Another victory for anti-science: Mandatory labelling of GE food

Ron Doering writes in his latest Food Law column that the U.S. has just adopted another policy that has important implications for Canada.

ronald-doeringOn July 29, 2016 President Obama signed Bill 764 requiring labelling on all foods to indicate whether or not the food contains GMO ingredients. ­ e federal law will override individual state laws such as the one passed in Vermont, which is considered to be more onerous. Under the bill the U.S. Department of Agriculture has two years to draft implementing regulations.

While Canada has had a voluntary labelling standard for some years, Canadian regulators have resisted calls for mandatory labelling. While some proponents argue mandatory labelling provides informed choice to consumers, others argue that mandatory labelling doesn’t inform, it misleads the consumer by implying that GE foods are inferior or unsafe. After all, why else would government make labelling mandatory? Of course, some have taken the position that the push to have mandatory labelling never had anything to do with safety. ­

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the World Health Association, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Science, the British Royal Society and, to quote the AAAS, “every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion: consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.”

Scienti­fic American now explicitly supports GMOs and opposes mandatory labelling as not being science or evidence-based. Even the EU recently concluded, based on more than 130 studies covering 25 years of research involving at least 500 independent research groups, that GE technologies “are not more risky than… conventional plant breeding technologies.” ­

This summer 107 Nobel laureates urged Greenpeace to end its opposition to GMOs saying that Greenpeace “deliberately went out of their way to scare people…to raise money for their cause.” ­

There is an argument that advocates of mandatory labelling have never really wanted to inform or protect consumers. ­ They want to use consumers to bring pressure on food companies to segregate and highlight GMOs and on legislators to bring in laws requiring mandatory labelling so that consumers would be scared into thinking that GE must be unsafe. ­

Their real goal is to stigmatize GE food. Waging a war on science, a very small vocal minority of GE food safety deniers have outmanoeuvred a remarkably complacent food and biotech industry that seems to have forgotten that appeasement is rarely an effective policy. ­

This has important implications for Canada. Given the 6,000 truckloads of food crossing the Canada-U.S. border everyday, we will have little choice but to follow the U.S. even though many argue the change is misguided, not good public policy, and it could be quite hurtful to Canadian farmers.

In any event, Canada will have to engage directly with American regulators in the development of the regulations because there are many important outstanding issues: Will labelling be required if the GE material has been removed from the ingredient through processing (for example, beet sugar and soybean oil)? How will they treat food derived from some of the new gene-editing technologies? Will bar codes be sufficient? ­

There are still those who both question the science and sincerely want to ensure that consumers have a right to choose. To those who no longer question the science, this policy can undermine the extraordinary promise of GE and even the credibility of our science-based regulatory system.

For them, the recent Scienti­fic American editorial eloquently captures the serious longer-term danger: “…what it hurts most is the cause of science and reason. Our choices should be based on understanding tradeofs and trusting the best possible science… If choices are instead driven by herd mentality, a pathological adherence to the Precautionary Principle and a reliance on false moral outrage, then we are not only harming the fate of real human beings around the world but are also impinging on open mindedness and critical thinking, an attitude that can only squelch rational inquiry.”

CSPI petitions undetectable limit of Vibrio vulnificus in molluscan shellfish, FDA says no

The almost tweet-length version is that CSPI is looking for the shellfish industry to be held to a performance standard zero tolerance of V. vulnificus in stuff like oysters, highlighting the public health risks. unknown-1FDA writes a well referenced and reasoned response denying the request citing lots of evidence that the states and industry have been successful in reducing risks.

You can read the response here.

Food Safety Talk 115: Features Chico Marx

It’s the super happy holiday version of Food Safety Talk. Don and Ben chat about Christmas movies, gambling as children and other holiday traditions. Making appearances in the guys’ discussion are Twitter and posting great questions of regulators about poor recall notices; cooling and holding cous cous and regulatory interpretations of time as a public health control; norovirus outbreaks at schools; and, Chipotle’s food safety culture.marx-brothers-harpo-marx-chico-marx-groucho-marx1

Episode 115 can be found here and on iTunes.

