I am off to IAFP on Sunday.  I’m doing a “Point/Counterpoint” on what responsibility consumers have for food safety.

Who’s to Blame? Do Consumers own a Piece of Food Safety?

 I had the honor of talking extensively with KCTS producer Terry Murphy about food safety.  I’m looking forward to seeing the piece, which airs this Friday in the Seattle area, and will then be online.

On Friday, April 16, Seattle’s public television station, KCTS 9, will premiere an original report on food safety. The piece is the culmination of months of research, and includes interviews with prominent voices in food safety, including Bill Marler and Mansour Samadapour.   The report will air on KCTS Connects with Enrique Cerna at 7:30 PM. After the broadcast, the report will be available for online viewing by visiting the station’s website.

KCTS 9 Connects with Enrique Cerna is a weekly exploration of news, politics and culture.   The show tackles “provocative and emotional topics important to people in the Northwest and British Columbia.” This is the 10th season for award-winning journalist Enrique Cerna. The report is produced by Terry Murphy.

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?

Had the pleasure to join John Hockenberry, Adaora Udoji and Nadia Zonis to talk about – "How to make our food safety system stronger"

Salmonella-tainted peanut butter has sickened close to five hundred people in 43 states, and killed six. People started getting sick back in September, but the FDA has only recently pinpointed the source of the infection – King Nut brand peanut butter manufactured by Peanut Corporation of America in Blakely, Georgia. Bill Marler, a Seattle lawyer who represents victims of food poisoning and advises companies on food safety joins John and Adaora to explain why it takes so long to trace foodborne illnesses and how the system could be improved. 

Audio should be online soon.  I’m going back to bed for a few hours.

I spent the day is a well-run, informative, conference sponsored by Fresh Express (never sued them). The science was interesting and well presented. The bottom line however is there is far more research needed and the risks to consumers are still quite real in the consumption of “ready-to-eat” products. Here are some of the highlights from the scientists:

1. Contamination can spread during washing, cutting in the fields and the tumble drying of greens

2. Chlorinated water alone isn’t enough to kill the pathogens.

3. Some varieties of spinach with textured leaves have greater potential for harboring pathogens than smooth-leaf varieties.

4. E. coli can paralyze pore closures (somata) on spinach leaves and allow bacteria into the plant.

5. Compost used inorganic operations can retain traces of live E. coli cells that can reconstitute under the right conditions.

6. Spinach and lettuce harvested on hotter days are more likely to create an environment for pathogen growth.

7. Lower product temperature, especially during transportation, lowers risk of bacterial growth.

8. Flies or other insects can excrete bacteria in their fecal droplets.

9.  It seems apparent that the E. coli bacteria is not absorbed by the roots into the plant structure.

OK, not much good news here. The only two areas that seemed hopeful was that some research on E. coli transmission found ozone gas is faster and more effective than chlorinated water at sanitizing leafy greens. And, although not mentioned until the last hour, irradiation of leafy greens can make food safer.

Bottom line – more work to do.

Several people have commented that switching from grain to grass feeding could be one of the solutions to the problem with foodborne pathogens in cattle and other livestock. Quotes like these are becoming more common on the Internet and in recent media reports:

“Products from grass-fed animals are safer than food from conventionally-raised animals.”  Eatwild, 2008

“Research has shown that the strains of E. coli most devastating to humans are the product of feedlots, not cows. This is due to the animals being forced to eat an unnatural diet, and not their natural choice, grass.”  Grass-Fed Beef: Safer and Healthier, Animal Welfare Approved, June 15, 2008

If true, changing the cow’s diet would be such a simple and cheap management practice to implement. Have we found the Holy Grail for food safety? Below is some research I did on the topic.


• Identification of on-farm management practices that would reduce or eliminate foodborne pathogens in cattle and other livestock (including diet changes) is an active area of research, but many study results are inconclusive. E. coli O157:H7, Campylobacter, Salmonella, and other dangerous pathogens have been repeatedly isolated from both grass and grain fed livestock, and the studies show conflicting results regarding whether the levels of pathogens are higher, lower, or the same when animals are fed grass- or grain-based diets.

• There is no clear and consistent definition in the literature of “grass-fed,” but the majority of papers describe animals that are on pasture or confined, but receiving only hay-based diets. Last year, the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service issued a standard for grass (forage) fed marketing claims. More research on this topic is needed that compares rates of foodborne pathogens among grain and grass fed animals using a specific definition such as the USDA standard or other accepted definition.

