April 2007

www.forbes.com posted:

FDA: No Sign of Human Illness from Hogs Exposed to Melamine

In a joint statement, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) stressed, "We are not aware of any human illness that has occurred from exposure to melamine or its by-products." They added that they have identified no illnesses in swine fed the contaminated feed.

The USDA first announced on Thursday that meat from 345 hogs suspected of eating the contaminated feed had entered the U.S. food supply. Some 6,000 hogs suspected of eating the contaminated product have since been quarantined and meat from these animals would be withheld from the food supply, both agencies said.

The recall of melamine-contaminated pet food has been ongoing for weeks now with dozens of deaths and illness of pets throughout the United States. Given that these products were recalled, one really has to ask – “why were pigs being fed recalled pet food?”  And, "can you really trust the government with our food safety given the last several months filled with outbreaks of salmonella-tainted tomatoes and peanut butter and E. coli-tainted meat, spinach and lettuce?"

Joint FDA/USDA Press Release

The Vancouver B.C. Province reports – Spaghetti Factory food scare

Patrons of Langley’s Old Spaghetti Factory at 20077 91 A Avenue are being warned about a case of Hepatitis A in a food handler.  The risk is low, but health officials are warning some patrons to get a vaccine to be safe.  Anyone who was at the restaurant after 3 p.m. on April, 14, 17, 18, 19 or after 12:45 p.m. on April 20 or 21 is asked to get a Hepatitis A vaccination.

Given that I am sitting in the Seattle airport about to head to Canada, I must comment on how friendly and nice a Canadian food service establishment is to be so accommodating.

In the same week that reports of the settlements of spinach-releated death cases were announced, millions of dollars for California citrus growers were OK’d by congressional negotiators on Monday as part of a massive spending bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bill contains:  $20 million for citrus farmers in California to rehabilitate orchards damaged in the five-night freeze in January; $3.5 billion for agriculture disaster relief nationwide, including $1.85 billion for crop loss compensation, $1.7 billion for livestock loss compensation and $21 million for farm worker assistance grants.

Dropped was $25 million for spinach growers who suffered losses from last fall’s E. coli scare in the state. That money had been in the House version of the bill and, along with some other items, had been widely ridiculed (by me) as an example of pork-barrel spending which the White House and some lawmakers opposed.

Oink!

The ongoing pet food recall by the Food and Drug Administration has now expanded to pork and poultry.  According to an FDA report, five states including California have quarantined hog farms and one poultry farm in Missouri due to concerns that feed was contaminated with melamine, the ingredient linked to kidney failure in dogs and cats. Salvage pet food from manufacturers that are part of the pet recall have been traced to these farms. Test results have shown traces of the contaminant in the hogs’ urine. Thus far all the contaminated wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate have been traced to two distributors in China. However the FDA is expanding its testing of imported products to include corn meal, rice bran and soy protein. These imported ingredients may be used for human consumption in products such as bread, pasta, baby formula and pizza dough.  The FDA will be taking samples from as many food manufacturers as possible and testing them for melamine contamination.

Answer – Congressional Hearings

Full Hearing Written Testimony and Podcast Here

Andrew Bridge of the Associated Press wrote today of Congressman Stupak’s led panel shines spotlight on food safety.  Part of the story is below, the rest of the story (whether Congress actually does something) has still not been written.

Families victimized by tainted spinach and peanut butter put a human face Tuesday on a recent string of high-profile outbreaks of foodborne illness, urging lawmakers to strengthen federal oversight of the nation’s food supply. "I can’t protect them from spinach — only you guys can. I can’t," said Michael Armstrong, as he and wife, Elizabeth, cradled daughters Ashley, 2, and Isabella, 5. The two girls fell ill — Ashley gravely — in September after eating a salad made with a triple-washed bag of the leafy greens contaminated by E. coli.

Also testifying was Gary Pruden, whose 11-year-old son Sean was seriously sickened in November by E. coli after eating at a Taco Bell restaurant. Pruden said a key element of trade and commerce is trust — whether placed in accountants, airline pilots or auto mechanics. "That is also extended to the trust in the food we order or buy from the grocery store — that it’s edible and safe. Without that trust, commerce cannot work. And where failure occurs, oversight is required," Pruden told the subcommittee.

