Roy writes Michael: something about food safety

On May 20, 2015, Michael Taylor  (right, exactly as shown) of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration posted in a FDA blog that, “we’ve got to build prevention into the food safety system globally.”

Mike_Taylor_7624-199x300Taylor, FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, also wrote the Food Safety Modernization Act is about providing assurances that the food system is doing everything it can to prevent problems and to provide food in grocery stores and restaurants that is as safe as it possibly can be.

Friend of the, Roy Costa responded by writing:

I appreciate Michael Taylor’s comments and also believe that FSMA is a step in the right direction. The fact, however, is that companies around the globe have already adopted food safety systems. This article makes it sound like preventative controls are something new and that such programs will be brought about by new federal law. The fact is in most major operations the preventative controls are in place right now. There are firms that have not adopted such in their operations, and FSMA may help to address this, but by and large, the large foodborne illness outbreaks we have seen are not the result not having a prevention program, but the failure of the program to prevent the hazard from occurring.

Breaking a law, however, comes with a high cost for non-compliance, and that hammer is needed for some. But for most operators, this is not the answer to the microbial contamination control problem in their facilities. Our overarching goal in industry should be to be in compliance with FDA’s new laws, however, we need effective food safety management systems and we do not always have them. This is illustrated by the findings of serious sanitation issues, after the fact, in the investigation of the Blue Bell ice cream plant outbreak and many others.

As a regulator, consultant, auditor and investigator for almost 40 years, I am painfully aware of the difficulties in the implementation of complicated quality assurance and safety programs. In light of this, I feel simply more or different “preventative controls” are not likely to improve the situation much, by themselves.

 roy.costaStill, we look to FDA to help us, and I am still wondering if we will get what we need from the agency. We need consistent application and enforcement of the rules, and FDA has to get agents into the field, but most importantly, firms must organize their companies around food safety. This means establishing active and effective committees, appointing dedicated food safety staff, and a planned approach to assuring the safety of products. Companies must also effectively train and educate everyone in the organization, and maybe most importantly, apply the available science and technology to the food safety problem.

A lack of commitment within companies is a root cause of much of the failures of the existing programs, along with a lack of resources. We waste tons of money on audits, manuals, record keeping etc, etc, when we should be investing in educating our employees, improving our  infrastructures and applying technology. These applications should include onsite laboratory capability, remote monitoring of critical processes, and sophisticated traceability and recall programs.

I totally support what FDA is doing with FSMA, but we should recognize that a new system of preventative controls is only a solution if our food safety management systems are working effectively.

Campy isn’t kosher and kosher doesn’t mean microbiologically safe: NYC investigating reports of food poisoning at synagogue dinner

New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is investigating reports of food sickness following an event at a Manhattan synagogue dedicated to exotic kosher cuisine.

kosher.dinner.may.15The May 5 dinner, held at Congregation Shearith Israel, known as the Spanish-Portuguese synagogue, was meant to highlight animals and other foods that are kosher but rarely consumed by observant Jews, such as oxtail, locusts, quail eggs and organ meat from calves, chickens, ducks and other animals. The so-called Halakhic Dinner combined the exotic dishes with Jewish teachings about them and was led by the synagogue’s rabbi, Meir Soloveichik. Similar dinners have taken place in past years.

After the dinner, about 20 people reported gastrointestinal distress, according to Vos Is Neias, an Orthodox blog and news site. The blog cited Dani Klein, who runs the YeahThatsKosher blog and attended the dinner, as saying that his wife tested positive after the dinner for campylobacter, a bacteria associated with raw or uncooked poultry, unpasteurized dairy products or contaminated water, poultry or produce.

A spokesman for the city’s Department of Health, Christopher Miller, told JTA, “We’re investigating and working with the synagogue.”

“Did you know that giraffes are kosher? How about locusts? They are!” read a promotion for the event on Shearith Israel’s website. “Rabbi Soloveichik will entertain and enlighten with a special lecture over dinner. We’ll learn about some far out there kosher foods, and we’ll eat a few of them too. Goat, venison, bison and squab are just a few of the expected featured ingredients. Come hungry and adventurous.”

Communicating food safety is tricky

Nicole Arnold, MS student at N.C. State University writes:

I never knew that I sounded like a twelve year old until I recorded myself for a video competition to take part in IFT’s first inaugural Food Communicator’s Workshop. A few snowflakes in North Carolina had shut things down; I couldn’t use a university studio so I was forced to record myself in my bedroom via YouTube.IMG_5919


Maybe it was because I boasted of being part of the behind the scenes of barfblog (and mentioned 40,000 subscribers) or because nobody else could bear the discomfort of recording themselves, but they chose me.

