Two in New Mexico suspected to have botulism

One of the roles I inherited when I came to North Carolina is organizing the judges for annual home food preservation competition at the State Fair. I didn’t know a whole lot about preserving (other than the science) when I took over six years ago but I spent some time with experienced canners who taught me the hands on stuff.Botulism

Deviating from the prescribed steps can create the perfect environment for Clostridium botulinum spore outgrowth, germination and toxin production. Of the 20-30 cases of botulism in the U.S. every year, the majority are linked to improper home canning. It’s one nasty illness.

According to News West 9, two adults in New Mexico are being treated for symptoms that look like botulism.

The New Mexico Department of Health is cooperating with the Texas Department of State Health Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on an investigation of two patients who are hospitalized in Texas with suspected botulism. The source is currently being investigated but is likely contaminated food. The patients are two adults from Lea County.

Nosestretcher alert: Maple syrup could help cut use of antibiotics

Last year all the rage, for a day, was that eating pizza could prevent norovirus. Except that’s not really what the research was about. Today’s concentrated-extract-has-antibiotic-properties story comes from McGill University where researchers have evaluated the effects of maple syrup on human pathogens.

Except not really.syrup

According to the university’s news website, an upcoming publication shows that a phenolic heavy extract made from maple syrup (not maple syrup itself) was ‘mildly effective; against E. coli and Proteus mirabilis.

I’m not sure what mildly means.

The release also says that there was a synergistic effect when used in conjunction with actual antibiotics.

Synergistic wasn’t really defined.

Prof. Nathalie Tufenkji’s research team in McGill’s Department of Chemical Engineering prepared a concentrated extract of maple syrup that consists mainly of phenolic compounds. Maple syrup, made by concentrating the sap from North American maple trees, is a rich source of phenolic compounds.

The researchers tested the extract’s effect in the laboratory on infection-causing strains of certain bacteria, including E. coli and Proteus mirabilis (a common cause of urinary tract infection). By itself, the extract was mildly effective in combating bacteria. But the maple syrup extract was particularly effective when applied in combination with antibiotics. The extract also acted synergistically with antibiotics in destroying resistant communities of bacteria known as biofilms, which are common in difficult-to-treat infections, such as catheter-associated urinary tract infections.

“We would have to do in vivo tests, and eventually clinical trials, before we can say what the effect would be in humans,” Tufenkji says. “But the findings suggest a potentially simple and effective approach for reducing antibiotic usage. I could see maple syrup extract being incorporated eventually, for example, into the capsules of antibiotics.”

Of course, the paper isn’t available yet.

Maybe I’ll have a side of pancakes, with maple syrup, with my magic noro-fighting pizza.

 

Not just a UK problem and naturopaths are nuts: Campylobacteriosis outbreak associated with consuming undercooked chicken liver pâté — Ohio and Oregon, December 2013–January 2014

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports that on January 8, 2014, the Ohio Department of Health notified the Oregon Public Health Division (OPHD) of campylobacteriosis in two Ohio residents recently returned from Oregon.

pate.beet.dp.mar.12The travelers reported consuming chicken liver pâté* at an Oregon restaurant. On January 10, OPHD received additional reports of campylobacteriosis in two persons who had consumed chicken liver pâté at another Oregon restaurant. Campylobacter jejuni was isolated in cultures of fecal specimens from three patients. OPHD investigated to determine the sources of the illnesses and to institute preventive measures.

Both restaurants reported using undercooked chicken livers to prepare their pâté; an environmental health investigation revealed that the livers were purchased from the same U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS)–regulated establishment in the state of Washington. The establishment reported that livers were rinsed with a chlorine solution before packaging. However, culture of five of nine raw liver samples from both restaurants and from the establishment yielded C. jejuni; none of three pâté samples from the restaurants yielded C. jejuni. One human stool specimen and three liver samples were typed by pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE); the human isolate and one liver sample had indistinguishable PFGE patterns when digested by the restriction enzyme SmaI. The human isolate was susceptible to all antimicrobials tested by CDC’s National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System.

A presumptive case was defined as diarrhea lasting >2 days, within 7 days after consumption of undercooked chicken liver; a confirmed case was defined as laboratory evidence of C. jejuni infection within 7 days after consumption of undercooked chicken liver. In all, three laboratory-confirmed and two presumptive cases of campylobacteriosis following consumption of chicken livers were reported in Ohio and Oregon. Illness onsets ranged from December 24, 2013, to January 17, 2014. Patient age range was 31–76 years; three were women. Based on OPHD’s recommendation, both restaurants voluntarily stopped serving liver. The FSIS-regulated establishment also voluntarily stopped selling chicken livers.