Links so you can follow along at home:

How the hell could we have known? 10 years later, spinach soundbites fit for the post-truth era

In sentencing me to jail in 1982, the judge said I had a memory of convenience.

I had said I had a memory of not much.

cabbage-head-kithSpinach and lettuce growers seem to have a memory of not much, given the produce industry’s revisions to the 2006 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in spinach that killed four and sickened 200.

In October, 1996, a 16-month-old Denver girl drank Smoothie juice manufactured by Odwalla Inc. of Half Moon Bay, California. She died several weeks later; 64 others became ill in several western U.S. states and British Columbia after drinking the same juices, which contained unpasteurized apple cider — and E. coli O157:H7. Investigators believed that some of the apples used to make the cider might have been insufficiently washed after falling to the ground and coming into contact with deer feces.

Almost 10 years later, on Sept. 14, 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that an outbreak of E. coli O157: H7 had killed a 77-year-old woman and sickened 49 others (United States Food and Drug Administration, 2006). The FDA learned from the Centers for Disease Control and Wisconsin health officials that the outbreak may have been linked to the consumption of produce and identified bagged fresh spinach as a possible cause.

In the decade between these two watershed outbreaks, almost 500 outbreaks of foodborne illness involving fresh produce were documented, publicized and led to some changes within the industry, yet what author Malcolm Gladwell would call a tipping point — “a point at which a slow gradual change becomes irreversible and then proceeds with gathering pace” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tipping_Point) — in public awareness about produce-associated risks did not happen until the spinach E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in the fall of 2006. At what point did sufficient evidence exist to compel the fresh produce industry to embrace the kind of change the sector has heralded since 2007? And at what point will future evidence be deemed sufficient to initiate change within an industry?

lettuce-skull-e-coli-o145In 1996, following extensive public and political discussions about microbial food safety in meat, the focus shifted to fresh fruits and vegetables, following an outbreak of Cyclospora cayetanesis ultimately linked to Guatemalan raspberries that sickened 1,465 in 21 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1997), and subsequently Odwalla. That same year, Beuchat (1996) published a review on pathogenic microorganisms in fresh fruits and vegetables and identified numerous pathways of contamination.

Date Product Pathogen Cases Setting/dish State
Apr-92 Lettuce S. enteriditis 12 Salad VT
Jan-93 Lettuce S. Heidelberg 18 Restaurant MN
Jul-93 Lettuce Norovirus 285 Restaurant IL
Aug-93 Salad E. coli O157:H7 53 Salad Bar WA
Jul-93 Salad E. coli O157:H7 10 Unknown WA
Sep-94 Salad E. coli O157:H7 26 School TX
Jul-95 Lettuce E. coli O153:H48 74 Lettuce MT
Sep-95 Lettuce E. coli O153:H47 30 Scout Camp ME
Sep-95 Salad E. coli O157:H7 20 Ceasar Salad ID
Oct-95 Lettuce E. coli O153:H46 11 Salad OH
May-96 Lettuce E. coli O157:H10 61 Mesclun Mix  ML
Jun-96 Lettuce E. coli O153:H49 7 Mesclun Mix NY

Table 1. Outbreaks of foodborne illness related to leafy greens, 1992-1996.

By 1997, researchers at CDC were stating that pathogens could contaminate at any point along the fresh produce food chain — at the farm, processing plant, transportation vehicle, retail store or foodservice operation and the home — and that by understanding where potential problems existed, it was possible to develop strategies to reduce risks of contamination. Researchers also reported that the use of pathogen-free water for washing would minimize risk of contamination.