The popular Peter Pan brand of peanut butter was the subject of a nationwide recall in February after a salmonella outbreak. Terri Marshall said her mother-in-law, Mora Lou Marshall, has been hospitalized or in a nursing home since early January, after she became seriously ill from eating Peter Pan. The elder Marshall, 85, had kept a jar of the peanut butter on her nightstand to supplement her diet — and had unwittingly continued to eat it, even after she fell ill. "The very food she thought would improve her health had begun to ravage her body," Terri Marshall said.

Natural Selection Foods which packaged the tainted spinach says it’s now testing all greens that arrive at its facility, and Con-Agra says it’s spending up to $20 million to modify the plant where the bad peanut butter was produced

"Again we are truly sorry for any harm our peanut butter products caused," Con-Agra spokesman David Colo said.

The San Francisco Chronicle also covered the story – see HERE

PBS News Hour coverage – see HERE

The agency acknowledged the need for change but said it couldn’t have prevented illnesses linked to peanut butter and spinach.

Elizabeth Williamson of the Washington Post wrote an interesting article about what FDA may have know and if they chose to ignore problems or simply did not have the manpower or mandate to do anything about it.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has known for years about contamination problems at a Georgia peanut butter plant and on California spinach farms that led to disease outbreaks that killed three people, sickened hundreds, and forced one of the biggest product recalls in U.S. history, documents and interviews show.  Overwhelmed by huge growth in the number of food processors and imports, however, the agency took only limited steps to address the problems and relied on producers to police themselves, the documents show.  FDA officials conceded that its system needs to be overhauled but denied that the agency could have done anything to prevent either contamination episode.

On Tuesday, the House Energy and Commerce committee will hold a hearing into the unprecedented spate of recalls, including the recent contamination of pet food with melamine.  “This administration does not like regulation, this administration does not like spending money, and it has a hostility toward government. The poisonous result is that a program like the FDA is going to suffer at every turn of the road,” said Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the panel, who is considering legislation to boost the agency’s accountability, regulatory authority and budget.

It will be an interesting hearing.

“A Diminished Capacity: Can the FDA Assure the Safety and Security of the Nation’s Food Supply?”

My name is William Marler. My law firm Marler Clark, located in Seattle, Washington, specializes in foodborne diseases, especially E. coli, Salmonella, Hepatitis A, Campylobacter, Shigella, Norovirus, and Listeria. Unfortunately, we at Marler Clark have been “in business” since The Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak of 1993. I was here in 1994 during the last set of serious hearings about the safety of our food supply. Demand for our litigation services on behalf of witnesses such as Ashley and Isabella Armstrong, Sean Pruden and Terri Marshal’s mother-in-law has continued to grow at an alarming rate.
Today, the U.S. Center for Disease Control estimates that there are 76 million cases of foodborne illness annually. That means one in four Americans will contact a foodborne disease every year. Hundreds of thousands will be hospitalized and thousands will die.

My clients who will testify before this committee are but a small slice of your constituents who will suffer and die needlessly each year and every year unless action is taken. That’s the human suffering part. There is also the business part. Billions of dollars will be spent on medical treatment and many more billions will be lost in wages and in sales of food. When American business poisons its customers and when our regulatory agencies do not have the manpower or the ability to help business perform, people die and market share is lost, nationally and internationally.

My goal in testifying here today is that you put Marler Clark “out of business.” It is time that you help government, help business, help consumers and make me unnecessary. I will do that by presenting best practices and other recommendations that can make that possible. Therefore, I thank this committee for inviting me to help with a dialogue about making the food chain safer for consumers.

The issue of food safety is not new, of course. A century ago Upton Sinclair’s book “The Jungle” exposed both contamination of meat processing and the corruption that lead inspectors to look the other way.

Three-quarters of the nation’s lettuce and spinach come from California. When consumer confidence in the safety of the produce food chain declines, so does the profitability of a key industry. There is also damage to the brandnames of a state’s specific products.  These business implications extend beyond California. More companies, ranging from food processors to retailers, are asking for help to regain their “reputational capital” after foodborne disease problems. Will the brandnames of the fast-food chains involved in the recent E. coli outbreaks fully recover? The jury is out on that one.

What has changed since Upton Sinclair’s “Jungle” are two things.