This is the second multistate outbreak of campylobacteriosis associated with consumption of undercooked chicken liver reported in the United States (1). Outbreaks caused by chicken liver pâté are well documented in Europe (2,3). Chicken livers and pâté should be considered inherently risky foods, given the methods by which they are routinely prepared. Pâté made with chicken liver is often undercooked to preserve texture. Consumers might be unable to discern whether pâté is cooked thoroughly because partially cooked livers might be blended with other ingredients and chilled. At FSIS-regulated establishments, such as the one involved in this outbreak, livers are inspected to ensure that they are free from visible signs of disease, but they are not required to be free from bacteria (4). A recent study isolated Campylobacter from 77% of chicken livers cultured (5). Washing is insufficient to render chicken livers safe for consumption; they should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165°F (74°C).

barfblog.Stick It InDuring the outbreak investigation, OPHD learned of a campylobacteriosis case in a Washington state resident who had eaten raw chicken livers that had been chopped into pill-sized pieces and frozen, as prescribed by a naturopathic physician. The livers were from the same establishment that supplied the Oregon restaurants. No isolate from the case was available for subtyping, but culture of frozen pieces of liver collected from this patient yielded C. jejuni.

This report illustrates that follow-up of possible outbreaks identified by routine interviewing by health departments can identify sources of illnesses and result in control measures that protect public health. Campylobacter is thought to be the most common bacterial cause of diarrheal illness in the United States (6), and infection is now nationally notifiable.

1Oregon Public Health Division; 2Division of Foodborne, Waterborne, and Environmental Diseases, National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, CDC; 3Washington State Department of Health; 4Ohio Department of Health (Corresponding author: Magdalena K. Scott, magdalena.k.scott@state.or.us, 971-673-1111)

References

CDC. Multistate outbreak of Campylobacter jejuni infections associated with undercooked chicken livers—northeastern United States, 2012. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2013;62:874–6.

O’Leary MC, Harding O, Fisher L, Cowden J. A continuous common-source outbreak of campylobacteriosis associated with changes to the preparation of chicken liver pâté. Epidemiol Infect 2009;137:383–8.

Little CL, Gormley FJ, Rawal N, Richardson JF. A recipe for disaster: outbreaks of campylobacteriosis associated with poultry liver pâté in England and Wales. Epidemiol Infect 2010;138:1691–4.

Food Safety and Inspection Service, US Department of Agriculture. Giblets and food safety. Available at http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/poultry-preparation/giblets-and-food-safety/ct_index.

Noormohamed A, Fakhr MK. Incidence and antimicrobial resistance profiling of Campylobacter in retail chicken livers and gizzards. Foodborne Pathog Dis 2012;9:617–24.

Scallan E, Hoekstra RM, Angulo FJ, et al. Foodborne illness acquired in the United States—major pathogens. Emerg Infect Dis 2011;17:7–15.

* A spreadable paste made from cooked ground meat (often poultry livers) combined with various other ingredients.

Infant Botulism Caused by Clostridium baratii Type F — Iowa, 2013

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports that in June 2013, a male newborn aged 9 days (delivered after a full-term pregnancy) was brought to a hospital emergency department with a 2-day history of constipation, fussiness, and poor feeding.

drooling-babyThe mother reported her son’s symptoms as excessive crying, reluctance to suck, and difficulty in swallowing milk. Within hours of arrival, the infant became less responsive and “floppy,” and was intubated for respiratory failure. Infant botulism was suspected and Botulism Immune Globulin Intravenous (Human) (BIG-IV), licensed for the treatment of infant botulism types A and B, was administered on hospital day 2. Results of preliminary stool studies were reported positive for botulinum toxin type F on hospital day 3. Clostridium baratii type F was subsequently isolated in stool culture.

National experience with type F botulism in newborns and infants indicates that rapid clinical improvement could occur even without the administration of anti-type F antitoxin. However, 3 days after treatment with BIG-IV the newborn continued to require ventilator support and showed no signs of clinical improvement. On hospital day 6, equine-derived botulism antitoxin heptavalent (A-G) (BAT) was administered to the boy, despite the limited experience reported for its use in pediatric cases. This is the second newborn treated with BAT in the United States; the first was treated in 2008 in Colorado (1).