Sponsored by CanolaInfo, the IFT workshop was created to prepare and encourage students and young professionals to communicate food science information and issues through various channels. As a group, we dissected multiple media platforms, specifically the infamous Food Babe’s attack on canola oil.  The group leaders asked:

How would we respond?

What would we say if we chose to say anything at all?

What type of social media platforms would we use?

During a mock print interview, I grabbed a slip of paper out of a bowl with the words ‘artificial colors’ on it. I know a little bit more about that topic but am less- familiar with GMOs and preservatives (which others received).

With only a minute to look over the content, the interviewer asked me ‘why artificial colors are added to foods when scientific literature links it to cancer?’

I made a rookie mistake and used the oft-used phrase that the dose that makes the poison. The mock reporter’s eyes lit up.

Poison. I had said it.

An actual reporter could take that statement and run with it, indicating that my statement equated colors to poisons.

I should have talked about how safety reviews are conducted on artificial coloring and that while there are no certainties or guarantees in safety, regulators assess risk by calculating exposure and the amounts needed to cause problems. Many studies are based on mouse models – which may or may not be all that transferable to humans.  Based on the current available science, the U.S. FDA and other public health-protecting bodies throughout the world have deemed certain artificial colors as low risk.

It’s tricky, but as food communicators, our messages should be clear, concise and explain the uncertainties of the science. And shouldn’t use clichés.

Nicole Arnold is a MS student in Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences, a barfblog news team member, and is a vegetarian studying mechanically tenderized beef safety.

Here’s a video submission from Ohio State’s John Frelka.

Why observation studies matter: Inspector alert

Anecdotally, inspectors and operators alike report that stuff, like behaviors, change as soon as the inspector walks in the door. A particularly common practice is for everyone to grab a broom or start washing their hands.

I just saw the precursor to the change in the wild.51P80ZAH19L

Sometimes I need to get off campus to catch up on writing and other stuff. When I’m behind or stuck, I often hit a cafe, a restaurant or a patio and whip out my computer for a couple of hours. There’s something about being in a busy place with lots of background action that helps me focus.

As I sit here at one of my favorite local spots, I heard the manual Mario-Batali-restaurant-inspector-alarm.

A manager just came up to a couple of waitstaff and a cook and said, ‘Just got a text from next door that the health inspector is in the area; make sure all of our logs are filled out and the out-of-date food is chucked.’

Everyone scurried away to take care of stuff that would lead to a bad score. They are currently watching the entrance to see if the inspector is the next through the door.

Inspection reports provide some decent data. But the Hawthorne Effect-esque issue led us to explore other observation data-collection methods.

Food Safety Talk 76: Get ‘em really hot

Food Safety Talk, a bi-weekly podcast for food safety nerds, by food safety nerds. The podcast is hosted by Ben Chapman and barfblog contributor Don Schaffner, Extension Specialist in Food Science and Professor at Rutgers University. Every two weeks or so, Ben and Don get together virtually and talk for about an hour.  They talk about what’s on their minds or in the news regarding food safety, and popular culture. They strive to be relevant, funny and informative — sometimes they succeed. You can download the audio recordings right from the website, or subscribe using iTunes.1431643647306

This episode starts with a discussion of Ben’s taste in music, and then quickly moves into documentaries. Ben recently watched Jodorowsky’s Dune, on Don’s recommendation.  This documentary has some ‘artful nudity’ that leads to a discussion of perverts on airplanes and the appropriateness of reading material such as Fifty Shades of Grey while crammed into an airplane seat.  The conversation naturally transitioned into a discussion of microphone stands and coffee. Ben notes that owning a Nespresso machine has changed his life; he ranks it among his top 10 life changing things (including his wife and children). The guys then discuss other pop-culture topics including Deflate-Gate and TV shows The Affair,Portlandia (which had an episode satirizing raw milk), and Garfunkel and Oates. Note that Portlandia is required viewing before attending IAFP 2015 in Portland this summer

Ben leads off the actual food safety talk by mentioning sprouts and the number of outbreaks associated with them.  The guys then discuss experiments to validate sprout cooking processes including charred bean sprouts.  Ben then brings up the idea of baking cookies in a car and a visit from Linda Harris (who now downloads and listens).  From there the talk turns to pathogen reduction validations for baking processes spurred by the Wegmans recall of baked fruit dessertslast summer, presumably because they contained peaches recalled for Listeria.

The FDA’s Reportable Food Registry, along with CDC whole genome sequencing of pathogens, is enabling more illnesses to be linked to products, as seen in Salmonella Braenderup linked to nut butter.  Ben predicts more businesses will have to issue recalls because of validation issues, and the investigations that accompany these recalls will isolate pathogens from within facilities that can be linked to other illnesses which have occurred over months and years prior.

