A single food inspection agency: Will it make food safer? Will fewer people get sick?

When it comes to the safety of the food supply, I generally ignore the chatter from Washington and company-types. If a proposal does emerge, such as the creation of a single food inspection agency, I ask, Will it actually make food safer? Will fewer people get sick?

vomit.toiletThat was valid in 2008, the last time Durbin and DeLauro introduced a bill for a single food agency in the U.S., and still valid today.

Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro and Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois plan to introduce the Safe Food Act of 2015, which would create a single, independent federal food safety agency.

The fragmented Federal food safety system and outdated laws preclude an integrated, system-wide approach to preventing foodborne illness,” it says.

Currently most of the responsibility for food safety lies with FDA. USDA oversees meat, poultry and processed eggs.

The bill would merge food safety oversight into a single agency, providing authority to recall unsafe food and improve inspections of imported food.

“Food safety is a critical public health issue,” said Chris Waldrop, Director of the Food Policy Institute at Consumer Federation of America. “But right now, responsibility for food safety is scattered among 15 different agencies. We need one independent agency focused on the safety of the entire food supply.”

“A single food safety agency would allow us to better focus our resources where the greatest risks lie,” Waldrop said. “The Safe Food Act is a strong vision for the future of food safety.”

Maybe.

Or not.

Countries, states, counties and cities have different forms of restaurant inspection oversight and disclosure. It’s a mess, but there’s no clear evidence that one approach works better than another.

With national food safety systems, Canada went single agency in 1997, but it’s got problems, as do Ireland, the U.K., and others.

I’m not against a single food agency (although the U.S. was founded on a series of checks and balances) but would like to see some evidence for the claims that are going to spew forth in the future, based on the rhetoric of 1998, repeated here:

vomit_here_by_seedpix_at_flickrA 1998 report from the U.S. General Accounting Office claimed the U.S. is lagging behind other countries – countries that have single food inspection systems.

Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) said,

“Today’s GAO report shows that America ranked eighth out of eight countries — dead last — in terms of national food safety systems.”

There was no such ranking in the report. There was no ranking at all in the report.

Congresswoman Rosa L. DeLauro (CT-3) said,

“This GAO report highlights how effectively a single food safety agency could protect our food supply. … By focusing on the entire food supply chain, placing primary responsibility for food safety on producers, and ensuring that food imports meet equivalent safety standards. …”

The U.S. system already does that. And the report says nothing about how a single food inspection agency could better accomplish such tasks.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest says,

“The GAO report also shows that creating a unified food safety program is technologically and economically feasible, and most important, effective in helping to reduce foodborne illness.”

There were no measures of effectiveness for any of the single food inspection agencies, other than whether public opinion or confidence in the shiny, happy new agencies increased over time based on self-reported surveys. A few advertisements could have accomplished that.

There was certainly no mention of any agency reducing the incidence of foodborne illness. The seven countries studied – Canada, UK, New Zealand, Ireland, Denmark, Germany and The Netherlands – said they reorganized their food inspection agencies to improve effectiveness and efficiency; not one said to improve public health and have fewer sick people.

cat vomitThe GAO report — Selected Countries’ Systems Can Offer Insights into Ensuring Import Safety and Responding to Foodborne Illness – did say:

“The burden for food safety in most of the selected countries lies primarily with food producers, rather than with inspectors, although inspectors play an active role in overseeing compliance. This principle applies to both domestic and imported products.”

That’s good.

“None of the selected countries had comprehensively evaluated its reorganized food safety system … Most of the selected countries use proxy measures, such as public opinion surveys, to assess their effectiveness. Public opinion in several countries has improved in recent years.”

That’s bad.

In Canada, “At the consumer end of the spectrum, the food safety agency educates Canadians about safe food-handling practices and various food safety risks through its Web site, food safety fact sheets, and the Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education, a group of industry, consumer, and government organizations that jointly develop and implement a national program to educate consumers on how to safely handle food.”

That’s awful.

