December 2009

AP’s Christopher Leonard and Mae Anderson in their story, “Restaurants, food makers defend products after report that treated beef may still harbor germs,” asked the obvious question that the New York Times did not ask – “Would customers of Beef Product Inc.’ ammonia treated meat product, continue to buy it after the front page New York Times expose?”

Apparently the answer is, “keep that low-cost meat product coming.” According to the AP:

… Restaurant chains and beef processors defended their products’ safety Thursday after a report that an ammonia treatment thought to kill harmful germs in meat isn’t as effective as the industry and regulators believed. …

… McDonald’s said it doesn’t plan to change its relationship with the company. …

… Cargill spokesman Mark Klein said the company plans to continue to work with Beef Products, whose meat it uses in hamburger patties. …

… Burger King uses a “small percentage” of Beef Products Inc.’s beef trimmings in its U.S. hamburgers and does not plan to change that, spokeswoman Denise Wilson said.

Other restaurants and the federal school lunch program, which buy millions of pounds of the ammonia meat product yearly, have not yet weighed in on future purchasing plans.

It will also be interesting to see what consumers (those who actually eat the ammonia beef product) do. The meat product industry is betting that consumers simply do not care what they put in their mouths.

Laws

The U.S. Congress and Legislatures in most of the 50 states will all be back in session as 2010 begins. In Washington D.C., work should resume on food safety reform. To get through to the President’s desk, the Senate must adopt S. 510, conference with the House, and then see the compromise bill passed by both houses.

If all that takes until spring, look for the President to sign the bill in the First Lady’s new White House Kitchen Garden.

State laws are always all over the map, and 2010 will be no different. Look for some agricultural states to follow Georgia in making it a felony to knowingly ship contaminated food.

Look for several states to close loopholes that are used to peddle overpriced raw milk to an unsuspecting public while advocates push for more liberal laws so raw milk can be sold with fewer restrictions.

Regulations & Enforcement

The major regulatory decision that could come down in 2010 is the one that would make all enterohemorrhagic shiga toxin-producing serotypes of Escherichia coli (E. coli), including non-O157 serotypes, adulterants within the meaning of the Federal Meat Inspection Act (21 U.S.C. § 601[m][1]).

Seattle food safety attorney Bill Marler and some of the victims of non-O157 E. coli infections, who he represents, petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) for the regulatory change. Not since President Bill Clinton’s FSIS declared E. coli O157:H7 an adulterant after the 1993 Jack-in-the-Box outbreak has there been such a dramatic action out of the agency that regulates big beef.

About 2,700 state and local health agencies are the foundation of the food safety regulations and enforcement system. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has been tracking those agencies, and recently reported the number of outbreak investigations is falling and the number of investigations where the source is identified is dropping.

The investigative capacity of these important agencies is unlikely to increase during 2010, a year that will see state budgets more hard-pressed than at any time since the Great Depression. Most state and regional agencies count on their Legislatures for their budget support.

Meat Industry

As 2009 ended, Brazil-based JBS rescued Pilgrim’s Pride from bankruptcy court, making its creditors whole. In doing so, it joined Tyson and Cargill in the top three of the U.S. meat industry. (See "JBS Takeover of Pilgrim’s Pride Approved," Oct. 17, 2009).

Together the three behemoths control more than 80 percent of the U.S. meat market, and unlike times in the past, it is a nameless, faceless industry sector. Whether anyone in the Cargill, Tyson, and JBS line-up steps up in 2010 will be interesting to watch.

Since 2007, there’s been an explosion in the number of pounds of beef recalled for E. coli O157:H7 contamination. The industry’s only answer has been its petition for whole carcass irradiation without labeling. Antibiotic-resistant Salmonella showing up in ground beef brings more silence and kicking the dirt by big meat. And how about your odds of getting out of any grocery store in America with a chicken that is NOT contaminated by either Salmonella or Campylobacter or both?

With such a line-up of major issues negatively impacting the industry, some think 2010 will be the year big meat re-tools and steps forward with some new leadership.

Superbugs

Superbugs, bacteria that are resistant to normally prescribed antibiotics, are increasingly in the news. For example, late in 2009, came the report that a new E. coli strain has "emerged with rapid global speed."

Superbugs are the flip side of the coin to the low dose use of antibiotics in animal feed to promote the growth of pigs, sheep, chickens, and cattle. As long ago as 1963, British researchers linked drug resistant strains of Salmonella to antibiotics fed to cattle.

Out West last summer, people who ate ground beef produced by Denver-based King Soopers and Fresno-based Beef Packers Inc. were infected with strains of Salmonella that did not respond to normally prescribed antibiotics.