Date Product Pathogen Cases Setting/dish State
Feb-99 Lettuce E. coli O157:H9 65 Restaurant NE
Jun-99 Salad E. coli O111:H8 58 Texas Camp TX
Sep-99 Lettuce E. coli O157:H11 6 Iceberg WA
Oct-99 Lettuce E. coli O157:H7 40 Nursing Home PA
Oct-99 Lettuce E. coli O157:H7 47 Restaurant OH
Oct-99 Salad E. coli O157:H7 5 Restaurant OR

Table 2. 1999 U.S. outbreaks of STEC linked to leafy greens

 

Yet it would take a decade and some 29 leafy green-related outbreaks before spinach in 2006 became a tipping point.

 

Date Product Pathogen Cases Setting/dish State
Oct-00 Salad E. coli O157:H7 6 Deli IN
Nov-01 Lettuce E. coli O157:H7 20 Restaurant TX
Jul-02 Lettuce E. coli O157:H8 55 Bagged, Tossed WA
Nov-02 Lettuce E. coli O157:H7 13 Restaurant IL
Dec-02 Lettuce E. coli O157:H7 3 Restaurant MN

Table 3: Leafy green outbreaks of STEC, 2000 — 2002.

 

What was absent in this decade of outbreaks, letters from regulators, plans from industry associations and media accounts, was verification that farmers and others in the farm-to-fork food safety system were seriously internalizing the messages about risk, the numbers of sick people, and translating such information into front-line food safety behavioral change.

Date Product Pathogen Cases Setting/dish State
Sep-03 Lettuce E. coli O157:H7 51 Restaurant CA
Nov-03 Spinach E. coli O157:H7 16 Nursing Home CA
Nov-04 Lettuce E. coli O157:H7 6 Restaurant NJ
Sep-05 Lettuce E. coli O157:H7 11 Dole, bagged Multiple

Table 4: Leafy green STEC outbreaks, 2003 — 2005.

So why was spinach in 2006 the tipping point?

It shouldn’t have been.

But it lets industry apologists say, how the hell could we known?

Tom Karst of The Packer reports the crisis of confidence in the status quo of produce safety practices arrived with a thud a little more than 10 years ago.

Beginning Sept. 14 and continuing until Sept. 20, 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued daily news releases that flatly advised consumers “not to eat fresh spinach or fresh spinach-containing products until further notice.”

The agency had never before issued such a broad warning about a commodity, said Robert Brackett, who in 2006 was director of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutritions. Brackett is now vice president and director of the Institute for Food Safety and Health at the Illinois Institute of Technology,

“In this particular case all we knew (was) that it was bagged leafy spinach, but we had no idea whose it was or where it was coming from,” he said in December of this year.

“It was a very scary couple of days because we had all of these serious cases of hemolytic-uremic syndrome popping up and people getting sick, and it was so widespread across the country.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported about half of those who were ill were hospitalized during the 2006 spinach E. coli outbreak.

“It was shocking how little confidence that FDA and consumers had in the produce industry at that moment,” said David Gombas, retired senior vice president of food safety and technology for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.

Given the history of outbreaks, the only thing shocking was that the industry continued to expect blind faith.

“For FDA to say ‘Don’t eat any spinach,’ they blamed an entire commodity, and it became very clear to the produce industry at that moment they had to do something to restore public confidence and FDA confidence in the safety of fresh produce,” Gombas said Nov. 30.

“One of the things that was very different and had the greatest impact was the consumer advisory against spinach — period — regardless of where it came from,” said Trevor Suslow, extension research specialist and director of the University of California-Davis Postharvest Technology Center.

The stark warning — immediately followed by steeply falling retail spinach sales — was issued in the midst of a multistate E. coli foodborne illness outbreak eventually linked to Dole brand baby spinach.

The product was processed, packed and shipped by Natural Selection Foods of San Juan Bautista, Calif., which markets the Earthbound Farm brand.

U.S. Department of Agriculture data shows that California’s spinach shipments plummeted from 258,774 cartons in August 2006 to 138,278 cartons in September, a drop of nearly 50%.