To summarize: no rankings, no measures of effectiveness, and not much fact-checking.

Should there be a single food inspection agency in the U.S.? Maybe. But will it enhance the safety of the food supply? Will it mean fewer sick people?

Campy hasn’t stabilized in Ireland

Within Ireland, the Food Safety Authority (FSAI) today stated that campylobacteriosis continues to be the most commonly reported foodborne illness in Ireland with 10 times more cases of campylobacteriosis being reported than salmonellosis. 

campy.chickenSome 2,288 cases of food poisoning due to Campylobacter were recorded in 2013, compared to over 2,600 in 2014.* The FSAI noted the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) annual figures for foodborne illness published today which suggests that the campylobacteriosis figures across Europe have stabilised, but that is not the experience in Ireland. 

The FSAI states that the figures recorded by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre in Ireland are the highest since campylobacteriosis became legally notifiable in 2004 and requires cross industry and consumer responses to be undertaken to tackle the problem.  The FSAI would support setting a microbiological hygiene standard for poultry meat at European level.  This would create a maximum tolerance level for Campylobacter in poultry which could be reviewed over time.  A similar approach was adopted as part of European controls for Salmonella which proved successful.

According to Dr Wayne Anderson, Director of Food Science and Standards, FSAI, salmonellosis was a major issue in Ireland 15 years ago, but due to the efforts of the Irish industry to control and reduce Salmonella contamination in eggs and poultry there has been a radical decrease in its incidence and impact on public health.

 “A similar effort is now required to reduce Campylobacter infections which can be serious and life threatening in vulnerable people. For Salmonella control, regulations were put in place which set a maximum tolerance for Salmonella in raw poultry amongst other controls. There is a need to set similar tolerance levels for Campylobacter and this would drive new control measures throughout the food chain to reduce its occurrence,” he says. “If the industry from producer right through to retailer comes together to put in specific measures to reduce the level of Campylobacter on poultry like it did for Salmonella, it would have a positive impact on the number of people becoming sick,” he said.

But what does it really mean? Campylobacteriosis cases stable, listeriosis cases continue to rise in EU

Campylobacteriosis infections reported in humans have now stabilised, after several years of an increasing trend, but it is still the most commonly reported foodborne disease in the EU. Listeriosis and VTEC infections in humans have increased, while reported salmonellosis and yersiniosis cases have decreased. These are some of the key findings of the European Union Summary Report on Trends and Sources of Zoonoses, Zoonotic Agents and Foodborne Outbreaks in 2013.

surveillance“The stabilisation of campylobacteriosis cases and the continuing downward trend of salmonellosis is good news, but we should not lower our guard as reporting of other diseases such as listeriosis and VTEC infections is going up,” says Marta Hugas, Head of Department of EFSA’s Risk Assessment and Scientific Assistance Department, who stresses the importance of monitoring foodborne illnesses in Europe.

Last year’s report showed that human cases of campylobacteriosis decreased slightly for the first time in five years. The 2013 figures have stabilised to the levels reported in 2012. Nevertheless, with  214,779  cases, campylobacteriosis remains the most commonly reported foodborne disease in the EU. In food , the causative agent, Campylobacter, is mostly found in chicken meat.

Listeriosis cases increased by 8.6 percent between 2012 and 2013 and have been increasing over the pastfive years. Although the number of confirmed cases is relatively low at 1,763, these are of particular concern as the reported Listeria infections are mostly severe, invasive forms of the disease with higher death rates than for the other foodborne diseases.  “The rise of reported invasive listeriosis cases is of great concern as the infection is acquired mostly from ready-to-eat food and it may lead to death, particularly among the increasing population of elderly people and patients with weakened immunity in Europe”, says Mike Catchpole, the Chief Scientist at ECDC. Despite the rise of listeriosis cases reported in humans, Listeria monocytogenes, the bacterium that causes listeriosis in humans and animals, was seldom detected above the legal safety limits in ready-to-eat foods.

