Food fraud: Inside global bullshit about spices

A bowl of ice cream on a hot day in Shanghai gave American Mitchell Weinberg the worst bout of food poisoning he can recall. It also inspired the then-trade consultant to set up Inscatech — a global network of food spies.

In demand by multinational retailers and food producers, Inscatech and its agents scour supply chains around the world hunting for evidence of food industry fraud and malpractice. In the eight years since he founded the New York-based firm, Weinberg, 52, says China continues to be a key growth area for fraudsters as well as those developing technologies trying to counter them.

“Statistically we’re uncovering fraud about 70 percent of the time, but in China it’s very close to 100 percent,” he said. “It’s pervasive, it’s across food groups, and it’s anything you can possibly imagine.”

While adulteration has been a bugbear of consumers since prehistoric wine was first diluted with saltwater, scandals in China over the past decade — from melamine-laced baby formula, to rat-meat dressed as lamb — have seen the planet’s largest food-producing and consuming nation become a hotbed of corrupted, counterfeit, and contaminated food.

Weinberg’s company is developing molecular markers and genetic fingerprints to help authenticate natural products and sort genuine foodstuffs from the fakes. Another approach companies are pursuing uses digital technology to track and record the provenance of food from farm to plate.

“Consumers want to know where products are from,” said Shaun Rein, managing director of China Market Research Group, citing surveys the Shanghai-based consultancy conducted with consumers and supermarket operators.

Services that help companies mitigate the reputational risk that food-fraud poses is a “big growth area,” according to Rein. “It’s a great business opportunity,” he said. “It’s going to be important not just as a China play, but as a global play, because Chinese food companies are becoming part of the whole global supply chain.”

Some of the biggest food companies are backing technology that grew out of the anarchic world of crypto-currencies. It’s called blockchain, essentially a shared, cryptographically secure ledger of transactions.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest retailer (and source off the terrible graphic, above, right), was one of the first to get on board, just completing a trial using blockchain technology to track pork in China, where it has more than 400 stores. The time taken to track the meat’s supply chain was cut from 26 hours to just seconds using blockchain, and the scope of the project is being widened to other products, said Frank Yiannas, Wal-Mart’s vice president for food safety, in an interview Thursday.

But will it be advertised at retail, or just some faith consumers will be forced to rely on.

Real transparency means reals data, shared publicly; it’s not a matter of faith.

Where’s the fun in that? BPI settles with ABC in pink slime defamation case

There’s no settlement details; both sides claim victory; lawyers get rich – pink slime and media are both disappointing.

4 T

BPI said: “We are extraordinarily pleased to have reached a settlement of our lawsuit against ABC and Jim Avila. While this has not been an easy road to travel, it was necessary to begin rectifying the harm we suffered as a result of what we believed to be biased and baseless reporting in 2012. Through this process, we have again established what we all know to be true about Lean Finely Textured Beef: it is beef, and is safe, wholesome, and nutritious. This agreement provides us with a strong foundation on which to grow the business, while allowing us to remain focused on achieving the vision of the Roth and BPI family.”  

ABC said, “ABC has reached an amicable resolution of its dispute with the makers of ‘lean finely textured beef.’ Throughout this case, we have maintained that our reports accurately presented the facts and views of knowledgeable people about this product. Although we have concluded that continued litigation of this case is not in the Company’s interests, we remain committed to the vigorous pursuit of truth and the consumer’s right to know about the products they purchase.”

This after three weeks of jury trial and testimony in a courtroom in South Dakota.

What can be learned?

Not much that isn’t already known.

People want to know about their food. Where it was grown, how, what’s been added and if it’s safe.

The N.Y. Times, as usual, gets that little bit right in a commentary in 2012, but wrongly thinks right-to-know is something new, that media amplification is something new because of shiny new toys, and offers no practical suggestions on what to do.

The term pink slime was coined in 2002 in an internal e-mail by a scientist at the Agriculture Department who felt it was not really ground beef. The term was first publicly reported in The Times in late 2009.

In April 2011, celebtard chef Jamie Oliver helped create a more publicly available pink slime yuck factor and by the end of 2011, McDonald’s and others had stopped using pink slime.

On March 7, 2012, ABC News recycled these bits, along with some interviews with two of the original USDA opponents of the process (primarily because it was a form of fraud, and not really just beef).

Industry and others responded the next day, and although the story had been around for several years, the response drove the pink slime story to gather media momentum – a story with legs.

