US food industry groups say they’ll label GMOs on their terms

I told food-industry types back in the mid-1990s to figure out a way to label – which is short-form for provide information at retail — genetically engineered foods, or others would do it for you (all food is genetically modified so all food would be labeled using GMO language).

ben-cornThey told me I was crazy.

We went ahead and did it at a retail market in 2000, and most shoppers didn’t care; but big retailers wouldn’t touch it.

Now, the U.S. Grocery Manufacturers Association and other food industry groups are, according to NPR, announced Thursday that it supports labeling — sort of.

It’s a mish-mash proposal of nonsense that I won’t go into because it has nothing to do with food safety and, as usual, when private outfits – the ones that profit – can’t figure things out and show leadership, they ask for government help.

The Pinto defense – we meet government standards.

Good title for journal paper: Surveys suck

I decided despite my undergraduate degree in molecular biology and genetics to stop writing about genetically engineered foods 12 years ago.

I still do now and then, but the public discussion doesn’t go anywhere; it’s not a food safety issue and I don’t have much to add.

So while N.Y. Times columnists and other foodies get all expansive about GE food, like the story about how Cheerios is going GE free (I’d prefer GE Cheerios for my kids, if that’s what they were going to eat while daddy was asleep) or how some lawmaker in Hawaii discovered there’s not much to this GE story, I focus on people who barf and sometimes die.

That’s microbial food safety.

But, just when I thought I was out, they suck me back in.

Powell, D.A. 2014. Surveys suck: Consumer preferences when purchasing genetically engineered foods. GM Crops and Food 4 (3): 195-201

Many studies have attempted to gauge consumers’ acceptance of genetically engineered or modified (GM) foods. Surveys, asking people about attitudes and intentions, are easy-to-collect proxies of consumer behavior. However, participants tend to respond as citizens of society, not discrete individuals, thereby inaccurately portraying their potential behavior. The Theory of Planned Behavior improved the accuracy of self-reported information, but its limited capacity to account for intention variance has been attributed to the hypothetical scenarios to which survey participants must respond. Valuation methods, asking how much consumers may be willing to pay or accept for GM foods, have revealed that consumers are usually willing to accept them at some price, or in some cases willing to pay a premium. Ultimately, it’s consumers’ actual—not intended—behavior that is of most interest to policy makers and business decision-makers. Real choice experiments offer the best avenue for revealing consumers’ food choices in normal life.

Syria approves law on GM food as deadly conflict rages

Another reason to ignore discussions of genetically-engineered food:

Bashar al-Assad of Syria, where more than 33,000 people have been killed in 19 months of conflict, issued a law on GM food Thursday to preserve human life, state-run SANA news agency reported.

Assad, whose forces are locked in a bloody confrontation with armed rebels opposed to his rule, “has approved a law on the health security of genetically modified organisms… to regulate their use and production,” SANA reported.

The law is meant “to preserve the health of human beings, animals, vegetables and the environment,” the agency added.

Genetically engineered foods and human health: I get bored easily

“I got tired of talking about hypothetical risks.”

That’s what I told Maclean’s and the Medical Post today in a brief story about genetically engineered foods.

And I agreed with a spokesthingy who said, “To date, Health Canada has not identified health risks associated with GM foods that have been approved for sale in Canada.”

As the journal Nature reported in 2009, “No one gets into research on genetically modified (GM) crops looking for a quiet life. Those who develop such crops face the wrath of anti-biotech activists who vandalize field trials and send hate mail… [Those] who suggest that biotech crops might have harmful environmental effects are learning to expect attacks of a different kind. These strikes are launched from within the scientific community and can sometimes be emotional and personal…”

Dr. Douglas Powell, a professor in food safety at Kansas State University who sat on the Canadian Biotechnology Advisory Committee (CBAC) in the early 2000s,, said, “(CBAC) reviewed everything that was out there and there was nothing to show GMOs present a risk to health. In fact, Dr. Powell has since moved away from researching the subject because, he says, “I got tired of talking about hypothetical risks.”

With at least 48 million suffering from foodborne illness each year in the U.S., I got plenty of work.
 

Ignoring the alarm

Matthew Wald writes in the NY Times this morning that “when an oil worker told investigators on July 23 that an alarm to warn of explosive gas on the Transocean rig in the Gulf of Mexico had been intentionally disabled months before, it struck many people as reckless.

“Reckless, maybe, but not unusual. On Tuesday, the National Transportation Safety Board said that a crash last year on the Washington subway system that killed nine people had happened partly because train dispatchers had been ignoring 9,000 alarms per week. Air traffic controllers, nuclear plant operators, nurses in intensive-care units and others do the same.”

These are problems of human behavior and design in complex systems — like in a meat processing plant that collects lots of listeria samples but doesn’t act when an increase seems apparent.

If consumers and retailers have food safety recall fatigue, do producers and processors have alarm fatigue – learning to ignore rather than investigate data that may highlight a problem?

In the Maple Leaf 2008 listeria outbreak that killed 22 Canadians, an investigative review found a number of environmental samples detected listeria in the culprit plant months before the public was alerted to possible contamination and that the company failed to recognize and identify the underlying cause of a sporadic yet persistent pattern of environmental test results that were positive for Listeria spp.

Alarms and monitoring systems are established to alert humans – with all their failings – that something requires attention.

Mark R. Rosekind, a psychologist who is a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, told the Times,

“The volume of alarms desensitizes people. They learn to ignore them.”