This means treatment, if possible, starts to get very costly. Longer hospital stays were required for those Colorado victims last summer, and it will cost $150 per day, per person to treat victims of ST131 if it ends up running wild throughout the third world.

Also in 2009, the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-MA, and Sen. Olympia Snow, R-ME, introduced the "Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act," which in two years would end animal use of antibiotics deemed "important to human health."

FDA, which 50 years ago approved the use of antibiotics in low doses to help animals grow faster, could conceivably impose a ban on its own. That could be on the table in 2010.

Local Food

In 2009 the local food movement in the United States picked up a major benefactor, First Lady Michelle Obama. It was not long after her interest was known, that the entire U.S. Department of Agriculture joined in with its "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" program.

In fact, USDA did do much more than some re-branding and re-organizing itself for a new constituency–all those small, local, and organic farmers who want to sell their goods to nearby folks.

By measures available, growth in farmers markets and in so-called Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), the local food movement is real.‚Ä® In cities and suburbs, people love going to the nation’s nearly 5,000 farmers markets, many held on Saturday mornings during the growing seasons.

And buying some "shares" from a CSA farmer in the winter can get you deliveries of a basket of fruits and vegetables all summer. Keeping your dollars flowing in your local community is almost always a good idea.

Under the Farm Bill, USDA is even going to allow some state-inspected slaughter houses to sell across state lines in 2010.

For sure, 2010 will be another year of growth for local food. Will it embrace its responsibility for food safety and come to understand that standards and regulations are in its best interest? This is a time of change and reform, and local food needs to be at the table, not sneaking out the back door.

Large unemployment throughout the country is also giving the local food movement an opportunity to be responsible in another way–getting leftovers to food banks. Just do it safely!

Vaccines

Since some states–like Texas–have made Hepatitis A vaccines mandatory for school children, there has been a dramatic disease reduction. Similar reductions might be in the offing if vaccine trials conducted in 2010 are successful.

First on the non-human front, vaccines for E. coli in cattle are going to be tested in a big way by the two companies that are out front in the research. They are Willmar, MN-based Epitopix and Canada’s Bioniche Life Sciences.

The two companies should know by year-end if they have an economically viable vaccine, one that might reduce E. coli O157:H7 in cattle by 65 to 75 percent.

In human drug trials should be a vaccine against the pathogen Campylobacter jejuni, at the U.S. Naval Medical Research Center in Silver Spring and Canadian scientist Mario Monteiro. It has successfully protected against infection in monkeys and is now slated for human clinical trials.

Then there’s Dr. Mahdi Saeed’s vaccine for Enterotoxigenic E. coli, the bug responsible for traveler’s diarrhea that has killed millions of children in the third world. The Michigan State University researcher’s vaccine has such promise it was picked by Discovery Magazine as one of the top 100 stories of 2009.

Food Imports

In late 2009, the "Import Safety Commercial Targeting and Analysis Center" (CTAC) was opened by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to make sure food imported to the U.S. is safe.

Imported food and its safety are going to get a lot of attention in 2010. The Import Safety CTAC came out of the President’s Food Safety Working Group, which is charged with advising on how to "modernize the beleaguered U.S. food safety system."

Food imports, especially fresh produce from outside U.S. borders, are coming in for attention after the past few years of spectacular growth.

In 2008, Chinese imports reached $5.2 billion, making China the third-largest source of U.S. food imports. About 41 percent of this import value was from fish and seafood, most of it farm-raised. Juices and pickled, dried, and canned vegetables, and fruit accounted for the other 25 percent.

According to the USDA, about 60 percent of all American apple juice, 50 percent of garlic, 10 percent of shrimp and 2 percent of catfish are imported from China.

A July 2009 report by the Economic Research Service of the USDA said it is often difficult to ensure that suppliers in far-flung locations operate according to the high U.S. safety standards and tight quality controls.

Traceability

The Produce Traceability Initiative is the grower-vendor answer to events like the outbreaks involving spinach and (FDA thought) tomatoes. With bar codes and radio frequency tags and ways to link all the information in the supply chain, those behind traceability want to be able to drive to the specific field, walk down the right row, and reach over and pick up whatever the problem is.

They want a system with no fuss, no muss that will prevent financially devastating recall costs and outbreaks that make more people sick. They’ve been at it for a couple of years now and the next important deadline is approaching in Oct. 2010 when it is supposed to be possible to read the labeling involved.

The industry wants FDA to enforce the so-called "one up and one down" requirements of the PTI, but not impose anything that’s not already in the plan. FDA opted to end 2009 without putting out its own traceability regulations on the table.

On occasion, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg has been critical of volunteer food safety efforts. So the tension of birthing fresh produce traceability is sure to carry into the 2010.

