February 2010

If you did not have health insurance, wouldn’t you try to figure out a way to get it? Wouldn’t you try to figure out how to fix medicare and medicaid costs long-term?

Perhaps the House and Senate should live without insurance for a while? Perhaps then they would do something.

I have spent the last few days face to face with health care in the United States. See, my dad (80) is dying of mesothelioma (he acquired asbestos working for Johns Manville while working his way through college in the early 50’s) and he underwent surgery yesterday, nearly dying on the operating table. Late today I left him joking with the nurses in a private room (arranged because the Hospital is asking me to serve on the Foundation Board) after spending the night in ICU.

My dad is dying. My dad is scared – as is my mom. But, he is getting extraordinary care because he has great insurance and a rich son. He is not thinking about paying for his health care while he struggles with death. My mom is not worried about going bankrupt because of my dad’s bills as she realizes the 57 years of life with her husband is ending.

My dad will hopefully go home soon to die on his farm. He will have everything he needs – all paid for by insurance.

Like my dad and mom, Congress has good health insurance. House and Senate members are allowed to purchase private health insurance (paid for by taxpayers) offered through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP). According to the Congressional Research Service, the FEHBP offers about 300 different private health care plans, including five government-wide, fee-for-service plans and many regional health maintenance organization (HMO) plans, plus high-deductible, tax-advantaged plans. All plans cover hospital, surgical and physician services, and mental health services, prescription drugs and "catastrophic" coverage against very large medical expenses. There are no waiting periods for coverage when new employees are hired, and there are no exclusions for preexisting conditions. In addition, members of Congress also qualify for some medical benefits that ordinary federal workers do not. They (but not their families) are eligible to receive limited medical services from the Office of the Attending Physician of the U.S. Capitol. House and Senate members (but not their families) also are eligible to receive care at military hospitals.

So, what if the House and Senate were facing what my dad and mom are facing, but doing it without insurance?  That is a far too easy of an answer.

Johnny’s Fine Foods of Tacoma, Wash., Johnny’s Fine Foods is recalling French Dip Powdered Au Jus in 6 oz. bottles and French Dip Powdered Au Jus in 1.1 oz. foil packets, because it has the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella. Johnny’s French Dip Powdered Au Jus is distributed nationwide and is sold in retail stores.

Johnny’s French Dip Powdered Au Jus 6oz is packaged in a clear plastic bottle with a red, white and blue label. The expiration date for this product is 0332. Johnny’s French Dip Powdered Au Jus 1.1 oz. is packaged in a red, white and blue foil packet. The expiration date for this product is 02212.

American Pecan Co. of Yancey, Texas, is recalling 1 lb. bags of Pecan Pieces, small, medium, and large sizes, because they have the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella.

The 1 lb. bags of pecans were sold to walk-up customers at their Yancey, Texas location, as well as to mail order customers in Texas, New York, and Massachusetts. The bagged pecans consist of Ziploc-type bags labeled with "PECAN PIECES (Small, Medium, or Large) Ingredients: Shelled Pecans: Repacked by: American Pecan Co. P.O. Box 151 Yancey, Texas. 78886 Net weight 1-lb. (16 oz.) 454 g. might contain Pecan shells." There are no codes associated with the products.

Salmonella is an organism, which can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems. Healthy persons infected with Salmonella often experience fever, diarrhea (which may be bloody), nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. In rare circumstances, infection with Salmonella can result in the organism getting into the bloodstream and producing more severe illnesses such as arterial infections (i.e., infected aneurysms), endocarditis and arthritis, and IBS.

Bryan Gentry of the Lynchburg News & Advance covered a recent hearing of the Bankruptcy Court overseeing the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) bankruptcy. Mr. Gentry noted that “[m]ore than a year after a nationwide salmonella outbreak, victims and surviving relatives have not received any money in insurance policies held by [PCA] that a bankruptcy court judge said they should share.”

The good news is that is going to be changing soon. Within the next week, $12,000,000 will be divided between 123 people (or families) who filed claims with the bankruptcy court. In my opinion, $12,000,0000 is about $8,000,000 – $10,000,0000 short of what the actual value of the claims are. The differential will necessarily need to be picked up by re-manufacturers such as Kellogg or King Nut.

One year ago, the CDC announced that over 700 people were sickened and nine died as a result of PCA Salmonella-tainted peanut butter.

In reading the February 20th Food Safety News story, “Ten Years of Bribery and Bad Tomatoes” and today’s New York Times story, “Bribes Let Tomato Vendor Sell Tainted Food,” (thanks for pic) I was struck by the thought that the safety of our food ultimately rests on the belief – albeit and apparently mistaken – that the folks selling us food would never sell it to us if it was full of moldy tomatoes or full of Salmonella, E. coli, etc (a.k.a., full of shit).

Despite what seems like daily food recalls and weekly foodborne illness outbreaks, we still – as does the President, Congress, the FDA and FSIS – believe that growers, shippers, manufacturers and retailers are not really out to poison us.

Not to sound paranoid, but don’t you think our beliefs are a bit misplaced? For god’s sake, the CDC says 76,000,000 people are sickened, 325,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 die every year in the U.S.A., because the food they ate was tainted with some pathogen – bacteria or virus. You would think that if we had a nearly 1 or of 4 chances of being sickened by the food we eat yearly, we would have quickly lost trust in our food supply.

Frankly, many of us have.

The tale of tomato bribery and corruption outlined in the articles are shocking, but they are really no more or less shocking than Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) poisoning 700 and killing nine fellow citizens by selling Salmonella-tainted peanut butter and covering up the test results? And, we are still waiting for the criminal prosecution of the president of PCA, Stewart Parnell – we likely will continue to wait.