BPI said pink slime was meat so consumers didn’t need to be informed, and everything was a gross misunderstanding. BPI blamed media and vowed to educate public. Others said “it’s pink so it’s meat” and that the language of pink slime was derogatory and needed to be changed. USDA said it was safe for schools but quickly decided that schools would be able to choose whatever beef they wanted, pushing decision-making in the absence of data or labels to the local PTA. An on-line petition was launched.

Sensing the media taint, additional retailers rushed to proclaim themselves free of the pink stuff.

BPI took out a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal, the favored reading choice for pink slime aficionados, and four mid-west governors banded together to repeat the same erroneous messages during a media-show-and-tell at a BPI plant. Because political endorsements rarely work, and the story had spread to the key demographic of burger eaters, others sensed opportunity in the trashing of BPI. Wendy’s, Whole Foods, Costco, A&P, Publix and others launched their own media campaigns proclaiming they’ve never used the stuff and never would.

Guess they didn’t get their dude-it’s-beef T-shirts.

These well-intentioned messages only made things worse for the beef producers and processors they were intended to protect.

Here’s what can be learned for the next pink slime. And there will be lots more.

Lessons of pink slime

  • don’t fudge facts (not really 100% beef?)
  • facts are never enough, although facts are the underpinnings of journalism, ABC
  • changing the language is bad strategy (been tried with rBST, genetically engineered foods, doesn’t work)
  • telling people they need to be educated is arrogant, invalidates and trivializes people’s thoughts
  • don’t blame media for lousy communications
  • any farm, processor, retailer or restaurant can be held accountable for food production – and increasingly so with smartphones, facebook and new toys
  • real or just an accusation, consumers will rightly react based on the information available
  • amplification of messages through media is nothing new, especially if those messages support a pre-existing world-view
  • food is political but should be informed by data
  • data should be public
  • paucity of data about pink slime that is publicly available make statements like it’s safe, or it’s gross, difficult to quantify
  • relying on government validation builds suspicion rather than trust; if BPI has the safety data, make it public
  • what does right-to-know really mean? Do you want to say no?
  • if so, have public policy on how information is made public and why
  • choice is a fundamental value
  • what’s the best way to enable choice, for those who don’t want to eat pink slime or for those who care more about whether a food will make their kids barf?
  • proactive more than reactive; both are required, but any food provider should proudly proclaim – brag – about everything they do to enhance food safety.
  • perceived food safety is routinely marketed at retail; instead market real food safety so consumers actually have a choice and hold producers and processors – conventional, organic or otherwise – to a standard of honesty.
  • if restaurant inspection results can be displayed on a placard via a QR code read by smartphones when someone goes out for a meal, why not at the grocery store or school lunch?
  • link to web sites detailing how the food was produced, processed and safely handled, or whatever becomes the next theatrical production – or be held hostage

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.

Pay attention to microbial food safety, that’s what makes people barf: Whole Foods and now Panera, back with the pseudoscience

The gang at Don’t eat the Pseudoscience have taken a well-deserved shot at Panera.

But they can tell their own story (tone it down on the use of exclamation marks; let the reader decide what is truly exclamatory).

land-of-cleanBetween tromping through Baguette Falls while whacking out azodicarbonamide, glycerides, artificial colors, and artificial flavors (i.e. amyl alcohol and benzaldehyde), and gallivanting around Crisp Valley Farms spotting the unwanted “No-Nos” trespassing on the property (i.e. hydrolyzed protein, polydextrose, MSG, and sodium erythorbate), Panera Bread continues its pursuit in educating consumers on the perils of “artificial” food additives and preservatives while feeding the pseudoscience madness in a cute new game. Of course, don’t forget the unusual/artificial “alien” sounds accompanying the destruction of each chemical. Luckily for the consumer, upon winning and defeating the awful droves of supposedly detrimental and awful food additions, one wins a coupon.

Panera Bread LLC introduced its “No-No List” in 2015 in an effort to be more transparent and to provide clean menu options. Complete with a video campaign, and now the “Land of Clean” game, the list focuses on chemicals and hard-to-pronounce additives that consumers find unfriendly at a glance. For example, the No-No list currently contains compounds like MSG, autolyzed yeast extract, and glycerides. Additionally, the list has previously contained common chemicals like tocopherol (it’s actually Vitamin E) and ascorbic acid (Vitamin C). As a response to this misleading philosophy, we at Don’t Eat the Pseudoscience also came out with our own video to explain why these chemicals aren’t bad and how they already naturally occur in your food products.

Panera’s vision for transparency and healthfulness, while laudable, creates its own set of flaws by promoting pseudoscience through instilling fear of complex words in consumers. These changes and deletions of ingredients do not necessarily reflect positive, healthier options. A quick glance at Panera’s menu reveals some items that are not only rather high in calories – per serving – but may also approach one’s daily limits of sodium, saturated fat, and total fat. A few examples: a panini that is 1,040 kcal per serving with 46 grams of fat (out of 65g / day); another sandwich has 18g of saturated fat (out of 20g/day). Damn Panera…way to continue spreading the pseudoscience.