Reported cases of verocytotoxin-producing E. coli (VTEC) infection rose by 5.9 percent – possibly an effect of increased awareness in Member States following the outbreak in 2011, which translated into better testing and reporting. No trends were observed on the presence of VTEC in food and animals.  

Salmonellosis cases fell for the eighth year in a row, with 82,694 cases –a 7.9 percent decrease in the notification rate compared with 2012. The report attributes the decrease to Salmonella control programmes in poultry and notes that most Member States met their reduction goals for prevalence in poultry for 2013. In fresh poultry meat, compliance with EU Salmonella criteria increased – a signal that Member States’ investments in control measures are working. 

Yersiniosis, the third most commonly reported zoonotic disease in the EU with 6,471 cases, has been decreasing over the past five years and declined by 2.8 percent compared with 2012.  

The EFSA-ECDC report covers 16 zoonoses and foodborne outbreaks. It is based on data collected by 32 European countries (28 Member States and four non-Member States) and helps the European Commission and EU Member States to monitor, control and prevent zoonotic diseases.

Should I stay or should I go? California deli being sued over Salmonella outbreak

A lawsuit was filed this week on behalf of an Oxnard woman alleging she and at least seven others contracted Salmonella poisoning after eating last year at Brent’s Deli in Thousand Oaks.

The suit, filed Monday in Ventura County Superior Court, indicates as many as 21 people might have been victims of the outbreak, including two employees of Brent’s. Yet Ventura County and state health officials never issued a public warning.

Trevor Quirk, a Ventura attorney representing the woman, Stephanie Wehr, said the owners of Brent’s knew there was a problem with Salmonella contamination at the restaurant when his client ate there Aug. 2.

“They had numerous chances to deal with the problem but they failed to do so,” Quirk said.

Marc Hernandez, a managing partner with Brent’s, would not comment on the lawsuit, saying he had yet to see it. But he said “the health and safety of our customers and employees is of the absolute importance.”

“Our focus has always been customer satisfaction and providing a high-quality experience to the thousands of loyal customers who visit our restaurants,” he said in an email.

Victorian eateries (the Australian ones) with poor hygiene have been named, shamed, fined $450K

Dozens of restaurants, cafes and other eateries in Victoria have copped about $450,000 in fines for breaches of food safety rules.

rest.inspection.victoria.jan.15Most of the culprits were Asian food venues, which were prosecuted for offences ranging from failure to protect food from contamination by pests to knowingly handling food in an unhealthy manner.

Offenders caught by council health inspectors are “named and shamed” on a state Health Department website for a year.

About 30 businesses are listed for convictions recorded over the past 18 months.

Former Southbank restaurant Olla Messa was fined $90,000 in April last year for poor storage of food and failing to keep out pests.

A court was told the City of Melbourne temporarily shut down the eatery after two patrons complained of an infestation of cockroaches.

An inspection of the restaurant found an unsealed grease trap and live and dead cockroaches “throughout the premises.”

Food safety’s gotta rule: Uni student says my fridge is your fridge – until the health department shows up

Ernst Bertone and two fellow University of California, Davis graduate students began their experiment last fall with a simple idea: Build a closer community and reduce food waste by sharing food with their neighbors. They placed a community refrigerator on their lawn, called the project “free.go” and watched it take off.

free.goNeighbors and fellow students picked up and dropped off dozens of food items at the front yard fridge, following free.go’s mantra: “Take what you need. Leave what you don’t.” More than 100 items were exchanged in a month’s time outside Bertone and Eric Yen’s Douglas Avenue home last September.

By the end of the month, neighbors were sharing books, too, and another exchange was born.

“It worked exactly as it was supposed to. … People took (the food) and it worked. People took it and used it,” said Bertone, a graduate teaching assistant in UC Davis’ agriculture and resource economics department.

But the food sharing project quickly ran afoul of state health and safety codes and was unplugged late last year by Yolo County health officials amid food safety concerns. Bertone and friends, however, refuse to call free.go a failed experiment. Rather, they hope it will launch a broader conversation on the notion of food sharing in the city, including other “fridge sharing mechanisms,” as Bertone calls them, and its connection to an emerging “sharing economy.”