It will be the subject on a Jan. 21-22 summit conference in Denver being organized by the Colorado Springs-based Traceability Institute LLC.

"The reason we set up this summit is we see a huge need by vendors of the traceability system for some kind of communication within the whole supply chain," Cristian Barcan, managing partner and founder of the Traceability Institute told the industry publication, The Packer.

American Diet

There was a lot of talk during all the health care debating about "bending the cost curve." With too many Americans unable to even bend over, it’s doubtful we are going to bend that cost curve at anytime soon and what they call the "Standard American Diet (SAD)" is a major contributor to this sad reality.

In 2010, we are predicting more attention to the American diet than ever before. It will come from the food industry, consumer groups, and government. The problem is clear.

The SAD is high in animal fats, high in unhealthy fast food, high in saturated and hydrogenated fats, low in fiber, high in processed foods, low in complex carbohydrates, and low in plant-based foods.

The medical community often points out that people in countries that eat the reverse of the SAD–high in plants, high in complex carbohydrates, and high in fiber–are experiencing lower cancer and heart disease rates by far.

Michael Moss does it again in tomorrow’s New York Times, “Company’s Record on Beef Treatment Questioned.” He once again starkly shows what the beef industry will do to make a buck and how, not only does our government turn a blind eye, but actively hides information from us. This story is so disturbing in so many ways that I urge you to read it in its entirety. It will make you look at hamburger differently. It will also make you ashamed of corporate America and our own government.

Ammonia Beef – Really? Is saving a few pennies really worth this?

Here is a scene at the maker of this “meat product,” Beef Product Inc., from Food Inc.:

I just received this email:

I’d like to subscribe to your email list so that I can get
the latest updates on all food illness recalls & outbreaks. This is so
that I can check my cuboards/fridge/freezer & know what not to buy or
eat in order to keep myself & my family safer. Thanks for keeping up
on this & emailing this info. as it comes available.

Although, I appreciate the email and have signed her up for updates (see to the right), it is a bit nuts that people look here for information that in not existing at the CDC or FSIS. 

Here is the most current information that I have on hamburger recalls due to E. coli O157:H7 or antibiotic-resistant Salmonella for 2009.  The pounds recalled come from FSIS (you should also check on the amount that they actually get back).  The sicknesses and deaths are from several sources, CDC, State and Local Health Departments and our own Litigation.

Also, remember, that the number of illnesses and deaths are an under count by a factor of 20 – 40 times.

Elizabeth Weiss and Peter Eisler of the USA Today continue on this month’s hard look at the school lunch program in this morning’s “Schools could learn lessons on food safety.” It is a good read. It is concerning, however, that the fast food industry is held up as a model of food safety for our kid’s lunches. But as I said to Ms. Weiss:

The standards have worked, by all accounts. Seattle-based food safety lawyer Bill Marler, who has been involved in almost all the major food safety lawsuits of the past 15 years, says he hasn’t sued McDonald’s since 1994 for a company-based E. coli illness and can’t think of anyone else who has.

Although, I found all the experts smart and attractive, I found only one smart, attractive and right on the money:

Personally, I do believe that, given the amount of food that is purchased by the federal and state governments for and by schools, smart governmental policy might well make a positive impact on food safety, food quality and food that is in fact healthful and sustainable. Just look at the negative ones (e.g. corn policy) for a bad example of government policy – even bad policies work – in bad ways.

The USA Today’s Op-ed, “Our view on food safety: Who is USDA’s 1st client, the public or the industry?” proves my point of what governments can do when they are a dominate player in the food and regulatory market. Here is just part of the Op-ed:

— The USDA buys meat for the school lunch program from the lowest bidder among those certified to meet USDA standards. But at least one certified bidder — Beef Packers Inc. of Fresno — has recalled tainted meat twice this year and earlier was suspended from the school lunch program three times.

— The USDA oversaw the two Beef Packers ground beef recalls this year but allowed some meat produced within the recall window to go to the federal school lunch program anyway.

— The USDA helps egg producers by buying "spent hen" meat from hens past their egg-laying prime and passing it on to the school lunch program. The chicken is so unappealing that Campbell Soup stopped using it more than a decade ago.

— The USDA does not enforce a law that requires that school cafeterias be inspected twice a year to prevent unsafe practices, even though state and local health authorities fail to do this in more than a quarter of all schools. The law provides no penalties, but it does require schools to give inspection reports to anyone who asks. Couldn’t the USDA ask, and post the results online? Alerting parents might be more effective than penalties.