Another fairytale: Informed choice on food safety

The paper in Adelaide wrote an opinion piece last week about how consumers basically make faith-based decisions when it comes to food safety.

I recycled an old op-ed in response, and still wondering why the same issues haven’t gained traction after 20 years of publicity in Australia.

cantaloupe.salmonellaThe Advertiser editorial thingies wrote that irony can be really ironic, given that the government department charged with upholding and maintaining food standards in SA treats the public like mushrooms.

By keeping the public in the dark by refusing to release the names of the 621 food outlets in breach of hygiene rules last year, SA Health is denying consumers the right to make an informed choice.

While it is good enough for the NSW State Government to identify offending premises, those who water their gardens with human effluent, sell out of date food and have cockroach-infested kitchens in SA apparently deserve anonymity.

There is more than a whiff of double standards surrounding the secrecy of the data held by SA Health.

On one hand (who writes this crap?), the public is not allowed to know which of their local fast food outlets is cutting food hygiene corners by selling six-day-old schnitzels, and on the other, it wasted no time last week issuing a warning about NT- grown rockmelons being the apparent source of a food poisoning outbreak in SA.

Surely the public is allowed to know the identity of a food retailer that has been found guilty of a major breach of food standards that could potentially have the same impact as eating the dodgy rockmelon.

For a food outlet to be warned several times about using effluent to water gardens simply beggars belief.

SA Health’s repeated warnings to the business owner were akin to being slapped with a wet lettuce leaf.

If such a practice can continue for such an extended period of time, the public can only wonder just what sort of heinous breach of food safety regulations a business must commit to be jumped on immediately.

My response was:

I coach little kids’ (ice) hockey in Brisbane.

For that voluntary pleasure, I had to complete 16 hours of certification training, in addition to the 40 hours of training I completed in Canada to coach a travel team.

To produce or serve food in Australia requires … nothing.

Restaurants and food service establishments are a significant source of the foodborne illness that strikes up to 20 per cent of citizens in so-called developed countries each and every year.

After helping develop and watching the mish-mash of federal, state and local approaches to restaurant inspection and disclosure in a number of western countries for the past 15 years, I can draw two broad conclusions:

  • Anyone who serves, prepares or handles food, in a restaurant, nursing home, day care center, supermarket or local market needs some basic food safety training; and,
  • the results of restaurant and other food service inspections must be made public.

There should be mandatory food handler training, for say, three hours, that could happen in school, on the job, whatever. But training is only a beginning. Just because you tell someone to wash the poop off their hands before they prepare salad for 100 people doesn’t mean it is going to happen; weekly outbreaks of hepatitis A confirm this. There are a number of additional carrots and sticks that can be used to create a culture that values microbiologically safe food and a work environment that rewards hygienic behavior. But mandating basic training is a start.

Next is to verify that training is being translated into safe food handling practices through inspection. And those inspection results should be publicly available.

A philosophy of transparency and openness underlies the efforts of many local health units across North America in seeking to make available the results of restaurant inspections. In the absence of regular media exposes, or a reality TV show where camera crews follow an inspector into a restaurant unannounced, how do consumers — diners — know which of their favorite restaurants are safe?

Cities, counties and states are using a blend of web sites, letter or numerical grades on doors, and providing disclosure upon request. In Denmark, smiley or sad faces are affixed to restaurant windows.

Publicly available grading systems rapidly communicate to diners the potential risk in dining at a particular establishment and restaurants given a lower grade may be more likely to comply with health regulations in the future to prevent lost business.

More importantly, such public displays of information help bolster overall awareness of food safety amongst staff and the public — people routinely talk about this stuff. The interested public can handle more, not less, information about food safety.

Even in New South Wales and Queensland, results are only posted voluntarily. 

So if an outlet sucks at food safety, they don’t have to tell anyone.

Toronto, Los Angeles and New York have had mandatory disclosure, on the doors for years.

Adelaide can figure it out.

And instead of waiting for politicians to take the lead, the best restaurants, those with nothing to hide and everything to be proud of, will go ahead and make their inspection scores available — today.

Market food safety at retail and show me the data: Science fairs and rockmelon

I judged my first science fair this morning.

I’ve done lots of stuff with schoolkids over the years – food is a wonderful teaching tool – but this was tough.

cantaloupe.salmonellaThere were 10 of us, judging about 180 projects at one elementary school.

