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Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

Governor Gregoire Addresses the Food Safety Conference – April 11, 2008

A year ago I hosted a great food safety conference (thinking of doing so again in 2010) entitled "Who is Minding the Store."  Governor Gregoire said what everyone was, and should be, thinking:

Maybe our goal here should be to put Bill Marler right out of business.

And I would bet my friend, Bill, would be the first to say that.

Good afternoon, and thank you Father Sundborg for the kind introduction.

I’m pleased to be here this afternoon.

It might interest you to know that “food safety” and I go way, way back.

My Mom spent her career as a short-order cook at the Rainbow Café in Auburn. And the Rainbow had a great reputation for quality food – including my Mom’s delicious pies. There were none tastier anywhere.

I learned from my Mom at a young age that one of the reasons the Rainbow was so popular was because it was a clean, safe place, and so was the food my mother cooked.

The Rainbow was definitely not one of those places you would joke about –

You know the joke — "Eat at this restaurant and you’ll never eat anywhere else again."

My Mom was very picky about food – Where it came from – freshness — quality.

But that was back in the 50s and 60s. I think my mother would be surprised to know of the new challenges as we all work to make sure the food we put into our bodies is safe.

For one thing, we live in a world-food market – whereas in my mother’s time our food was mostly produced right here in America. For another, we don’t eat like we used to.

We are dining out at an increasing rate, and we are demanding more ready-to-eat meals and processed food.

At the same time, we expect to have fresh produce 12 months out of the year, and we get it.

All this has meant major changes in our agriculture and food industries – and at the same time — new public health issues.

But I’m proud to tell you today that Washington remains a leader in protecting consumers from food-borne illnesses.
Many of the nation’s largest food-borne disease outbreaks have been first identified in our state.

For example, the E. coli outbreaks connected with Jack-in-the-Box in 1993 and the Odwalla-Apple-Juice in 1996; as well as the Sun-Orchards-Orange- Juice Salmonella outbreak in 1999.

In the past 15 years, as much as 20 percent of the food-borne disease-outbreak reports to the CDC have come from our state — even though we have only two percent of the nation’s population.

Moreover, our commitment to food safety is tied in very real ways to one of Washington’s most vibrant sectors – Global Health.

In Seattle, we have the PATH consortium, the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute, the Gates Foundation, and others who are world leaders in Global Health research and application.

But their success depends heavily on work at Washington State University on the East Side of the state — where we are seeing exciting new research around animal health.

The connection is clear. The vast majority of human diseases are linked to animals – mosquitoes and malaria being the obvious example.

Our Life Sciences Discovery Fund created in 2005 will further bolster global health research, with a large part of the focus on research to improve the health of animals and crops.

I’ll talk a little bit about what we in Washington are doing on the ground to keep our food safe.

The work is largely done in two state agencies, which collaborate in turn with many federal agencies. The two agencies are the state departments of Health and Agriculture.

Let’s talk about agriculture. Food and agriculture comprise a $34 billion industry in Washington employing more than 160,000 people.

We’re world famous for our farm products, and that’s why Washington farmers are so successful selling overseas, where the markets demand a great product with absolutely no questions about safety.

Washington food exports are soaring, up 38 percent last year.

We also know that Washington shoppers believe local products are safer, healthier and better. And as an enthusiastic supporter of our farmers, I urge people to "Buy Washington."

(By the way, lucky for us not everybody feels like one older gentleman I know. He says he prefers lots of preservatives because of his age.)

Food in Washington has never been safer. People go into our restaurants and grocery stores and take it for granted that the food is safe. And the fact remains, it usually is.

And yet, people have never been so focused on food safety. TV news coverage is guaranteed anytime there is a problem anywhere.

Food safety gets attention because it speaks to every parent’s concern that their children have the safest food available. As a mom of two girls, I know what that feels like. The stakes are high.

That’s why it’s so important that we provide a strong food-safety system in Washington.

We enjoy great partnerships in our state with our federal partners — the FDA, the USDA and the CDC, and with our local health departments.

We work hard to stay up-to-the-minute on the latest science, and maintain our labs and other infrastructure.

At Agriculture, the Food Safety Program regulates dairies and dairy processors to ensure the milk our kids drink is safe.

They license and inspect food processors of all kinds — any Washington product that is cut, frozen, canned or cooked. It’s a big job regulating a $12 billion processing industry.

Among Agriculture’s creative steps is a surveillance-testing program — which is paying dividends.

Agriculture inspectors go into stores around the state and buy high-risk foods – prepared sandwiches, frozen desserts, diced onions – and then they check for problems.
The majority of the purchases turn out to be safe.

But sometimes the workers find problems. They then work with processors and distributors to recall the product before that child with campylobacter (CAMP-low-BACK-ter) poisoning shows up in the emergency room or pediatrician’s office.

Our Department of Agriculture also has what is called the Good Agricultural Practices and Good Handling Practices audit-verification program.

Our states growers and shippers are signing onto this voluntary program in growing numbers.

The way it works is the department audits participating growers and processors to ensure that they are following “best management practices” to reduce the risks of certain food safety problems.

Nearly 100 potato, corn and vegetable farms and fruit orchards requested these audits in 2007, and the acreage under audit tripled last year to 128,000 acres.

The audit includes a wide range of activities that can affect food safety — from worker sanitation to water quality. It also requires that the food products be easily traceable all the way back to their origins.

Many retailers and distributors require these audits and certification from the growers and processors from whom they get their foods.

At the same time, Washington has one of the strongest public health systems in the U.S. – especially in food-borne disease prevention and monitoring.

Working closely with medical providers and local health departments, the state Department of Health reacts aggressively to reported food-borne illnesses.

We move quickly to stop outbreaks in their tracks, to identify the cause of outbreaks, and to learn from them.

We’re confident this approach has helped prevent thousands of illnesses — and probably saved lives.

And we’ve been ahead of the curve in many ways. One of the most basic — We have required Food Worker Cards for 50 years, yet we were the only state to require food-handler permits until recently.

Our state lab developed a quicker test to identify specific strains of E. coli.

The old standard took about 5 days; the method developed here provides results in about one day.

This method is now being used around the world to compare different E.coli cases to see if they’re the same strain and might be coming from the same source.

We were the first in the nation to require that hamburgers be cooked to 155 degrees in order to kill E. coli, even before the Jack-in-the-Box outbreak in 1993 — and well before the federal government made it a requirement.

Today, our data tell us that the top cause of food-borne disease outbreaks is food handlers working when they’re sick and not washing their hands before touching food.

So we emphasize worker-health policies, hand washing and no bare-hand contact with food; and we’re working with the Restaurant Association and others to promote better hand-washing statewide.

We appreciate how hard all of you here today work to promote safe food and prevent food-borne disease. As food production and consumer demands continue to change, this will remain a challenge.

In 2008, food-borne outbreaks and food product recalls are weekly news. So, we know there is more to do. It’s crucial that we continue to work together to meet this challenge.

Maybe our goal here should be to put Bill Marler right out of business.

And I would bet my friend, Bill, would be the first to say that.

Thank you.