Within 24 hours of BAT treatment, spontaneous movements of the newborn’s extremities increased. On hospital day 8 the endotracheal tube was removed. By the following day, the boy could tolerate oral feedings, had regained muscle tone and strength in his extremities, and had normal pupillary responses. The only adverse event associated with BAT treatment was an intermittent, low-grade fever that developed within 1 hour of BAT administration and lasted 72 hours. Blood, urine, stool, and cerebrospinal fluid bacterial cultures were otherwise negative. Contrast magnetic resonance imaging of his brain showed normal findings, and cerebrospinal fluid studies for herpes simplex virus and enterovirus also were negative. The newborn was discharged on hospital day 12. At the 2-week follow-up examination, his mother reported he was doing well: taking 100% of his feedings orally, exhibiting no residual weakness, and having normal bowel movements.

The parents reported feeding the newborn ready-to-feed and powdered formula from the same brand. No other solid or liquid foods or homeopathic remedies or supplements were given before symptom onset. No classic risk factors for infant botulism were reported, such as exposure to honey or soil. The parents reported strong winds and minor construction in the area surrounding their home. Pets present in the home included cats, turtles, fish, geckos, sugar gliders, and a mouse.

Environmental samples were collected from 1) feces from all animals in the home, 2) food and water from the turtle enclosure, 3) dust from the vacuum cleaner bag and the windowsill and ceiling fan closest to where the child slept, and 4) potting soil from the only indoor plant in the home. Although Clostridium species were isolated in several of the samples, none produced botulinum toxin.

Through 2012, only 13 cases of C. baratii type F infant botulism have been reported in the United States; this is the third confirmed case in Iowa. Extensive investigations for an environmental source of toxigenic C. baratii have been undertaken, including for all three cases in Iowa (2). Unlike typical infant botulism caused by C. botulinum (3), no source has been identified and prevention strategies remain unknown for C. baratii. While C. baratii infant botulism remains a rarely diagnosed disease, health care providers should maintain a high index of suspicion especially in very young infants who present with new onset floppiness or progressive respiratory failure.

Acknowledgment

Minnesota Department of Health Epidemiology and Public Health Laboratory.

1Division of Infectious Diseases, Department of Pediatrics, Blank Children’s Hospital, Des Moines, Iowa, 2Division of Acute Disease Prevention, Emergency Response, and Environmental Health, Iowa Department of Public Health, 3Infant Botulism Treatment and Prevention Program, California Department of Public Health (Corresponding author: Amaran Moodley, amaran.moodley@unitypoint.org, 515-241-8300)

References

Al-Sayyed B. A 3-day-old boy with acute flaccid paralysis. Pediatr Ann 2009;38:479–82.

Barash JR, Tang TWH, Arnon SS. First case of infant botulism caused by Clostridium baratii type F in California. J Clin Microbiol 2005;43:4280–2.

CDC. Botulism. Atlanta, GA: US Department of Health and Human Services, CDC; 2014. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/nczved/divisions/dfbmd/diseases/botulism/.

Milk tea kills two in Philippines

In a follow-up to the report of two deaths linked to contaminated chilled milk tea, the Philippines Department of Health said in a statement Monday that in coordination with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and toxicologists from the UP-Philippine General Hospital (PGH), they obtained and studied the footage from the food establishment to aid in assessing the clinical manifestations and course of illness of the victims.

milk.tea_-284x300Samples of the milk tea ingested were also submitted for examination. Preliminary results were negative for suspected toxic substances. However, we have expanded the tests to include biological samples such as blood, tissues, and gastric contents from the victims as collected during the autopsy.

The situation appears to be an isolated event, pointing to a possible case of poisoning. Let me emphasize that this is isolated. In fact, this is the third time the couple bought milk tea in the same food establishment.

The couple they speak of is Suzanne Dagohoy and Arnold Aydalla. On Thursday, the were sickened after tasting milk tea served at the Ergo Cha shop in Bustillos, Sampaloc. Within moments of drinking the milk tea, Dagohoy experienced retching, dizziness, loss of consciousness, twitching of extremities, and pallor. She died 5 hours later.

Mr. Aydalla reportedly experienced fast breathing, chest tightness, weakness of extremities, and carpopedal spasm seven minutes after he sipped the tea. He is currently at the Philippine General Hospital.