Being the newbie, I got the prep (kindergarten) and grade 1s (grade 2 would have been a conflict of interest).

We had score sheets that will be returned to the students, and I thought, how do I evaluate this, I don’t want to crush the investigative soul of a 6-year-old.

It’s fair game to crush the souls of PhD students and other profs through peer-review, but this felt like peer-review for little kids.

I mainly wrote encouraging things and asked questions.

The things kids think of.

We have an awards thingy later tonight, with the all-Aussie sausage sizzle (yes, I will bring my tip-sensitive digital thermometer and use it, because that is the only data that matters when involving food safety), but I wonder if they’ll serve rockmelon (cantaloupe).

Probably not.

They know who I am, and didn’t serve it at the last school function, after 97 were confirmed sick with Salmonella linked to rockmelon from Red Dirt Farms in the Northern Territories of Australia.

But, as is often, public health seems to take a back seat to biz.

Matt Brann of ABC reports that demand for rockmelons has dived following a salmonella scare earlier this month, which was linked to rockmelons from a farm in the Northern Territory.

(It’s not a scare, it’s an outbreak with lots of sick people).

Christian Bloecker is in the middle of his rockmelon harvest in the Kimberley’s Ord Irrigation Scheme, and said fruit was now being left in the paddock.

“There’s nothing as a farmer that you can really do about it, apart from getting the awareness out there that rockmelons from the Ord are beautiful, fresh and safe to eat,” he said.

Then you’re getting bad advice.

Prove everything you do to produce a safe crop. Look at models in California and Colorado.

Market your food safety at retail.

Some growers are better than others. They should be rewarded.

Soundbites are empty when people are sick.

And as I judged the students this morning, it wasn’t about soundbits and show: it was, show me the data.

Show me the data: FSIS to begin posting location-specific food safety data online

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) will soon begin sharing new levels of food safety data specific to slaughter and processing facilities in the United States, on Data.gov.

dataThe agency has detailed its framework for releasing this data in its Establishment-Specific Data Release Plan, which the agency anticipates will allow consumers to make more informed choices, motivate individual establishments to improve performance, and lead to industry-wide improvements in food safety by providing better insights into strengths and weaknesses of different practices.

“FSIS’ food safety inspectors collect vast amounts of data at food producing facilities every day, which we analyze on an ongoing basis to detect emerging public health risks and create better policies to prevent foodborne illness,” said USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety Al Almanza. “Consumers want more information about the foods they are purchasing, and sharing these details can give them better insight into food production and inspection, and help them make informed purchasing decisions.”

FSIS employs roughly 7,500 food safety inspectors who work in more than 6,000 meat, poultry and processed egg facilities across the country and more than 120 ports of entry every day. Over the past seven years, the agency has taken an increasingly data-driven approach to identifying and preventing food safety concerns, and the data these men and women collect in regulated facilities every day have made it possible for FSIS to implement significant food safety changes since 2009. More information about these efforts to modernize food safety inspection can be found at www.Medium.com/USDA-Results. Between 2009 and 2015, this work led to a 12 percent drop in foodborne illness associated with FSIS-regulated products.

The new datasets will begin to publish on Data.gov on a quarterly basis starting 90 days after publication in the Federal Register. Initially, FSIS will share information on the processes used at each facility, giving more detail than is currently listed in the searchable establishment directory, as well as a code for each facility that will make it easier to sort and combine future datasets by facility. Additionally, FSIS will release results for Listeria monocytogenes (Lm) and Salmonella in ready-to-eat (RTE) products and processed egg products.

On a quarterly basis, FSIS will then begin to share other datasets, including results for Shiga Toxin-producing Escherichia coli(STEC) and Salmonella in raw, non-intact beef products; results for Salmonella and Campylobacter in young chickens and young turkeys, comminuted poultry, and chicken parts; routine chemical residue testing data in meat and poultry products; and advanced meat recovery testing data.

Criteria such as data availability and possible impact on public health will be considered by FSIS to determine which datasets are best suited for future public release. User guides that provide context to the data will be included with each dataset.

“This plan is another step toward better engagement with our stakeholders and they will now have quality information on an ongoing basis,” stated USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety Al Almanza.

The Establishment-Specific Data Release Plan was developed in response to the President Obama’s call for increased data sharing and greater transparency under the Open Government Plan by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Beginning in 2010, FSIS consulted with various stakeholder groups, including the National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection Subcommittee on Data Collection, Analysis, and Transparency and the National Research Council on this issue. With the expertise of these organizations, FSIS developed its plan that will not only provide consumers with the opportunity to make more informed choices, but make data publicly available that could yield valuable insights that go beyond the regulatory uses for which the data were collected.