Shipping point prices for spinach on the California coast dropped from $8.45-10.45 per carton on Sept. 14 — the day that FDA first issued its advice to avoid for consumers to avoid spinach — to $4.85-6.15 per carton on Sept. 15.

No market was reported by the USDA for the rest of September because supplies were insufficient to quote.

The final update on the 2006 spinach outbreak was published by the CDC in October. By March 2007, the FDA issued its own final report about its investigation on the cause of the outbreak.

The CDC said in October 2006 that 199 persons infected with the outbreak strain of E. coli O157:H7 were reported to CDC from 26 states. Later, the tally of those sickened was raised to 205.

Gombas said the FDA warning in mid-September caused leafy green sales to crash, not fully recovering for nearly a decade.

“There were outbreaks before that, but none of them were as devastating to industry or public confidence as that one.”

The FDA and the California Department of Public Health issued a 51-page report on the extensive investigation into the causes of an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak associated with the contaminated Dole brand baby spinach.

The report said investigators identified the environmental risk factors and the areas that were most likely involved in the outbreak. However, they were unable to definitely determine the source of the contamination.

The investigation explored the source of the spinach in 13 bags containing E. coli O157:H7 isolates that had been collected nationwide from sick customers, according to a summary of the report.

Using the product codes on the bags, and employing DNA fingerprinting on the bacteria from the bags, the investigators were able to match environmental samples of E. coli O157:H7 from one field to the strain that had caused the outbreak, according to the report.

The report said E. coli O157:H7 isolates located on the Paicines Ranch in San Benito had a (pulsed-field gel electrophoresis) pattern indistinguishable from the outbreak strain. The report said the pattern was identified in river water, cattle feces and wild pig feces on the Paicines Ranch, the closest of which was just under one mile from the spinach field.

According to investigators, the sources of the potential environmental risk factors for E.coli contamination at or near the field included the presence of wild pigs and the proximity of irrigation wells and waterways exposed to feces from cattle and wildlife.

From 1995 to 2006, researchers had linked nine outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 infections to, or near, the Salinas Valley region. But the 2006 spinach outbreak was different.

There were guidelines for growers in 2006, but not a way to make sure growers were following them, said Joe Pezzini, CEO of Ocean Mist Farms, Castroville, Calif.

Convenient.

Is ‘best if used by’ better than ‘best before’

Kristen Leigh Painter of the Star Tribune reports date labels on food don’t quite represent the peril that people think.

use_by_egg1For years, foodmakers have put sell-by and use-by dates on a number of products. But some food experts and environmentalists have argued that people are throwing out perfectly good food because of those dates. And now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture agreed.

The department’s food safety division released new industry guidance that recommends that manufacturers use the phrase “best if used by” rather than “sell by” or “use by” when putting dates on food.

Infant formula is the only food product required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to date its products to ensure the nutrient levels match what is on the nutrition label.

No other products require dates, but manufacturers put them on labels to signal to retailers and consumers when products taste best. The USDA estimates that nearly one-third of all food is thrown away uneaten, something the agency is trying to reduce through better policies or simple packaging changes.

“Research shows that this phrase conveys to consumers that the product will be of best quality if used by the calendar date shown,” the USDA wrote in its guidance. “Foods not exhibiting signs of spoilage should be wholesome and may be sold, purchased, donated and consumed beyond the labeled ‘Best if Used By’ date.”

Because the U.S. has no uniform date labeling standard, a variety of terms are used. A “sell-by” date is not a safety issue but is meant to help a retailer know how long to display a produce for sale. A “use-by” date is also not a safety issue, but is the last date recommended to consumers for peak quality.

This guidance is part of the Agriculture Department and Environmental Protection Agency’s goal of reducing food waste by 50 percent by 2030, an initiative announced last year.

The USDA says food can be consumed after its “best if used by” date so long as there are no signs of spoilage.

