others, looked at six different “events” that occur along the supply chain to determine what data collection must be done at each point. Those events include input and output transportation, shipping, receiving, consumption and disposal.
“If you’re a supply chain company, you need to understand if you have one of those events that needs to be documented, and you need to understand what you need to document for that event,” Benson said. “Once you understand that, the next question is how can I efficiently capture it.”
Benson said there are two top priorities for improving traceability in the meat industry. The first is consistency in “global identifiers,” such as avoiding retail and supplier SKUs that do not help in tracing back up the supply chain. The second is focusing on consumption and disposal events.
According mpXML, a consumption event occurs when “a traceable product becomes available to consumers.” A disposal event occurs when “a traceable product is destroyed or discarded or otherwise handled in a manner that the product can no longer be used as a food ingredient or become available to consumers.”
“[Consumption and disposal events] are so poorly understood by health authorities,” Benson said. “The suppliers do a pretty good job of documenting the input and the output. It all goes downhill from there, as it moves through the supply chain.”
The consumer advocate’s point of view
Chris Waldrop, Director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America, agreed that meat tracing can fall apart as it gets closer to the consumer, especially at the grocery store where butchers are grinding meat to sell by the pound.
“There have been a number of cases of an outbreak of illness, then when FSIS is doing their traceback activities and they get to the retail store, the record keeping is not sufficient for them to be able to determine where the product came from, and when it was ground in the store,” Waldrop said in an interview with Food Safety News. “They kind of hit a dead end.”
There are other areas along the supply chain where following the product back to the next step becomes difficult, most notably from when the cow leaves the feed lot to when it leaves the slaughterhouse as beef.
“It’s not really a strong link between what goes in the plant and what goes out of it,” Waldrop said. “And part of it is because animal ID has been discussed as an animal disease traceability system and not a food safety traceability system.”
The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service regulates live animal identification. The agency released its final rule on animal traceability on December 20, 2012. Under the new regulation, if livestock is transported across state lines, it has to be identified and certified by veterinarian inspection.
In a statement, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said that the law will “target when and where animal diseases occur, and help us respond quickly.”
Waldrop said the Consumer Federation of America believes a safe meat industry should begin on the farm.
“We definitely support an on-farm approach to food safety,” Waldrop said. “There is no federal agency that has jurisdiction [over food safety] on the farm. FSIS’s jurisdiction starts at the slaughterhouse door. As a result, you can’t set requirements [on the farm]. You have to figure out ways to incentivize producers to make those changes.”
But as seen in the EU this year, traceability of meat products is not only about foodborne illness. Widespread economic adulteration and fraud through misbranding have now been revealed as realistic concerns. The obvious question is can that type of scandal happen in the United States?
Former USDA chief veterinarian Dr. Bill James says our web of regulatory safeguards makes it unlikely.
“The multiple interlocking import controls FSIS has in place – including country equivalence, plant certification, product eligibility, foreign audits, import re-inspection, and species testing – make the chances of a European-style horse adulteration scandal here immeasurably small,” James said in an interview with Food Safety News. “Add to this fact that there has been no horse slaughter here in the U.S. for years. In my professional opinion FSIS has taken all reasonable precautions to prevent such an event.”
James said that DNA species testing by FSIS is conducted for up to six species, including beef, pork, lamb, poultry, deer, and equine. According to James, in 2011, the FSIS did 11,308 species tests on 2,272 samples, and had three failures. In 2012, FSIS conducted 2,772 on 555 samples tests and had zero failures. The department tested 80 samples for equine in 2011 and 2012, and none were positive.
There is no federal law on the sale or consumption of horsemeat, but starting in 2006 and ending in 2011, Congress annually prohibited the use of any user fees or federal funds to go toward antemortem (pre-slaughter) inspection, effectively ending all domestic horse slaughter operations.
In 2011, after a GAO report titled “Horse Welfare: Action needed to address unintended consequences from cessation of domestic slaughter,” Congress ended the ban on federal money being spent on horse inspection.
Since the ban was lifted, horse slaughterhouses have applied to FSIS for inspectors. Earlier this month, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told the Associated Press that a slaughter facility in New Mexico would open unless Congress acted, stating that the USDA is “duty-bound to do what needs to be done to allow that plant to begin processing.”
Even with the possibility of horse slaughter resuming domestically, James is not concerned.
“That product is going to demand a higher price on export than they could get for labeling as something else,” James said. “There is not an economic incentive to do so.”