• The original study by Diez-Gonzalez published in Science in 1998, and since cited numerous times in the literature and media, suggested that cattle could be fed hay for a brief period before slaughter to significantly reduce the risk of foodborne E. coli infection. They based this conclusion on a hypothesis that grain feeding increases acid resistance of E. coli in cattle. Although they showed increased acid resistance in E. coli from grain-fed cattle, but the sample size was small, and they used “generic” E. coli stains, not E. coli O157:H7.

• Studies by other researchers worldwide have since found little difference in acid resistant E. coli O157:H7 among grain- verses grass-fed cattle, and some even found more E. coli O157:H7 shed by grass-fed animals.

• It has been discovered that E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella can rapidly switch from being “acid sensitive” to “acid resistant” within minutes after entering an acidic environment (such as the human stomach). Thus, even if the grass-fed/E. coli acid-resistance hypothesis were true, manipulating the diet may not have any effect since pathogens can adapt quickly to new environments like the human stomach.

• Outbreaks have traced back to grass-fed and pastured animals, as well as animals in feedlots. Notably, the E. coli O157:H7 spinach outbreak strain in 2006 was isolated from grass-fed cattle. Another outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 was linked recently to raw milk and colostrum from cattle raised organically on grass.

• In summary, the scientific evidence at this time does not support a broad conclusion that grass feeding significantly and consistently reduces the risk of E. coli O157:H7 or other dangerous foodborne pathogens entering the food chain. However, more research is needed into the influence of food animal diets. For example, preliminary experimental data shows a possible association between feeding dried distiller’s grains and shedding of E. coli O157:H7 in cattle feces.


A systematic approach is necessary to combat the emerging challenges in food safety such as the unexplained “uptick” of E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks and recalls linked to beef products. Interventions to protect the food supply should ideally occur across the continuum from “farm to fork.” The “Holy Grail” of pre-harvest (farm-level) food safety would be to find an effective, affordable, and practical means to prevent or reduce food animals from shedding foodborne pathogens in the first place so the dangerous bacteria never enter the human food chain. Since cattle or other livestock may be located near drinking water sources or vegetable crops, a farm-level intervention could also help to protect nearby water and crops from contamination by manure via runoff, transport by wildlife/insects, or other mechanisms.

Oliver et al (2008) published a comprehensive review of developments and future outlooks for pre-harvest food safety this month. Examples of potential farm-level management practices that have been studied for E. coli O157:H7 and other foodborne pathogens in livestock include:

• Antibiotics
• Bacteriophages (viruses of bacteria)
• Dietary changes
• Immunization
• Probiotics or prebiotics in animal rations
• Sanitation/hygiene (feed, water, environment)
• Wildlife and insect control

Unfortunately, the best approaches for on-farm control of foodborne pathogens in livestock remain elusive. No single management practice, or even a combination of methods, has proven to be very effective or reliable in preventing foodborne pathogen colonization in livestock. Clearly, sanitation including clean feed/water sources and insect control are important, but difficult to maintain in a farm environment. Livestock immunizations are not available for most foodborne pathogens with the exception of an E. coli O157:H7 vaccine under development (and some ask “who would pay for such a program?” since cattle do not become ill from E. coli O157). Use of antibiotics is problematic because it can lead to resistance.


Definition of “Grass-Fed”

The majority of cattle are fed grass or other forage at some time during their lives. For the purpose of marketing, the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service issued a voluntary standard for grass (forage) fed marketing claims last year that states: “grass fed standard states that grass and/or forage shall be the feed source consumed for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning. The diet shall be derived solely from forage and animals cannot be fed grain or grain by-products and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season.”

Note that most papers in the literature do not specifically define grass-fed using this new standard or any other specific definition, but differentiate, in general, between animals on forage (grass) only verses diets containing grain.

The Study that Started the Controversy

The original study that launched the controversy over grain feeding was published in Science in 1998 by researchers from Cornell (Diez-Gonzalez et al). They described potential dietary effects on the acid resistance of E. coli in cattle fed grain- versus hay-based diets. This study has since been cited numerous times in the literature and media, but later studies have not been able to reproduce the findings. This may be due, in part, to several limitations in the original study design including: 1) small sample size and 2) “Generic” E. coli levels were measured, not E. coli O157:H7.

In 2006, Hancock and Besser wrote a summary of the evidence surrounding the hypothesis that feeding hay instead of grain would reduce the problem with E. coli O157:H7, purportedly because the stomachs of grain-fed cattle are more acidic. They concluded: “while one cannot rule out a role of cattle diet on affecting exposure and infectivity of E. coli O157:H7 to humans, the data available at present demonstrate that cattle on a wide variety of diets (including 100% forage diets) are regularly and similarly colonized with this pathogen.”