Also, how different really is the Cargill E. coli outbreak of 2007 that paralyzed 20-year-old dancer, Stephanie Smith, or the 2009 Valley Meats E. coli outbreak of 2009 that eventually lead to the death of 7-year-old Abby Fenstermaker? What about the Nebraska Beef E. coli outbreak in 2006 that killed Caroline Hawkinson at a church supper? What about another Nebraska Beef E. coli outbreak in 2008 that burned through South Georgia nearly taking the life of Evelyn Stewart and several others? And, what about Linda Rivera, who has been hospitalized since May 2009 after eating E. coli-tainted cookie dough?

Those are just the tip of a very nasty food poisoning iceberg, and only a few years snapshot of the outbreaks that stretch back into my legal life. Perhaps there were no bribes; perhaps there were no falsified test results, but there were warnings ignored, shortcuts taken, investments not made, and customers’ safety ultimately ignored. Why? Because, we let them.

The thing about food – unlike most other products – is that, like water and air – we need food to survive. That leaves us with very little leverage in a complex, over fed (in some countries) and under fed (in many others), and over populated world, where we are more and more disconnected to food. Today we rely of a long chain of distribution to feed us. We trust the chain to feed us and not poison us. We trust that it is in the chains’ economic self-interest to not kill us off. We trust the Government to watch our backs. Why? Because, we have to.

Many try to break the chain of growers, shippers, manufacturers and retailers and go “locavore” – to buy food within 100 miles of home (forget bananas in Minneapolis in the winter).

Some have moved so far away from what most American’s recognize as our food chain, as to go from organic, to natural, and then to raw. Word to the wise – not all of the 76,000,000 sickened eat CAFO raised, mass-produced, mega-corporate food. Sometimes local, raw milk, sprout or leafy green farmer Bob – much like (pick a nasty corporation) – does a very efficient job of poisoning his customers.

Yes, on average I think growing your own is safer than leaving it up to Wal-Mart or McDonald’s to decide what to sell you. But, with a world population moving rapidly past six billion, I am not sure we can solely rely on Bob or my tomatoes and zucchini to feed the world.

So, what’s the solution? Yes, I support more inspection, enforcement, criminal prosecution, and, my personal favorite – suing the hell out of companies who poison people. But, all of that will not catch as many problems than if everyone in the food chain – short or long – would simply take a deep breath and ask, “would I feed this to my kid?”

Food Safety News (FSN) has been up and running for six months now.  I am very proud of our DC, Denver and Seattle offices.  We have also grown from three full time people to four, plus several interns and freelance writers spread across the country.  We are also working to get more coverage internationally.

FSN has been first on many breaking stories, but what I am most proud of are the Contributed and Opinion pieces that have come in from a broad range of people and perspectives.  I would urge anyone that has something to say to contact Dan Flynn, FSN’s Editor and submit ideas to the food safety debate.  Also, keep current on FSN by being a subscriber.  It is easy to do.

According to the CDC, 238 individuals infected with the outbreak strain of Salmonella Montevideo, which displays either of two closely related pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) patterns, have been reported from 44 states and District of Columbia since July 1, 2009. The number of ill persons identified in each state with this strain is as follows: AK (1), AL (2), AZ (7), CA (30), CO (5), CT (5), DC (1), DE (3), FL (3), GA (3), IA (1), ID (4), IL (17), IN (4), KS (4), LA (1), MA (13), MD (1), ME (1), MI (4), MN (5), MO (2), MS (1), NC (11), ND (1), NE (3), NH (2), NJ (8), NM (2), NY (18), OH (9), OK (1), OR (9), PA (7), RI (2), SC (1), SD (3), TN (5), TX (7), UT (9), VA (1), WA (17), WI (1), WV (1), and WY (2).

Salmonella Senftenberg, a different serotype of Salmonella, has been found in food samples from retail and a patient household during this outbreak investigation. PulseNet identified 6 persons who had illness caused by Salmonella Senftenberg with matching PFGE patterns between July 1, 2009 and today. Public health officials have interviewed 5 of the 6 ill persons with this strain of Salmonella Senftenberg and determined that one consumed a recalled salami product during the week before their illness began. These six cases are not included in the overall CDC case count reported above.

Good News, FSIS is paying attention, as is the industry, or at least its minions.  I would not vote against FSIS doing right by the consuming public (click on below to download letter and attachments):

The Hill’s, J. Taylor Rushing caught Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the longest serving member of the House and author of the lower chamber’s food safety bill, calling out the Senate as being “slow to act” on the bipartisan bill that passed the House.

Dingell’s bill passed the House last July on a 283-142 vote. He hailed it as “a monumental piece of bipartisan legislation that will grant FDA the authorities and resources needed to effectively oversee an increasingly global food marketplace.”

The Senate bill is less controversial than the House. Some of the more contentious issues, such as imposing fees on food facilities to help finance FDA’s food safety inspection efforts, were not included in the HELP-passed measure.

Among other provisions, the legislation would do the following:

• Attempt to prevent food-borne illnesses from reaching the population by requiring food-processing plants to upgrade the frequency and thoroughness of their safety inspections;

• Require the Health and Human Services (HHS) Department and Agriculture Department to jointly develop a national plan to improve food safety, as well as an HHS requirement for a national system to better prevent possible problems in the food supply;

• Grant HHS greater authority to order recalls of suspected tainted food;

• Improve inspections of foreign food imported into the U.S.

Dingell may be old, but he certainly gets it.  I hear he is running for re-election – where do I send my check?