“Spoiled foods will develop an off odor, flavor or texture due to naturally occurring spoilage bacteria. If a food has developed such spoilage characteristics, it should not be eaten,” wrote the USDA.

The exception is pathogenic bacteria, which is undetectable. If an unlucky consumer purchases a food product carrying this pathogen, however, the expiration date won’t protect them regardless.

Because serving certain foods to old folks is dumb: Listeria infections frequently reported among the EU elderly

European experts have noted an increasing trend of listeriosis since 2008, but they highlight that the number of affected people stabilised from 2014 to 2015. Infections were mostly reported in people over 64 years of age. These are some of the findings of the latest annual report by EFSA and ECDC on zoonotic diseases, which also includes the latest trends on salmonellosis, campylobacteriosis, and foodborne outbreaks in the European Union.

listeria4Listeriosis affected about 2,200 people in 2015, causing 270 deaths – the highest number ever reported in the EU. The proportion of cases in the over 64 age group steadily increased from 56% in 2008 to 64% in 2015. Additionally, in this period, the number of reported cases and their proportion has almost doubled in those over 84 years.

“It is concerning that there continues to be an increasing trend of Listeria cases which mostly occur in the elderly population. ECDC is working together with Member States to enhance surveillance for food- and waterborne diseases, starting with Listeria, as earlier detection of relevant clusters and outbreaks can help prevent further cases,” said Mike Catchpole, Chief Scientist at ECDC. “This is a public health threat that can and needs to be addressed”, he added.

Dr. Marta Hugas, Head of Biological Hazards and Contaminants at EFSA, said: “Listeria seldom exceeded the legal safety limits in ready-to-eat foods, the most common foodborne source of human infections. However, it is important that consumers follow manufacturers’ storage instructions and the guidelines given by national authorities on the consumption of foods.”

In 2015, there were 229,213 reported cases of campylobacteriosis. This disease remains the most commonly reported foodborne disease in the EU, showing an upward trend since 2008. Campylobacter is mostly found in chickens and chicken meat.

The number of cases of salmonellosis, the second most commonly reported foodborne disease in the EU, increased slightly – from 92,007 in 2014 to 94,625 in 2015. The increase observed in the past two years is partly due to improvements in surveillance and better diagnostic methods. However, the long-term trend is still declining and most Member States met their Salmonella reduction targets for poultry populations.

Salmonella is mainly found in meat (poultry) intended to be cooked before consumption.

$30,000 worth of seafood stolen from Australian restaurant

Canada’s got its maple syrup gang, Brisbane area has its seafood thiefs.

Clare Armstrong of the Courier Mail reports more than $30,000 worth of seafood including prawns, crabs, Moreton Bay bugs and oysters was stolen from an external freezer at the Belvedere Hotel, Woody Point at about 1.45am on Wednesday.

seafood-theft-brisbanePolice said CCTV showed the thieves broke the lock on the freezer before loading more than 30 boxes of seafood into a white ute and fleeing the scene.

Belvedere General Manager Andrew Cox said the company had scrambled to replace all the stock in time for Christmas but it “could have been a total disaster”.

“These low-life people obviously don’t have any Christmas spirit at all … we ordered the seafood back in October but because of their actions more than 600 people almost had their Christmas lunch ruined,” he said.

Mr Cox said the seafood had only been delivered hours before the robbery, which appeared to have been carefully planned.

 

Use a f**king thermometer: Campy risk in Swiss Christmas meal

Celebrating Christmas in Switzerland can be a risky business.

Not only does the use of real candles on Christmas trees lead to a rise in call-outs for the fire brigade, but apparently eating a traditional Swiss Christmas dish can be dangerous too.

chinese-fondueChinese fondue – a fondue of raw meat cooked in a pot of hot broth, instead of bread dipped in cheese – is often chosen as the main meal by many Swiss at Christmas.