 

Market microbial food safety: New Australian app to electronically trace meat from paddock to checkout

Developers of a new smartphone application say the app will make it possible to electronically trace livestock from the paddock through the saleyards, abattoirs and eventually the checkout.

star.trek.tricorderThe new software, developed by Aglive and supported by Meat and Livestock Australia, digitally records information throughout the animal’s life, such as on-farm chemicals used and vaccinations.

It is aimed at bolstering Australia’s reputation for food safety.

Aglive director Paul Ryan said most of the information was currently recorded on paper, but using a smartphone or tablet in conjunction with a hand-held scanner would revolutionise the process.

“The problem [right now] is, there is a digital information gap on farms,” Mr Ryan said.

“The quality assurance systems on farms at the moment that are required to allow farmers’ product to enter into domestic and export markets are paper-based.

cattle.data.smartphone“There is no integrated digital solution to capture and validate the data on farms and allow that data to be shared across the supply chain.”

The next step is to make that information available to consumers. Like the best restaurants, the best producers have nothing to hide and will reveal internal testing results.

Who knows it’s all marketing BS: Where did your egg come from?

Every industry has a few bad eggs. For the egg industry, it was DeCoster Egg Farms. In 2010, DeCoster was harboring foul cages full of sick hens.

egg.dirty.feb.12Those hens laid 550 million eggs tainted with a toxic strain of Salmonella enteritidis, which in turn ended up on grocery store shelves. The eggs were broken into skillets, whisked into mayonnaise, and ended up sickening as many as 6,200 Americans in what would become the largest egg recall in U.S. history. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration quickly passed laws to reform egg safety—but not before consumers had seen the crack in the industry’s veneer.

TEN Ag Tech, a Southern California–based startup aims to take the existential crisis out of your egg purchase. The tech company seeks to keep the egg industry accountable in two ways. First, it offers mobile-based apps that increase transparency on farms by monitoring human behavior—i.e., keeping track of who enters and leaves a hen house. Second, it engraves each individual egg with its own (nontoxic, naturally) gold laser barcode. Input that barcode onto the Naturally Smart Egg website, and you’ll instantly know everything about that egg’s origins: the breed of hen that laid it, the production method that spawned it (cage-free, traditional caged production, or free-range), and the moment it was packed within 180 seconds.

If this is all beginning to sound like a certain Portlandia skit—you know, that one where the couple interrogate their waitress about Colin, the chicken they will be enjoying—then you’re on the right track.

 It’s that, plus data. TEN Ag Tech seeks to “reconnect consumers to the farms that feed them,” according to its website. Since last July, consumers have been buying the company’s Naturally Smart eggs on the shelves of Chicago’s high-end Mariano’s grocery stores, a division of Kroger.

TEN Ag Tech’s vision is not limited to eggs: In February, the company will debut its traceable technology for coffee and meat. The goal is to prevent foodborne illness debacles like the recent outbreaks at fast-casual chain Chipotle. “As monoculture grows, companies like Chipotle are creating alternative realities, fresh food, local foods coming from local places,” says Jonathan Phillips, the company’s president and CEO. “The question is: When you’re dealing with 40,000 farms, how on Earth do you ensure that they’re all producing food for you safely? Our tech begins to solve that problem.”

But when it comes to helping us avoid outbreaks in the first place, this kind of data may be useless, says Ken Anderson, a poultry-extension specialist at North Carolina State University who focuses on egg processing, production, and safety. That’s because in most cases, contamination takes place after the production process, whether in a grocery store, a restaurant, or in your own kitchen. “It’s workers at a grocery store. It’s consumers opening up the egg cartons. It’s people transferring eggs to plastic cartons in their fridge,” says Anderson. “Those little things all add up and add a potential for contamination totally separate from how the eggs were produced.”

What about microbial food safety? Food industry launches phone-based disclosure amid labeling battle

Phillip Brasher of Agri Pulse reports the food industry is launching a smartphone-based system that companies hope will satisfy consumer demands for information about genetically engineered ingredients, livestock production methods and other product attributes. 

qr.code.rest.inspection.gradeThe SmartLabel system, which also will allow consumers to find the information on the web as through the phone-based QR code on package labels, is designed in part to address demands for labeling of biotech foods.

“We all have a desire to get the information that consumers want to them,” said Pamela Bailey, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association. “We happen to think that electronic disclosure is the very best way to do that.” 

The Hershey Co. will be the first company to adopt the SmartLabel in coming weeks.

Now adapt it for microbial food safety – the things that actually make people sick.