In addition to the couple, shop owner William Abrigo also died hours after drinking the milk tea.

Health officials say no untoward incident happened during the previous intake. “We appeal to the public not to generalize the situation as many small and medium scale enterprises are dependent on the sale of milk tea and similar beverages” they noted in the statement.

One person called the report “pointless” while another said the statement raised nothing but confusion. One gentleman called out the DOH saying, “Just do your job, so that it will not happen again.”

Probably cilantro that sickened hundreds with cylospora in 2013; better detection needed

The 2013 multistate outbreaks contributed to the largest annual number of reported US cases of cyclosporiasis since 1997. In this paper we focus on investigations in Texas.

cilantroWe defined an outbreak-associated case as laboratory-confirmed cyclosporiasis in a person with illness onset between 1 June and 31 August 2013, with no history of international travel in the previous 14 days. Epidemiological, environmental, and traceback investigations were conducted.

Of the 631 cases reported in the multistate outbreaks, Texas reported the greatest number of cases, 270 (43%). More than 70 clusters were identified in Texas, four of which were further investigated. One restaurant-associated cluster of 25 case-patients was selected for a case-control study. Consumption of cilantro was most strongly associated with illness on meal date-matched analysis (matched odds ratio 19·8, 95% confidence interval 4·0–∞). All case-patients in the other three clusters investigated also ate cilantro. Traceback investigations converged on three suppliers in Puebla, Mexico.

Cilantro was the vehicle of infection in the four clusters investigated; the temporal association of these clusters with the large overall increase in cyclosporiasis cases in Texas suggests cilantro was the vehicle of infection for many other cases. However, the paucity of epidemiological and traceback information does not allow for a conclusive determination; moreover, molecular epidemiological tools for cyclosporiasis that could provide more definitive linkage between case clusters are needed.

2013 multistate outbreaks of Cyclospora cayetanensis infections associated with fresh produce: focus on the Texas investigations

Epidemiology and Infection [ahead of print]

Abanyie, R. R. Harvey, J. R. Harris, R. E. Weigand, L. Gual, M., Desvignes-Kendrick, K. Irvin, I Williams, R. L. Hall, B. Herwaldt, E. E. Gray, Y. Qvarnstrom, M. E. Wise, V. Cantu, P. T. Cantey, S. Bosch, A. J. Da Silva, A. Fields, H. Bishop, A. Wellman, J. Beal, N. Wilson, A. E. Fiore, R. Tauxe, S. Lance, L. Slutsker and M. Parise

http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=9644741&fileId=S0950268815000370

UK version: Viruses in the food chain

In 1994, in response to the outcomes of a joint Advisory Committee of Microbiological Safety of Food (ACMSF) and Steering Group on the Microbiological Safety of Food (SGMSF) meeting, a Working Group was set up to investigate the science and epidemiology of Foodborne Viral Infections.

virus.foodThe Working Group assessed the risk from viruses that were believed to be the primary cause of foodborne illness. This report provides an update to this information and provides a new focus on the viruses which are currently the major route of foodborne illness. Since the publication of the 1998 report, with the exception of two minor risk assessments on hepatitis E and avian influenza, no formal review on viruses had been performed by the ACMSF. It was decided that as significant developments had been made not only in the detection of foodborne viruses, but also in the amount of information obtained from the Infectious Intestinal Disease (IID) Study in England (published in 2000), which indicated a significant disease burden from enteric viruses in the community, it was important that an Ad-Hoc Group was convened to revisit these issues and to provide an update to the 1998 risk assessment.

The FVI Group first met to begin their consideration in November 2010. Over 32 months, the Group met thirteen times to discuss all aspects of viruses in the food chain from farm to fork. As a starting point for the report, the Group reviewed the recommendations from the 1998 report and gave consideration as to whether these had been adequately addressed or were still relevant. At the same time the recommendations from the 2008 World Health Organisation (WHO) Viruses in Food: Scientific Advice to Support Risk Management Activities Matrix and CODEX Criteria, and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) Scientific Opinion on an update on the present knowledge on the occurrence and control of foodborne viruses were reviewed.

Using this information along with data on disease burden in the community and outbreak data (from IID and IID2) the Group agreed the scope of the report and what viruses would be its main focus. It was decided that that due to their potential impact and the paucity of data in this area, norovirus, hepatitis E and hepatitis A would be the main focus of the report, although many of the recommendations would also be applicable to other enteric viruses.