But according to the Swiss food hygiene office (BLV) this leads to a rise in the number of cases of diarrhea each festive season, caused by the presence of the bacteria Campylobacter in the meat.

Up to 8,000 people are affected by Campylobacter infections every year in Switzerland, costing the country around 10 million francs, the BLV said in a statement.

And each festive season the number of cases is considerably higher than average, mainly because Chinese fondue is traditionally eaten around this time of year, it said.

Now it has issued guidelines, including a handy video, on how to prepare the meat hygienically in order to cut down the risk of Campylobacter and thus avoid spending the rest of Christmas on the toilet.

Different plates and utensils should be used for raw meat, cooked meat and other raw accompaniments such as sauces and salads, it says.

Hands should be washed thoroughly before and after handling raw meat.

Meat should be well cooked, particularly poultry, which should be completely cooked through.

Take this course and you may not end up in barfblog.com

We don’t normally do course announcements, but I’ve got a soft spot for the Dutch and this colleague was persistent.

dutch-waynes-worldCourse: Management of Microbiological Hazards in Foods

Advanced course, Management of Microbiological Hazards in Foods

Organised by: The Graduate School VLAG, in co-operation with The European Chair in Food Safety Microbiology

Date: Mon 6 March 2017 until Fri 10 March 2017

Venue: Wageningen, The Netherlands
The seventeenth edition of the international advanced course on Management of Microbiological Hazards in Foods addresses both success stories in food safety and problems remaining to be dealt with as, indeed, foodborne illnesses are a continuing problem worldwide food industry, including primary production, manufacturers, retailers and food service. The roles of different stakeholders, how food safety assurance can be achieved, which problems are to be prevented and in particular what knowledge is essential in managing the production of safe foods will be prominent topics in this course.

Anyone working or studying in/for a role in academia, industry or government associated to food safety management who wishes to update their knowledge and interact with key experts willing to share their experience. Participants may be graduates in (Food) Microbiology, Food Technology, Food Science, Food Chemistry, Veterinary Sciences or Medicine, as well as in related areas of science or with equivalent expertise.

Netherlands: Course: Management of microbiological hazards in foods

VLAG Graduate School

https://www.vlaggraduateschool.nl/en/courses/course/Management-of-Microbiological-Hazards-in-Foods-1.htm#tab0

Foodborne pathogen typing: Getting it right, it’s sorta important

In 2012, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) initiated external quality assessment (EQA) schemes for molecular typing including the National Public Health Reference Laboratories in Europe.

get-it-rightThe overall aim for these EQA schemes was to enhance the European surveillance of food-borne pathogens by evaluating and improving the quality and comparability of molecular typing. The EQAs were organised by Statens Serum Institut (SSI) and included Salmonella enterica subsp. enterica, verocytotoxin-producing Escherichia coli (VTEC) and Listeria monocytogenes. Inter-laboratory comparable pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) images were obtained from 10 of 17 of the participating laboratories for Listeria, 15 of 25 for Salmonella, but only nine of 20 for VTEC. Most problems were related to PFGE running conditions and/or incorrect use of image acquisition. Analysis of the gels was done in good accordance with the provided guidelines. Furthermore, we assessed the multilocus variable-number tandem repeat analysis (MLVA) scheme for S. Typhimurium. Of 15 laboratories, nine submitted correct results for all analysed strains, and four had difficulties with one strain only. In conclusion, both PFGE and MLVA are prone to variation in quality, and there is therefore a continuous need for standardisation and validation of laboratory performance for molecular typing methods of food-borne pathogens in the human public health sector.

Evaluation of molecular typing of foodborne pathogens in European reference laboratories from 2012 To 2013

Eurosurveillance, Volume 21, Issue 50, 15 December 2016

S Schjørring, T Niskanen, M Torpdahl, JT Björkman, EM Nielsen

http://www.eurosurveillance.org/ViewArticle.aspx?ArticleId=22673