One, the source of disease has shifted from the meat that Sinclair described to produce. As usually happens, it took a crisis for incidences of E. coli in meat to decline. That crisis occurred in the early 1990s. Undercooked hamburgers containing E. coli from Jack in the Box sickened 650 people, four of them children who died.  Shortly, I will discuss how that problem was fixed, perhaps not completely, and the important lessons we as a nation should learn from that. Incidentally, that has been one of the major food safety success stories of our time. According to the CDC, E. coli outbreaks linked to tainted meat have declined by 42 percent. The American Meat Institute puts that figure at 80 percent.  Currently, the single largest source of food-borne disease is produce such as lettuce, spouts, tomatoes, spinach, green onions and parsley. Here are some figures. In the past 10 years, the Food and Drug Administration – the FDA – reported 21 outbreaks related to fresh leafy products. In 2006, 205 people became sick and five died from eating E. coli contaminated spinach. Late last year and throughout this year, the CDC reported that over 425 people in 44 states have become infected with Salmonella Tennessee found in peanut butter. More than 70 have been hospitalized. From experience, we know cases of Salmonella Tennessee go under-reported. It is likely that the sick may well be over 15,000. In the Northeast there was an outbreak of sickness from milk from a dairy processor that has had recurrent food safety issues.

The second development that’s new in food safety has been the result of changing times. Here are just a handful of new variables we’re dealing with:

1.The threat of terrorist attacks via the food system. Just as too many couldn’t imagine the horror of 9/11, too many cannot envision this kind of disaster.

2.Growth of food imports. The latest problem came from contaminated wheat gluten from China. That affected animals not humans. That might do the trick in getting us to be duly concerned about imports of everything from pesticide-sprayed pea pods to salmonella infection in pigs from the European Union.

3.The well-intentioned but scientifically questionable use of “environmental-friendly practices” such as recycled water and planting native grasses.

So, how can we ensure that the gains in food safety that have already been made are preserved and the new problems addressed?  From research and experience, here are eight recommendations.

First of all, there exist two “best practices” in meat that should be extended to produce. Following the Jack in the Box crisis, the head of the U.S.D.A.’s Food and Safety Inspection service took a regulatory and systems approach to food safety. That “hero” was Michael Taylor. Taylor declared that raw ground beef that is contaminated with E. coli would be classified and treated as “adulterated” within the meaning of the Federal Meat Inspection Act. Taylor also introduced a mandatory Risk Management System. The required meat processors to adopt comprehensive precautions. Those included carcass washes, citric acid sprays, steam pasteurization and air-exchange systems.  Following Taylor’s example, we must serve notice to produce and other food processors that E. coli, salmonella, etc. will be classified and treated as adulterants. In addition, the same kind of comprehensive Risk Management System must be established and implemented. Penalties must be criminal and civil.  When these best practices are adopted, firms will have to certify that not only they, but that every aspect of their supply chain, also are in compliance. Branding can and should reflect this certification of both the firms and their suppliers. This would be a new kind of “Seal of Approval.” This “Seal of Approval” can also apply to such issues as the location of produce fields near animal farms, what kinds of procedures are used, and the method of irrigation as well as the type of water used.

Two, we need the same kind of food safety champion that Taylor was. This person would be a highly visible symbol of our commitment. Along these lines, it is useful to consider consolidating responsibility in one federal-level agency. That would be the central point for communication about best practices and the point of contact for state and local regulators and health departments.

Three, the track record of business for issuing warnings and recalls rapidly isn’t good.  The federal and state governments should have authority to do this. That means increased funding, particularly at the state level. Most outbreaks are regional, not national.

Four, produce an E. coli vaccine for cows. I would say that the lion’s share of produce problems result from this contaminant passed on through cow feces.

Five, the nation requires education about the benefits of irradiation of all mass-produced food including produce. Resistance to this practice seems to be rooted in public perception, not science.

Six, attention has to be paid to the vulnerability of our food supply system to acts of terrorism. Denial and lack of common sense seem to dominate thinking at all levels – business and federal and state government.

Seven, why haven’t we applied our economic and political muscle to imposing more stringent regulations on food imports? This is a central trade issue that has been neglected.

And, eight, there’s an urgent need to improve the resources available to foodborne disease victims. At the top of the list are the out-of-pocket medical costs. Those are usually not immediately or even eventually reimbursed by medical insurance if victims have coverage. By time compensation comes from litigation, the person could be heavily in debt. Next on the list is the expense of missing work. Marler Clark has been encouraging food processors and retailers to provide this help as a gesture of goodwill.

Let me wrap this up with one thought. Just as the boldness, courage and relentlessness of Michael Taylor made meat safer, these eight recommendations can ensure the integrity of the rest of the food chain. And better care for victims. Let me say again: “I ask this committee to put us at Marler Clark out of business.” Thank you.