During its consideration, the Group reviewed available data on commodities contaminated at source, i.e. bivalve shellfish, pork products and fresh produce and reviewed data on risks associated with infected food handlers. Environmental contamination was reviewed with consideration given to testing methods such as polymerase chain reaction (PCR), person-to-person transmission and food handlers. The Group also considered the engagement with industry and other Government departments (OGDs) regarding environmental conditions of shellfish waters and its impact on norovirus.

A review of data on issues regarding food contact surface contamination, including survivability and persistence was considered along with options for control at all stages of the food chain e.g. thermal processing, storage etc. The thermal stability of hepatitis E was considered with data presented on the increasing occurrence of the disease particularly in older UK males and the recent case control study on the association with processed pork products.

In order to obtain sentinel data the group investigated the important issue of knowledge gathering and surveillance data regarding foodborne viruses. The current limitations of the data were discussed along with what type of data was needed to provide more useful/accurate information on foodborne virus outbreaks. This review included looking at outbreaks from an Environmental Health Officer (EHO) perspective and how they prioritise what they investigate and the data they collect.

Finally, the group reviewed the consumer perspective on risk. This included looking at how risk is presented and information distributed, as this was likely to impact on any future risk assessment.

Within the report the Group has endeavoured to prioritise the recommendations by separating these into those that will inform risk assessments and those that will impact on risk assessments. Full details are provided in the report; however, key recommendations include:

A better understanding of ‘foodborne viral disease’ (Chapter 3) is required by investigating the correlation between infective dose and genome titre. Molecular diagnostics, typing and quantification should also be used to better understand the burden of virus contamination in foodstuffs. Work is also recommended to develop the methods used to assess norovirus and hepatitis E infectivity in food samples. This would better inform surveys and could potentially be applied to routine monitoring.

Improved ‘routine surveillance and investigation of foodborne viruses’ (Chapter 5) is required with Government agencies developing a single integrated outbreak reporting scheme. A joined up approach that would also involve the annual consolidation of records would reduce the chance of underreporting outbreaks. Further to this, reliable methods for norovirus whole genome sequencing should be developed to enable virus tracking and attribution.

More research on the ‘contamination of food’ (Chapter 6) through sewage contamination is recommended. In particular work should investigate the effectiveness of sewage treatment processes in reducing norovirus concentrations, including the use of depuration on shellfish species and disinfection treatments. Similarly, research is needed to identify the most effective means of decontaminating ‘fresh produce’ post-harvest (Chapter 7).

With the emerging risk of hepatitis E in pigs, the Group recommends work is undertaken to investigate the heat inactivation of hepatitis E in ‘pork products’ (Chapter 8). Research on the effect of curing and fermentation on hepatitis E in pork products is also recommended.

The full list of conclusions and recommendation are presented at the end of each subject area and are consolidated in Chapter 12 for ease of reference.

The assessments made and conclusions reached by the Group reflect evidence oral and written drawn from the scientific community, Government departments and Agencies, EFSA and the scientific literature. The Group’s full conclusions, identified data gaps and recommendations are brought together at the end of this report. The ACMSF accepts full responsibility for the final content of the report.

The Eyes have it? Iowa researchers study retinal scans as early detection method for mad cow disease

New research from Iowa State University shows that a fatal neurological disease in cows can be detected earlier by examining the animal’s retinas.

mad.cows.mother's.milkBovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), known more commonly as mad cow disease, is an untreatable neurodegenerative disorder caused by misfolded brain proteins known as prions. Classic BSE incubates for years before producers or veterinarians notice symptoms, usually discovered when the animal can no longer stand on its own.

But Heather Greenlee, an associate professor of biomedical sciences in Iowa State’s College of Veterinary Medicine, said studying the retinas of cattle can identify infected animals up to 11 months before they show signs of illness.

“The retina is part of the central nervous system,” Greenlee said. “Essentially, it’s the part of the brain closest to the outside world, and we know the retina is changed in animals that have prion diseases.”

In collaboration with Justin Greenlee’s group at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Animal Disease Center, she recently published findings in the peer-reviewed academic journal PLOS ONE. She began studying how the retina relates to prion diseases in 2006, and the experiments that led to her most recent publication began in 2010.

The experiments utilize electroretinography and optical coherence tomography, noninvasive technologies commonly used to assess the retina. Greenlee said cows infected with BSE showed marked changes in retinal function and thickness.