Another interesting study from a research group in The Netherlands discovered that E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella can rapidly switch from being “acid sensitive” to “acid resistant” within minutes after entering an environment with reduced pH (such as the human stomach). Thus, even if the grass-fed hypothesis were true, manipulating the diet may not have any effect since E. coli O157:H7 can adapt quickly to new environments like the human stomach.

Recent Findings in the Literature

In searching through the literature since Hancock and Besser’s review, several new papers relevant to the discussion were found.

1. Nutritional aspects of grass-fed beef.

Leheska, J. M., L. D. Thompson, J. C. Howe, E. Hentges, J. Boyce, J. C. Brooks, B. Shriver, L. Hoover, and M. F. Miller. 2008. Effects of conventional and grass feeding systems on the nutrient composition of beef. J Anim Sci.

• This paper explores the question about whether there are differences in nutrient composition of grass-fed beef compared with conventional (grain)-fed beef. Researchers have previously found higher omega-3 fatty acids and CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) in forage-fed beef, and lower fat content overall. Some consumers prefer eating grass-fed meat because they believe it is “healthier,” and/or tastes better than conventional beef.

• The authors of this study enrolled only producers that were marketing grass-fed beef and confirmed that “100% of the diets were made up of native grasses, forages, or cut grasses or forages.”

• Fatty acid composition of grass-fed and conventional-fed beef was found to be different, but the authors conclude “the effects of the lipid differences between grass-fed and conventional raised beef, on human health, remains to be investigated.”

2. Papers continue to be published about possible effects of diet on E. coli O157:H7 prevalence and concentration.

For example, a research team from Kansas State University reported that feeding distillers grains, a co-product of ethanol production, to feedlot cattle may have a positive association with fecal shedding of E. coli O157. The mechanism is unknown, but they hypothesize that the grains change the ecology of the hindgut where E. coli O157 is most likely to colonize cattle. The authors report that larger studies are underway to investigate this possible link.


In summary, the scientific evidence at this time does not support a broad conclusion that grass feeding significantly reduces the risk of E. coli O157:H7 or other dangerous foodborne pathogens from entering the food chain. However, more research is needed to better understand the influence of diet, especially the use of different types of grains in animal feed.


Continue Reading Grass-Fed vs Grain-Fed Beef and the Holy Grail: A Literature Review

Food Safety CzarSpeechwriter/Ghostwriter Jane Genova recently posted on her blog that she thinks Hillary Clinton will win the Whitehouse and when she does, I should be appointed Food Safety Czar:

I have someone in mind for the job of food-safety czar.  It’s Bill Marler of Marler Clark Law firm. Actually Hillary might already know Marler, a plaintiff attorney specializing in food-borne diseases.  Marler was among the coalition of experts who helped create a new system after the E-Coli outbreak early in Bill Clinton’s first administration.  The new president was delivering a televised town meeting when a couple whose child ate some of that contaminated meat spoke up. That child later died.

I worked with former President Bill Clinton to arrange congressional hearings and victim testimony after the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak in 1993. What we needed – and still need – was change in our food safety system. Significant change.

What we got then was a classification of E. coli O157:H7 as an adulterant in meat products. A good step in the right direction. What we need now is a single agency responsible for food safety – one that has the power to shut down processing plants and recall contaminated food products, among other things.

“Bill Marler: Food Safety Czar” does have a nice ring to it, but since I don’t think my wife and kids would let me move them to Washington, D.C. here’s my offer: When the Democrats win the Whitehouse and create a single food safety agency, and when companies stop poisoning people, I’ll stop calling for Congressional hearings on food safety and asking the food industry to “put me out of business.”

On June 16, 2005, I discussed during a seminar at the University of Guelph why processors, ingredient suppliers, restaurant operators, and any operations involved in the growth, processing, and distribution of food products should understand the legal consequences and dangers of what may happen when foodborne illness strikes as a result of one of their products sold in the U.S. I discussed issues such as liability and how it is determined, the discovery process, and the importance of open communications in the event of an outbreak.
A copy of the Powerpoint presentation is available at http://www.foodsafetynetwork.ca/food/fslitigation.pdf

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that each year 76 million – or one out of every four – Americans are sickened as a result of consuming contaminated foods or beverages. Some become seriously ill; 325,000 require hospitalization and 5,000 die. Older adults, young children, and those who have weakened immune systems are particularly vulnerable.
More than 250 different foodborne diseases have been identified. Most of these diseases are infections caused by a variety of bacteria, viruses, and parasites.
Foods that are contaminated with poisonous chemicals or harmful substances can also cause illness. Symptoms of foodborne illness vary by disease but the most common are nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea.

Continue Reading Foodborne Illness