Wald further writes,

“On the oil rig and in the Guam control tower, the operators were annoyed by false alarms, which sometimes went off in the middle of the night. At the refinery and the reactor, the operators simply did not believe that the alarms would tell them anything very important.

Wald says, “… the alarms conveyed no more urgency to these operators than the drone of a nagging spouse — or maybe the shepherd boy in Aesop’s fable, who cried “Wolf!”

So what to do? The warning systems need to be better designed delivered and continually debated throughout any organization that values a safety culture. Engineers have known this for decades when designing fail-safe systems (sic). The food sector has a lot to learn.
 

Salmonella outbreak in New Jersey

MyFox is reporting that dozens of people got sick after a party at Iberia Peninsula in the Ironbound section of Newark Sunday night.

At least one person who was there has been hospitalized at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in New Brunswick. Angelo Afonso’s family says he is in the intensive care unit after suffering from severe gastrointestinal distress consistent with food poisoning.

Local health inspectors were expected to examine the restaurant and its employees on Wednesday.
 

Who has the safest food in the world?

It’s a pretty difficult to answer that question — and it’s a trap.

Yesterday I attended the N.C. Ag Commissioner’s Food Safety Forum, where a mix of regulators, industry and academia got together to food safety nerd it up (in a good way). Peanut butter and Salmonella were popular topics as was food safety legislation like HR2749.

One of the speakers mentioned that we "enjoy the safest food supply in the world" in North Carolina, and I thought I didn’t realize it was a competition and how would that even be measured? We’ve written about this statement a lot before, but something I’ve never thought about is that it provides a false sense of security and doesn’t help move towards a food safety culture. I don’t get the sense that the "safest food supply" comment leads to increased consumer confidence (but who knows, maybe it does). Talking frankly about food safety risks and how they are addressed seems more important to me. While there are lots (like in the hundreds of millions) of meals eaten in the U.S. every day that don’t cause illnesses, there are a few that do.  

Another speaker, N.C. Dept of Public Health’s  David Bergmire-Sweat said something that had much more substance than the "safest food" comment: When an outbreak happens, it’s an opportunity to figure out what part of the farm-to-fork continuum failed. Whether it was inadequate prevention measures, or effective prevention measures being implemented inadequately, it’s a chance for food safety risk managers to learn what to do next time to avoid the problems.

Safest food in the world: American cattlemen’s edition

It’s been awhile, but Dr. Sam Ives, director of veterinary services and associate director of research at Cactus Feeders, Ltd., testified today on behalf of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) at a U.S. House Agriculture Committee Hearing on food safety that the U.S. has the safest food in the world.

“There is no question that the United States has the safest food supply in the world and other countries consider the U.S. the ‘gold standard.’  Cattle producers support the establishment of realistic food safety objectives designed to protect public health to the maximum extent possible.

“…The U.S. has the safest food supply in the world, which is an achievement worth noting.  Science is a critical component of the beef industry and through science-based improvements in animal genetics, management practices, nutrition and health, beef production per cow has increased from 400 pounds of beef in the mid 1960s to 585 pounds of beef in 2005. … The beef industry will continue to dedicate time and resources to ensure the safety of beef.”

But that doesn’t mean the U.S. has the safest food supply in the world. For a group so dedicated to science, perhaps they could provide some science to substantiate the claim?
 

Poisoned Deviled Eggs

Yesterday on Days of Our Lives, Kate tried to poison Daniel and Chloe with an undetectable substance that she put on a tray of deviled eggs. When she caught her son, Lucas, trying to snatch an egg, she freaked out.

As recounted by Prevuze:

Lucas opens his mouth (something he’s very experienced at) and prepares to snack on the delectable poison egg. Kate walks into the kitchen and sees him about to commit eggicide. As predicted by thousands of viewers, Kate dives across the room and slaps the egg away from him. The egg goes one way, the tray goes another and the people in the room dive for cover to avoid the shower of garbage. Lucas has a total conniption, but Kate doesn’t back off. She stomps on the offending egg and grinds it under her shoe. Daniel and Chloe walk in, all properly zipped up.

Lucas explodes, "WHAT DID YOU DO THAT FOR, HUH? WHAT? WAS IT POISONED OR SOMETHING?"

Finally Kate comes up with an excuse:

"I poisoned the eggs. I did it without thinking. I put mayonnaise in them and they sat under the hot TV lights."
Lucas echoes what all of us are thinking, "This is lame, Mom."

Lame for sure. As Doug has explained, the danger of leaving deviled eggs out in the heat is not from the mayonnaise which, if bought from the supermarket, should have pasteurized ingredients. If you’re making mayonnaise from scratch, however, it does contain raw egg. Whether it’s temperature abused or not, raw egg can contain Salmonella. Somehow I doubt that Kate or Aunt Maggie make their own homemade mayo.
 

Safest food in the world: Minnesota academic edition

Fewer than one in four consumers now believe the U.S. food supply is safer than it was a year ago, according to new data from the University of Minnesota’s Food Industry Center.

That’s an awkward sentence. But not as awkward as the statement by study co-author Dennis Degeneffe , a research fellow at the center, who told a Minnesota paper that,

Even with low consumer confidence in food safety and intense media scrutiny of recent contaminations, it’s important for consumers to keep in mind that the industry as a whole is safe.

“The truth of the matter is, we have the safest food supply in the world, and it’s probably getting better with technology.”

Tell that to the sick people. And provide some data to back it up.