Bertone, Yen and Ali Hill, another UC Davis graduate student, plan to lobby Davis city leaders. They want to plead their case for food sharing and community refrigerators at a future City Council meeting. The idea has already spawned lively debate in community websites such as People’s Vanguard of Davis and drawn about 130 signers to an online petition that the trio plan to submit to the city.

“The fridge is a great idea even aside from (reducing) food waste,” Hill said. “It encourages a great sense of community that’s lacking in most communities. This is kind of a cool way to encourage it.”

But there are practical concerns, with food safety at the top of the list.

“I think the spirit is in the right place and the thought of not wasting food is good, but with the (health) issue, you balance progressive thinking with the fact there’s no control over it,” said neighbor Robert Weidenfeld. He suggested working with local food banks and other relief groups.

“I had no problem with it being out there and they’ll probably say that it’s a good idea, but maybe their energies would be best put toward groups that are shown to be effective,” he added.

Yolo County health officials who red-tagged the refrigerator as an illegal food facility back in November determined that because the free.go refrigerator was an unregulated food exchange, Bertone could not guarantee the food inside was safe to eat.

“He’s started a food business. The food’s not from an approved source. He can’t guarantee its safety. There are so many unknowns that there is a high risk to the public,” said April Meneghetti, a Yolo County environmental health specialist.

Meneghetti said the potential health risks are many: contamination; exposure to foodborne illnesses; unintentional exposure to those with food allergies and compromised immune systems; and the risk of eating recalled foods.

“It may not be anything malicious, but the food code is based on potential risk,” Meneghetti said. “If it’s completely unregulated, it’s too risky. There’s no way to trace back the food if someone got sick.”

Perishable food: China’s cold chain is improving

Though China’s lack of cold-chain facilities and logistics for perishable products has been its Achilles heel, improvements are expected within the next five years, says Keith Hu, Northwest Cherry Growers representative.

china.cold.chainMelissa Hansen of Good Fruit Grower writes that China is recognized as one of the hottest markets in the world due to its large population and potential for consumption. Many U.S. agricultural commodity groups, including apple growers, anticipate more open trading in the near future after trade talks in mid-January between the two countries. But is China ready to handle the influx of perishable produce?

Hu visited China last year to better understand China’s cold-chain challenges for cherries and other fresh produce.

China’s lack of cold storage facilities, refrigerated trucks, and retail refrigeration results in food contamination, food waste, and spoilage that limits the reach of most U.S. food products to the coastal cities, he reported during a Washington State Fruit Commission board meeting in December.

Hu noted that food safety is a growing problem in China, and numerous food safety incidents go unreported.

However, cold-chain improvements are being made. Government regulations effective in 2015 will require that 20 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables, 50 percent of meat, and 65 percent of seafood be handled through cold-chain channels, according to Hu. “This is a big milestone for them.”

Shopping for safety: What is consumer food safety education?

Now that the annual orgy of food safety advice has subsided until the next holiday (that would be the Super Bowl, and all the bad puns), it’s time to ask: are any of these messages effective?

powell.food.safety.edu.jan.15Do they actually reduce the number of people who get sick? Does anyone test these messages in a scientifically credible way?

Cook-clean-chill-separate has become the mantra of food safety types but there is no evidence — regardless of repetition — these messages work.

Instead, people are picking up sound bites like venereal diseases; I thought we’d gotten past that.

Marty had no reason going to the first food safety educators conference in Washington, D.C. in 1997. He was working as a student life advisor or something but, I had gotten in the habit of taking Marty along on road trips from Guelph – got lost once in some New York mountains in the middle of the night and thought we were going to die – for fun and driving chores.

The 1996 Nissan Quest minivan still had the new car smell, and as a new prof with a carload of students, I decided driving all night was better than dishing out non-existent cash for an extra night of hotel rooms.

