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.


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.

Obama wants Sebelius to seek out the science of health

Being that I’m living in the middle of Kansas, I just caught a live broadcast of President Obama announcing his nomination of Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius to the head of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Media sources emphasize that, as Secretary of HHS, Sebelius would be implementing the president’s plans for health care reform, along with Nancy-Ann DeParle – an American expert on health care issues and Obama’s pick for “Health Reform Czar”.

However, Obama pointed out in his announcement that it’s not all about health insurance; the position is also responsible for the oversight of several agencies that serve as protective forces, including the FDA and the CDC.

The president alluded to changes in that area of the department as well, and noted the importance of science over politics when determining the best approaches to protecting the health of Americans.

Sebelius will have her work cut out for her on many levels, so I hope she holds that mind: Keeping the poop out of food safety policy is a great way to keep poop out of food.

Looking out for the farmers of the “safest food in the world”

This summer at the Kansas State Fair, I felt like I was getting a lot of strange looks. I tried to brush it off, telling myself that it was no crime to have never slopped a pig or stolen eggs from under a roosting a hen—I should still be welcome at the fair.

I was positive there were other non-farm girls there. Probably even some that grew up in the city; I, at least, shared a property line with a cow pasture. But people just kept staring.

I really got embarrassed when a representative from the Farm Bureau Federation started to laugh out loud and point at me.

When it finally donned on me that I was wearing my Don’t Eat Poop t-shirt that day, I turned to let him read the back: Wash Your Hands.

I explained that I worked for an organization that wants to turn the public’s attention to food safety.

He seemed to think that particular method was effective. “But do you make farmers look bad?” he asked while raising one eyebrow.

I told him we felt it was important that everyone does their part, from the farm to the fork.

He smiled, but I think he remained skeptical.

I raised my eyebrow today at a press release in which the director of congressional relations in the California Farm Bureau National Affairs and Research Division, Josh Rolph, was quoted as saying,

"Congress and the new administration will be sure to consider changes to the way the government oversees the safety of food production. We want to make sure that any changes don’t prove to be burdensome to farmers, who are growing the safest food supply in the world."

I wish I could meet this guy and stare strangely at him. If anyone’s going to claim to grow the safest food in the world, they’re going to have to take some pains to prove it.

“The nation’s farming community understands the need to improve food safety, Rolph said, but the farm-level impact to producers must be considered in any new food safety proposals.”

Salinas vegetable farmer Dirk Giannini referred to the surge in food safety action plans following the outbreak of E. coli from spinach in 2006, and explained that a frenzy of “non-scientific ideas” were putting farmers out.

"And don’t get me wrong,” said Giannini, “The farmers do not want to jeopardize anyone’s health or life—we have the safest food supply in the world. But the scientific-based decisions are the ones that we need to move forward."

Of course any actions to increase the safety of the food supply should be backed by scientific evidence, but public claims of safety should have the same foundation.

To the farmers who grow the food I appreciate every day: In your products and in your claims, Don’t Sell Poop.

Natural Grocers defends itself against salmonella

Founded on the belief that "health should not be expensive," Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage grinds its own peanut butter in-store using only domestic, U.S.D.A. certified organic peanuts.

In a statement addressing Natural Grocers’ connection to the outbreak of salmonella in Peanut Corp. of America peanuts, Executive Vice President and Co-Owner of Vitamin Cottage Heather Isely says,

"We are a relatively small, family-owned company that only sells carefully screened natural and organic products, and we work hard to source our products domestically because we believe in the quality controls in place in this country. We – among others – have been hurt by this one unscrupulous supplier…"

The company may have learned the hard way that natural and organic products are not invincible to foodborne pathogens.

Elsewhere in the statement, Isely says,

"[W]e trusted our government and industry food inspection process, which usually works extraordinarily well."

Since January 30, the fresh ground peanut butter made in Vitamin Cottage stores has contained peanuts from a new supplier, Hampton Farms.

"To further reassure our customers," Isely states, "we are now testing each lot of the new peanut butter stock for salmonella. We are working to find even more ways of keeping our customers safe."

Way to be proactive… now that you have to.

Rat in peanut roaster; safest food in the world?

A former employee of the Georgia peanut plant at the center of a criminal investigation in a nationwide salmonella outbreak told CBS News he saw a rat dry-roasting in a peanut area.

Jonathan Prather, one of 50 people who lost their jobs last month when the Peanut Corporation of America shut down its plant in Blakely, told Early Show national correspondent Jeff Glor the facility is dirty.

"Roaches get up there in the dry roast. Some of them blend in with the peanuts. You’d never know they’re there.” … (There were) "plenty of holes in the roof, throughout the roof. And when it rained, water just came through the whole plant."

Prather says it saddens him that many people have been impacted by the salmonella, adding he’s speaking out now because his mother always raised him to tell the truth.

Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler told The Early Show Tuesday,

"… The problem is we don’t have a system of preventive controls. We’re always reacting in this country. It’s always chasing the horse after it’s out of the barn. …  We have the safest food system in the world, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be safer. And each of us has responsibilities. Making sure that our food is well-cooked, good hygiene, those things are still important. … (Our food is) certainly safe, but our system is broken. And it needs to be improved, and it needs to be improved quickly."

Not sure what the basis is for the good doctor’s safest-food-in-the-world bit. Are rats in the roaster part of the equation?

Safest food in the world – Kansas edition

John Schlageck, described as a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas and “whose writing reflects a lifetime of experience, knowledge and passion,” provides absolutely no evidence to support his assertion in The Emporia Gazette that America “enjoys the safest, most wholesome food in the world.”

Schlageck also asks, “where do the most significant food safety problems occur — on the farm or in the kitchen?

“If you guessed the kitchen, you’re probably one of those wise consumers who may already be well on your way to a wholesome, healthy eating lifestyle. On the other hand if you guessed the farm, chances are your kitchen may be a place where food is mishandled or poorly prepared.”

Phrases like “on the other hand” are a waste of words my university students get penalized for using. I reward clear writing, in the tradition of Strunk and White in The Elements of Style.

Schlageck also offers no evidence for his claim that the majority of food safety problems happen in the home. The evidence is contradictory, and we have a review that will be published soon.

Bad writing and bad food safety assumptions need to be continually challenged. Blaming consumers may not be the best way to empower individuals.

Food politics reaches a new low: GE equated to Hitler

Australian food guru or food idiot Margaret Fulton joined other celebrity chefs in comparing genetically engineered canola to Hitler in launching the Greenpeace True Food Guide Canola Edition 2009 in Sydney.

"They’re going to control the world. We thought Hitler was a bad fella … these guys could show him a thing or two – and they’re creeping up on us quietly without guns or anything like that, but the poison is there."

Individual genetically engineered crops should go through safety assessments, which they do in most countries, and consumers should be able to choose what they like. Instead of Hitler comparisons, maybe the Greenpeace-backed chefs of Australia should focus on not making their customers barf, and not showing up in the name and shame directory of wayward restaurants.