The results have implications for food safety, and Greenlee said the screening methods used in her research could be adopted for animals tagged for import or export as a means of identifying BSE sooner than conventional methods.

Greenlee said she’s also looking at how similar diseases in other species affect the retina. For instance, she’s conducting experiments to find out if retinal tissue may be a valid means of surveillance for chronic wasting disease in deer.

She said she isn’t ready to publish her results, but the data gathered so far looks promising.

The research also may contribute to faster diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease in humans, both of which are caused by proteins folding incorrectly.

“Our goal is to develop our understanding of the retina to monitor disease progression and to move diagnoses up earlier,” Greenlee said. “We think this research has the potential to improve diagnosis for a range of species and a range of diseases.”

Private eyes in the grocery aisles

During my brief time at IEH Laboratories (short for Institute for Environmental Health, it wasn’t a good fit for me), Mansour Samadpour asked me what the biggest food safety issue was, as we strolled through an antique shop.

food-fraud“Food fraud” I said, same as it ever was.

As written by Madeleine Ferrières a professor of social history at the University of Avignon, France, in Sacred Cow, Mad Cow: A History of Food Fears, first published in French in 2002, but translated into English in 2006: “All human beings before us questioned the contents of their plates. … And we are often too blinded by this amnesia to view our present food situation clearly. This amnesia is very convenient. It allows us to reinvent the past and construct a complaisant, retrospective mythology.”

Ferrières provides extensive documentation of the rules, regulations and penalties that emerged in the Mediterranean between the 12th and 16th centuries.

But rules are only as good as the enforcement that backs them up.

And increasingly, that falls to the private sector (as it should; they make the profits).

Craig Wilson, Costco’s vice president for quality assurance and food safety, told the N.Y. Times he uses government guidelines “as a minimum standard, and I always try to go above and beyond that.”

According to the Times article, Samadpour makes his way through the supermarket like a detective working a crime scene, slow, watchful, up one aisle and down the next. A clerk mistakenly assumes that he needs help, but Mr. Samadpour brushes him off. He knows exactly what he’s doing.

He buys organic raspberries that might test positive for pesticides and a fillet of wild-caught fish that might be neither wild nor the species listed on the label. He buys beef and pork ground fresh at the market. He is disappointed that there is no caviar, which might turn out to be something cheaper than sturgeon roe. That’s an easy case to crack.

On this visit, he is shopping for goods he can test at his labs to demonstrate to a reporter that what you see on market shelves may not be what you get.

While he’s out of the office, he receives a call and dispatches a team on a more pressing expedition: They need to buy various products that contain cumin, because a client just found possible evidence of peanuts, a powerful allergen, in a cumin-based spice mix. The client wants a definitive answer before someone gets sick.

Suppliers, manufacturers and markets depend on Mr. Samadpour’s network of labs to test food for inadvertent contamination and deliberate fraud, or to verify if a product is organic or free of genetically modified organisms. Consumers, the last link in the chain, bet their very health on responsible practices along the way.

food.fraud_.adulteration-263x300Mr. Samadpour, who opened IEH’s first lab in 2001 with six employees, now employs over 1,500 people at 116 labs in the United States and Europe. He refers to his company, one of the largest of its kind in the country, as “a privately financed public health organization.”

“Ten years ago, it would have taken millions of dollars to sequence a genome,” Mr. Samadpour says. “Now it takes $100. We do thousands a year.”

Business is booming — partly because IEH clients consider testing to be a gatekeeper defense in a multitiered food economy without borders. “We’re a lot more concerned about imports,” Mr. Samadpour says, because of “lack of accountability, lack of infrastructure, lack of a culture of food safety.”

While the lab focuses primarily on safety issues like the cumin-and-peanut inquiry, there are enough fraud calls to support specialties among the lab technicians, like Kirthi Kutumbaka, referred to by his colleagues as “the emperor of fish” for his work on a seafood identification project. Once a fish is filleted, genetic testing is the only way to confirm its identity, making it a popular category for fraud.

IEH’s clients are primarily vendors who supply retailers and manufacturers, and they generally prefer to remain anonymous for fear of indicating to consumers that they have a specific worry about safety.

Costco is one of the retailers that use IEH’s services, and the company doesn’t mind talking about it.

“We have to inspect what we expect,” says Wilson, meaning that products have to live up to their labels, particularly items in Costco’s own Kirkland Signature line.