The discussion then turns to the very bad blizzard that New Jersey never had.  Don discusses the similarities between the models for weather forecasting and models in food safety.   Both situations have consequences for over or under reacting; both present risk management and risk communication difficulties.

A tweet from The New Yorker made Don mad: Bill Marler may be all that stands between you and Salmonella.  This resulted in Don tweeting back to The New Yorker.  Ben mentioned it was probably just Betteridge’s Law of Headlines.   Bill Marler is probably not all that stands between you and Salmonella; as there are a few more people trying to do the right thing.  The guys then go on to discuss how Marler and Caroline Smith DeWaal, a lawyer with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, have become controversial but generally respected food safety personalities over the years.

Don recently was quoted in an article about the safety of various cuts of meat (and Barfblogged here).   Don and Ben were so happy Don was quoted correctly, they were able to ‘ding’ their podcast bell; a auditory high-five.

Pork has a reputation for being dangerous but decreases in the prevalence of Trichinella and Americans tendency to overcook pork have reduced the actual risk, so Ben wanted to discuss a recent MMWR Trichinellosis report.  Don mentions ‘The Batz Report’ which determined the top 10 pathogen-food combinations with the greatest burden in public health.  This led to a discussion of sample size, detection limits, consumption rates, and risk messaging, leading to the conclusion that cultural practices in food preparation adds complexity to the determination of risk.

Lost in translation: My way

In late November, 2014, I ventured off to Tokyo to do a week of shooting for a food safety documentary. murray.lost.translationLike most TV, me and another dude, formerly of the UK Food Standards Agency, spent a lot of time sitting around and driving places, but it ended with a 2-hour documentary on food safety in Japan.

Here is the two-minute version.

And I had to do that airport entry-greeting 10 times before the director was happy, after going to the bathroom and changing into a suit after a 12-hour flight.

I had to buy a new suit, because I hadn’t worn one in 15 years.



How skipping a private equity deal made it easier for Jeni’s to deal with Listeria crisis

John Lowe, the CEO of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream, with more than 20 locations and distribution in 1,800 retail stores across the U.S., temporarily closed its stores and shut down production late last month after a pint of its Dark Chocolate ice cream at a store in Nebraska was found to have Listeria.

jenis-ice-cream-leadjpg-3107e469ad83e50eLowe, a part owner in the well-regarded and fast-growing ice cream company, is addressing the crisis head on. He did not back out of an appearance at Columbus Startup Week Tuesday, even talking about how the company is addressing the setback.

His candor is an example of how entrepreneurs should address a crisis, with members of the food safety industry citing it as the proper way to respond.

Lowe and his team did not waver. With uncertainty around the product, they shut down operations until they could gather more information.

“There are points in leadership where the decision is pretty clear, and as we looked at ourselves around the table with very foggy info, but enough facts that we thought: ‘We can’t open the stores.’ If we can’t answer why there is one pint that reportedly got listeria in it, then we can’t open the stores. We can’t serve pregnant women and grandmas. That is just not acceptable. We are not going to have to look in the mirror and decide that we blinked at a crucial time, ensuring the safety of our consumers. In a lot of ways, it was a very simple decision. There was no debate. There was nobody around the table arguing the other way…. We are not sure what comes next. We don’t know what is going to cost, or how we are going to fund it. We are not sure what it leads to in terms or how long we will be closed, and the like.”

Lowe said the company encountered a similar situation not too long ago when the executive team decided to walk away from a private equity transaction. And that decision plays right into the handling of the crisis around the listeria recall. Lowe pointed out the importance of making the right decision, even though it created an uncertain future.

“We didn’t know what walking away would entail. We didn’t know what the next steps would be, but we knew it was the right thing to do and we’d just go figure it out. … Looking back at our decision to walk away from the one private equity deal, we are so glad we did because we are so confident now that it enabled us to handle that situation the right way and we would have other people at the table — voting, not voting, they would not have had the ability to make the decision — but we are not 100 percent sure they would have seen it as clear as we saw it. It was just easier and better for us to look at each other and make that decision.”

Foster Farms, regulators and a game of chicken

Lynne Terry of The Oregonian writes in a comprehensive feature that over the course of a decade, hundreds of people from Eugene to Baker City to Portland and Seattle were struck by bouts of food poisoning so severe they fled to their doctors or emergency rooms for treatment.

chicken.south.parkThey had no idea what made them sick. But federal regulators did.

Oregon and Washington public health officials repeatedly told the U.S. Department of Agriculture they had linked salmonella outbreaks in 2004, 2009 and 2012 to Foster Farms chicken.

State officials pushed federal regulators to act, but salmonella-tainted chicken flowed into grocery stores, first in the Northwest, then across the country. Oregon investigators became so familiar with the culprit they gave it a name: the Foster Farms strain.