No doubt part of the reason for USDA’s laxity is its dual mandate to regulate the agriculture industry while also promoting it. A similar conflict of interest in air safety regulation was eliminated years ago after it was identified as a contributor to plane crashes.  The same should be done with food safety. The USDA’s record suggests that it doesn’t quite grasp the idea that its most important client is the public it’s supposed to protect, not the industries it oversees.

Makes a bit too much sense.

I always feel a bit better when I know that the big national papers, like the Washington Post, are weighing in on something that I have been blogging about since Christmas Eve. Lyndsey Layton posted online an hour ago – “E. coli-tainted beef infects 21 people in 16 states.”

Unfortunately, even being inside the beltway, Ms. Layton too has been hitting the brick walls at the USDA and CDC that both seem to rely on saying as little as possible to be as unhelpful to the public as possible. Both seem to either know very little or cannot seem to coordinate information between themselves. Perhaps it is just the holidays or they are all helping out over at the TSA.

Of course we all know the basic facts – that National Steak and Poultry (NSP) recalled 248,000 pounds of beef December 24. In addition, according to the Post and FSIS, FSIS has only a partial list of restaurants that received the potentially tainted beef – so far Moe’s, Carino’s Italian Grill and KRM Restaurant Group (I have learned that Moe’s and Carino’s claim that no one became ill at their restaurants). However, the well-known rumor is that the “mechanically tenderized” products, which range from steaks to sirloin tips, were shipped to other, as yet unnamed, restaurants, hotels and institutions nationwide (hmm, NSP has been known to sell to the military in the past).

Ms. Layton did break new ground by getting the FSIS to confirm that 21 people have now been sickened in 16 states, with nine people hospitalized. This is up from 19 ill that the CDC confirmed a few hours earlier. FSIS has identified illnesses in only six states – Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, South Dakota and Washington (and that person ate the steak in Nebraska) despite the CDC saying that there are actually 16 states – 10, as yet unnamed.  These people give me a headache with all the transparency.

Well, I need to sign off to get to the airport early to get through TSA security.

Today the FSIS published the RETAIL CONSIGNEES FOR FSIS RECALL 068-2009. This was the recall of 312 pounds of Canadian Ham by Associated Grocers of Maine. The recall consisted of 16-ounce packages of "SUPER TRIM, Shurfine, IMPORTED, COOKED HAM, WATER ADDED, 98% FAT FREE." Each package bears the establishment number "141" inside the Canadian seal of inspection and a Sell by date of "10JA24."

The ham products were produced on November 25, 2009, and distributed to retail establishments in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

According to State Health Department officials in six States, as of Monday there were reports of 1 illness each in Washington, Michigan, Iowa, Kansas and Colorado and 2 in South Dakota linked to the National State and Poultry E. coli O157:H7 beef recall linked to “mechanically-tenderized” steaks. The 1 ill person in Washington ate the steak in Nebraska.

However, according to the Michigan Department of Health and the CDC, and reported by the Tulsa World Herald this morning, there are a total of 19 ill nationwide, and, according also to a CDC spokesperson this morning, the number of States reporting illnesses is 16, not 6 as previously reported. 

Those 10 States are yet unnamed as are the restaurants that actually served the steaks that sickened the 19 people.

Thankfully Kim Archer of the Tulsa World Herald is adding to the slow roll of information on this outbreak and recall – “Owasso beef linked to E. coli.” Here is some clarified and newer information:

Nineteen sickened, so says the CDC

The E. coli outbreak — considered a Class 1 recall because the health risk is high — has sickened at least 19 people, said Arleen Porcell-Pharr, a spokeswoman for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. She could not provide further information about the severity of the illnesses.

Only three restaurant chains received the steak

The recall did not include products shipped to retailers but is limited to products sold to Moe’s, Carino’s Italian Grill and KRM restaurants in Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, South Dakota and Washington State, National Steak and Poultry said. KRM Restaurant Group is the parent company of 54th Street Grill & Bar, which operates 15 locations in Missouri, Kansas and Illinois.

Bombshell – National Steak and Poultry product tested positive for E. coli O157:H7

The USDA verified those dates, adding that source material for the company’s chopped steak product produced Oct. 12 that had tested positive for E. coli O157:H7 had mingled with products produced on the other dates.

Federal officials began investigation December 11

Federal officials began investigating the E. coli outbreak Dec. 11, according to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. The Owasso plant’s beef recall was issued Christmas Eve.

And, as I said:

Bill Marler, a Seattle-based food safety advocate and attorney, said that "when it involves E. coli O157:H7, just issuing a recall isn’t remotely enough action to protect consumers." "The recall was issued on a holiday, with illnesses across the country and only a vague reference to meat being shipped to restaurants nationwide," he said. Federal agencies and the company "must know which restaurants it went to, and the public deserves to know, too."