Continue Reading WRITTEN TESTIMONY BEFORE THE COMMITTEE ON ENERGY AND COMMERCE

I’m off to Washington D.C. on Monday to attend the following hearing.  I was there in January pitching hearings on the safety (or lack of it) of our food supply.  I posted on January 5, 2007.  I am working on my written testimony and hope to post it here either later tonight or Monday.  Despite thirteen years of foodborne illness experience, the Committee staff felt that having a lawyer for victims testify would make some of the Republican Committee Members upset.  So, I’ll be proud to have my clients testify instead.

Committee on Energy and Commerce
Rep. John D. Dingell, Chairman

MEDIA ADVISORY:

Oversight and Investigations
The Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations will hold a hearing on Tuesday, April 24, 2007, at 9:30 a.m. in room 2123 Rayburn House Office Building. The hearing is entitled “A Diminished Capacity: Can the FDA Assure the Safety and Security of the Nation’s Food Supply?”

This hearing is part of the Committee’s broader investigation into the safety of our nation’s food supply and the declining ability of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to conduct inspections and perform laboratory analysis. The hearing will focus on the recent contamination of pet food, peanut butter and spinach. Witnesses will include victims of food borne illnesses resulting from the outbreaks as well as representatives from the companies responsible for producing the contaminated products.

WITNESS LIST

Panel I

Dole Spinach E. coli Outbreak
Ms. Elizabeth Armstrong
Accompanied by Ashley and Isabella Armstrong
Indiana

Taco Bell E. coli Outbreak
Mr. Gary Pruden
Accompanied by Sean Pruden
Pennsylvania

Peter Pan Salmonella Outbreak
Ms. Terri Marshall
Louisiana

Panel II

Dr. Anthony DeCarlo
Red Bank Veterinary Hospital
Mr. Charles Sweat
President
Natural Selection Foods

Mr. Paul K. Henderson
Chief Executive Officer
Menu Foods Income Fund

Ms. Lisa Shames
Acting Director
Natural Resources and Environment
U.S. Government Accountability Office

Panel III

Mr. David Colo
Senior Vice President – Manufacturing
ConAgra Foods, Inc.

Mr. Stephen S. Miller
Chief Executive Officer
ChemNutra, Inc.

E. coli and little league baseball should not mix.  I can not imagine why a system seems to use kids as guniea pigs to figure out when an E. coli outbreak is happening.  It will be interesting to see if Richwood Meat tested for E. coli prior to it being shipped to customers in at least five States.

Little Leaguers sickened; Richwood Meat recalls 100,000 pounds of beef

More than 100,000 pounds of frozen ground beef patties processed by a Merced company were recalled after three Little League teammates fell ill with E. coli from tainted hamburgers, officials said Friday. Richwood Meat Co. issued a voluntary recall of the year-old frozen beef, which was produced in late April and early May 2006. The Merced plant distributes meat in California, Arizona, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

I got the following email from John Munsell, USDA critic and very smart guy:

Overnight, I see that FSIS has issued yet another recall notice # 20-2007, covering the recall of over 107,000 lbs of ground beef for potential E.coli contamination (see Attachment).   I hope this doesn’t presage a banner year for E.coli recalls.  It’s not even May yet, and we’ve just had two sizeable recalls announced in one day.

You may know that Richwood Meat Co also conducted a voluntary recall of 90,000 lbs of ground beef for E.coli contamination on February 24, 2004 (Recall # 7-2004).  FYI, I contacted Richwood Meat Co on February 26, 2004 and had a long visit with them.  The most interesting portion of my notes of that conversation is the statement “They said that USDA has so far shown no desire whatsoever to trace back the contaminant to the source of contamination”.

It will be interesting to watch FSIS’ actions during this current recall to see if the agency’s attitude has changed in the last three years.

Perhaps 2007 will be the year during which these large, victimized further processing plants will stand up for their rights, and demand that public health imperatives are best served by the agency going upstream to the true origin of contamination.  The ability of Richwood and other large non-slaughter grinding establishments to fully remove (or even detect) pathogens from previously contaminated meat is limited.  If FSIS continues to focus 100 % of its enforcement actions against these hapless downline plants, we simply must concede the fact that multiple recurrences of production of E.coli-contaminated meat will occur because the sloppy kill floor dressing procedures are not being corrected, with tacit agency approval under HACCP’s deregulated unmbrella.

The agency currently has two golden opportunities to identify the true source of contamination, rather than to be content with hagriding the destination of contamination.  If FSIS breaks from past tradition, and successfully forces the source to implement corrective action, it will gain countless admirers.

John Munsell

See also, Year-old meat recalled after E. coli cases