Costco has a smaller margin of error than most food retailers; the company stocks only about 3,500 so-called S.K.U.s, or stock keeping units, while most retailers offer as many as 150,000. A single misstep is a far greater percentage of the whole. That’s why, in addition to retaining IEH, it operates its own 20-person testing lab.

“We’re not typical,” Mr. Wilson says. “We have one ketchup, one mayonnaise, one can of olives, Kirkland Signature olive oils and a couple of others.” Since 2003, the United States Department of Agriculture has required the testing of beef used for ground beef, resulting in a 40 percent reduction in cases of E. coli traced to beef consumption. Costco, which processes 600,000 to 700,000 pounds of ground beef daily, does extensive micro-sampling of the meat at its California facility, Mr. Wilson says.

The company expects its suppliers to absorb testing costs and gets no resistance, given the size of the resulting orders. Costco sells 157,000 rotisserie chickens a day. As Mr. Wilson put it: “If vendors get a bill for a couple hundred bucks on a $1 million order, who cares? They don’t.”

The sheer volume also enables Costco to demand action when there is a problem. After a 2006 outbreak of E. coli tied to Earthbound Farm’s ready-to-eat bagged spinach, in which three people died and more than 200 became ill, Mr. Wilson, one of Earthbound’s customers, instituted what he calls a “bag and hold” program for all of Costco’s fresh greens suppliers. He required the suppliers to test their produce and not ship it until they had the results of the tests.

Earthbound responded to the outbreak with a “multihurdle program that places as many barriers to food-borne illness as we can,” says Gary Thomas, the company’s senior vice president for integrated supply chain. Earthbound now conducts 200,000 tests annually on its ready-to-eat greens.

o-HORSE-MEAT-COSTUME-570-179x300Not everyone was as quick to embrace change; some growers were concerned about losing shelf life while they waited for results. Mr. Wilson was unmoved by that argument. “If you can test and verify microbial safety, what do I care if I lose shelf life?” he says.

About five years ago, Mr. Wilson decided it was time to send an employee to Tuscany to collect leaves from Tuscan olive trees. Costco now has an index of DNA information on “all the cultivars of Tuscan olive oil, about 16 different ones,” he says. “When they harvest and press, we do our DNA testing.”

Mr. Samadpour says that in multi-ingredient products, the source of trickery is usually hidden further down the food chain than the name on the package. “It’s not the top people who get involved in economic adulteration,” he says. “It’s someone lower down who sees a way to save a penny here or there. Maybe it’s 2 or 3 cents, but if you sell a million units, that’s $20,000 to $30,000.”

David Gombas, senior vice president for food safety and technology at the 111-year-old United Fresh Produce Association, echoes the position of the Food and Drug Administration: Testing is not a sufficient answer for his members, who include anyone engaged in the fresh produce industry, “from guys who come up with seeds to growers, shippers, fresh-cut processors, restaurants and grocery stores, everyone from beginning to end,” from small organic farms to Monsanto.

Their common ground, he says, is a commitment to food safety — but members disagree on how to achieve it, including Mr. Gombas and Mr. Samadpour, who are both microbiologists. “Microbiological testing provides a false sense of security,” Mr. Gombas says. “They can find one dead salmonella cell on a watermelon, but what does that tell you about the rest of the watermelon in the field? Nothing.”

Testing has its place, he says, but as backup for “good practices and environmental monitoring,” which includes things as diverse as employee hygiene and site visits. “I’m a fan of testing,” he says, “if something funny’s going on.” Otherwise, he has taken on the role of contrarian. “People think testing means something. When I say it doesn’t, they smile, nod and keep testing.”

Mr. Samadpour says sampling “can reduce the risk tremendously but can never 100 percent eliminate it,” but he will take a tremendous reduction over a food crisis any day. The government’s “indirect” stance, which mandates safety but does not require testing, allows companies to interpret safe practices on “a spectrum,” he says, “from bare minimum to sophisticated programs,” and he worries about safety at the low end of that range.

He says consumer vigilance is the best defense against the selling of groceries under bare minimum standards.

That’s all nice, but consumers have heard this before, only to be eventually disappointed. Over time, or bad economics, or both, someone will cut corners. The best producers should be marketing the authenticity of their products and make the testing to validate those claims available for public review.

Market food safety and authenticity at retail. The technology is apparently there.