We arrived in Georgetown about 7:30 a.m., ate at a dive, and found the on-campus conference room. People looked at us like we had just rolled out of a vehicle and been driving all night.

We had.

pink.floyd.educationMost of us went and changed into fresh clothes, while Marty crashed somewhere until the room was available.

The conference started and we were pumped.

I may have fallen asleep.

There were descriptions of many food safety education programs but the evaluation components were either non-existent or sucked.

I remember going out to a Georgetown bar later that night, watching The Truth About Cats and Dogs in the hotel room while Marty farted, and commenting that student Janis looked like Janeane Garofalo. I remember the drive home.

I don’t remember much about the conference.

Which is why I haven’t gone back.

I’m all for providing food safety information in a compelling, creative and critically sound manner. However education is something people do themselves. Lewis Lapham wrote in Harper’s magazine in the mid-1980s about how individuals can choose to educate themselves about all sorts of interesting things, but the idea of educating someone is doomed to failure. And it’s sorta arrogant to state that shoppers need to be educated; to imply that if only you understood the world as I understand the world, we would agree and dissent would be minimized.

These may be subtle semantics – to communicate with rather than to; to inform rather than educate – but they set an important tone.

With outbreaks in pizza, pot pies, pet food, peanut butter, bagged spinach, lettuce, sprouts, carrot juice, lettuce, tomatoes, canned chili sauce, hot peppers, cookie dough, chia seeds, tuna back scrape, and white pepper, I’m not sure what consumers have to do with it.

This is not to discount the role of consumers in protecting or enhancing the safety of the food they eat. Rather, consumers should be engaged as partners in the management of the farm-to-fork food continuum, and not unduly blamed for failing to recognize and correct errors that other players in this continuum have made.

Forget the blame; focus on shared responsibility; share information. Help people make better decisions. Tell them why what they do is important (if not yourself, try not to make your kids or friends barf).

The World Health Organization recognized this back in 2001 and included a fifth key to safer food: use safe water and raw materials, or, source food from safe sources (http://www.who.int/foodsafety/consumer/5keys/en/index.html).

I’m not sure what consumers are supposed to do about Listeria in caramel apples, but that’s another story.

Dr. Douglas Powell is a former professor of food safety who shops, cooks and ferments from his home in Brisbane, Australia.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the original creator and do not necessarily represent that of the Texas A&M Center for Food Safety or Texas A&M University.

Is that all there is? Norovirus suspected by Nebraska health department

The Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department is investigating an incidence of what it suspects is norovirus.

Details of who may have the highly contagious disease, where and how it was reported were not available from the department. 

“We have an ongoing investigation, so we can’t discuss specifics,” said Tim Timmons, communicable disease program supervisor. “At this point we suspect norovirus, but we’re still investigating. There is no risk to the public at this time.” 

Is that all there is?

Farming science, without the conscience

Following an account by Michael Moss in the N.Y. Times last week, a Times editorial says the little-known U.S. Meat Animal Research Center, financed by American taxpayers, which employs the sophisticated tools and scientific expertise of modern animal management — apparently without a conscience.

govtcrueltyThe details Mr. Moss’s article exposes are sickening. In engineering animals to maximize industry’s bottom line, the center, at a sprawling, secluded site in Nebraska, has created pigs that bear freakishly large litters of frail piglets, which are often crushed by their mothers. Cows give birth to triplets, many of them deformed. Lambs are born in open fields, where they starve, are eaten by predators and are overcome by the elements. These so-called easy-care sheep are bred to eliminate the need for shelters and human help at birthing time.

(Reuters has reported that the secretary of agriculture, in the wake of Mr. Moss’s article, has directed the agency to create a new animal welfare plan, which will involve employee training and a review of research practices.)

The humans who work at the center are not necessarily oblivious to its failings. Some veterinarians and researchers told The Times they were appalled by the suffering and abuse. They should not have their consciences degraded by what is supposed to be beneficial work. Congress founded the center 50 years ago. It should oversee it and reform it — or shut it down.