The outbreaks tied by state health officials to Foster Farms first occurred in Oregon and Washington. Then in 2012, illnesses spread to almost a dozen states. The next year, a new outbreak emerged that sickened more than 600 people across the country.

Much has been written about that last 16-month ordeal and the USDA’s slow response. But the way the federal agency handled it was not an isolated case, an investigation by The Oregonian/OregonLive has found.

Time after time dating to 2004, Oregon and Washington officials alerted the USDA’s food safety agency about salmonella illnesses, but the federal government chose not to warn the public or ask Foster Farms for a recall.

Foster-Farms-Chicken-BreastWith no reason to worry, people kept eating contaminated chicken.

Foster Farms processes hundreds of thousands of birds a day, and only a small fraction of its customers ever got sick.

But from 2004 through 2014, state or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials identified nearly 1,000 infections they said were linked to Foster Farms chicken in four separate outbreaks. About 300 of those cases occurred in Oregon and Washington. The overall toll was possibly much higher. The CDC estimates that for every confirmed salmonella infection, more than 29 go unreported.

The Oregonian/OregonLive reviewed thousands of pages of government records related to Foster Farms and interviewed dozens of health officials, inspectors, food safety experts and federal managers for this story. The records and interviews reveal for the first time an agency that over a 10-year span had repeatedly failed to protect consumers when confronting one of the nation’s largest poultry processors.

During that time, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service issued hundreds of citations at the company’s sprawling plant in Kelso, Washington. But the agency allowed the plant to operate even though people kept getting sick.

Since the last outbreak ended, no known illnesses have been tied to the company, the largest poultry processor in the West. Foster Farms says it now has one of the lowest salmonella rates in the industry, having invested tens of millions of dollars to improve its plants and procedures.

It’s a different story at the USDA.

The agency has boosted its food safety budget and has made some strides to protect consumers, including introducing stricter standards for salmonella and ordering more random tests.

But many of the same practices and cultural hurdles that contributed to the way the agency handled public health concerns during that 10-year span remain in place today.

chicken.shock.may.13USDA officials are so worried about being sued by companies that they’ve set a high bar for evidence, even rejecting samples of tainted chicken that state health agencies believed would help clinch their case, records and interviews show.

Union officials said the government inspectors they represent are pressured to go easy on food processors, citing one notable case in which the USDA transferred an inspector after Foster Farms complained he wrote too many citations. And after strong pushback from Foster Farms, the USDA retracted a reference in a public document that unequivocally linked the company to illnesses in 2004, a move that baffled state health officials who described the investigation as “rock solid.”

And there’s much more, including USDA’s unwritten rules for going public at

Food safety style: The art of the Japanese company apology

Imagine you’re the head of a US fast-food chain in Japan that has been scandalized by a tooth-in-french-fries disaster. How do you repair the damage? Bow deeply — and be convincing.

belushi.samuriSo it was for Sarah Casanova, the Canadian president of McDonald’s Japan, whose less-than-textbook corporate mea culpa this month was an attempt at the tightly choreographed script routinely used by crisis-hit organisations.

With cameras rolling and reporters at the ready, apology press conferences are a must-do piece of theatre for Japanese firms that wandered from the straight-and-narrow in a country that has a dozen expressions for saying sorry.

Act 1: Wear dark colors, look grim and apologise profusely. Add a liberal sprinkling of words like “unfortunate” and “deeply regrettable”.

Act 2: Take a deep bow — better keep limber since you have got to make like a right angle or you will look like an amateur.

Act 3: Forget about buying a Porsche this year. You’ve got to cut your pay temporarily or forgo a bonus. Senior managers too.

Acts 4 and 5: Optional add-ons (depending on circumstances) — quit outright, or more likely step aside and put someone else in as CEO. Promise sweeping changes to avoid further scandals.

“This is part of a broader cultural phenomenon where the leader takes a hit for the team, then hopefully… society at large moves on,” says Jun Okumura, an independent analyst and visiting researcher at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs.

Television and social media have made it all the more important to convince a Japanese public sensitive to visual cues, says Mitsuru Fukuda, a professor of crisis management and risk communications at Nihon University in Tokyo.

“A big difference is that in the West, facts matter,” he says.

“Japanese journalists… focus on top leaders’ apologies.”

Business communication specialist Yasuyuki Mogi adds: “Unless words of apology are at the forefront, many Japanese feel (it) lacks sincerity.”

But even a picture-perfect effort on Casanova’s part might not have helped much to make up for mounting losses and allay public concerns after a string of food scares, including the human tooth found in a box of french fries, says Jeff Kingston, a professor of Asian Studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus.

“When you are in the business of selling food and your food is found wanting and considered unhealthy there is no bow low enough to right what is wrong.”