Safest food in the world alert: Texas edition

Todd Staples, the Agriculture Commissioner for the great state of Texas, has decided to alienate 488 Texas voters suffering from Salmonella Saintpaul inspired diarrhea that,

“Texans can be assured that we continue to enjoy the safest food supply in the world.”

Staples also finds it necessary to remind Texans that,

“Consumers should always properly wash and prepare all food items, as this is a basic part of family food safety.”

Except this outbreak, from all available evidence, is not a consumer issue, unless people in 43 states are all mishandling produce in the same manner.

Follow the poop – not the bullshit

The award for the most silly statements in one media report that I’ve seen today – and I see a lot in one day – goes to North Carolina’s Asheville Citizen-Times.

In the context of the on-going Salmonella outbreak, with 971 confirmed illnesses and at least 189 hospitalizations, Charlie Jackson, director of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, says people should not be too concerned, adding,

“In the whole scheme of things, we have the safest food in the world. There is more danger in driving to the market than eating a tomato that is going to make you sick.”

How compassionate. If someone in industry or government said that they would be rightly skewered.

Jackson also said local food is inherently safer than food shipped in from far away, adding,

“The big and astounding problem is that they don’t know where it (the salmonella) came from. That doesn’t occur when you buy the product right from the farmer who grew it.”

Wrong. The big problem is poop on food, wherever it came from, along with bullshit statements from hucksters.

Renay Knapp, a family consumer science agent with the N.C. Cooperative Extension in Henderson County, says

“Probably the most important thing is to keep hot food hot and cold foods cold. That’s where it all starts.”

Nope. It starts on the farm and keeping poop away from the food.

And these are pictures, for no particular reason, of Wellington, New Zealand, where Amy and I are currently camped out, and yesterday’s lunch. We don’t get mussels like that in Kansas.

Safest food in the world – Barack Obama edition

Barack Obama may be the change candidate but his food safety rhetoric falls into a tired and unsubstantiated pattern.

Obama wrote on Friday in a letter to  Cow Calf Weekly (great reading for the beach),

“America continues to have the safest, most abundant and cheapest food supply in the world. … Beef producers are a key component in a healthy and vibrant rural America. By strengthening USDA and working to enhance food safety and meat processing, my administration will assist the industry in providing a wholesome and safe product to your customers.”

Maybe Barack is using the same PR folks as the Taste of Chicago. And with over 800 people sick from Salmonella in tomatoes and no source in sight, is it really the right time to be making claims about who has the safest food?

Thanks to Kansas State PhD student Charles Dodd for forwarding the item.

(Unsubstantiated) food safety statements

It’s 4 a.m. on a Sunday morning, the thunder and trains both sound like they’re in my living room, and I’m talking about Salmonella and tomatoes on Chicago’s WGN News Talk Radio 720.

I’ll review the mp3 file when the producer sends it along and see if I said anything silly. I try to keep the unsubstantiated food safety statements to a minimum. But, while providing company for truck drivers, insomniacs and conspiracy theorists, who knows what will slip out (doing Coast-to-Coat AM radio from 1 – 2 a.m on June 10 was actually a lot of fun).

Ken Givens, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, wrote in a particularly lucid article in The Tennessean yesterday,

"Our agency alone licenses and inspects more than 9,200 retail food establishments, 900 food manufacturers and 475 food warehouses for sanitation and proper food storage and handling. … Food safety starts at the farm. In association with the UT Institute of Agriculture, we’re launching a new initiative aimed at helping fruit and vegetable growers and distributors institute good agricultural practices, such as using safe sources of irrigation in the field and proper washing and handling after harvesting. "

But then, Commissioner Givens joins our safest-food-in-the-world list, by stating,

"America still has the safest, most affordable and abundant food supply in the world."

Not to be outdone, Carol B. Dover, President/CEO, Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association, Tallahasse, writes in yesterday’s Orlando Sentinel that,

"… according to Florida Department of Health statistics, less than half of reported foodborne illness cases are attributable to restaurants. While it is easy to blame the last restaurant visited, the source is very likely improperly prepared home-cooked food."

It is very likely that Carol Dover can’t back that statement up. It’s easy to blame consumers, but there are too many outbreaks that are simply beyond a consumer’s control. Sorta like Salmonella and tomatoes.

And for no particular reason, this is a picture Bill Marler sent me of a butcher’s shop in Wales. Reminds me of last year in France and the rampant cross-contamination Amy and I witnessed at our local butcher in the beach town of Maubuisson.

Who has the safest food in the world?

Scientists and journalists have a couple of things in common — at least that’s what I was told all those years ago.

Both require the ability to ask the right question. And both have to sell the same idea at least three times to make a living.

Yesterday, Bob Brackett, senior vice president and chief science and regulatory affairs officer for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, wrote in the Denver Post that "no other country in the world can claim a safer food supply than the United States."

Except that a couple of Canadian researchers at the University of Regina have done just that, issuing a report last week which purports to rank 17 industrialized countries.

The problem is, based on what is publicly available, it’s impossible to tell how countries were ranked on various scores.

For example, the report says,

"Canada would be considered as one of the world’s leading countries in relation to consumer affairs in food safety. In terms of incidences of reported illness by food-borne pathogens, Canada is (in) the normal range since it has the incidence between 5,000 and 15,000 per 100,000 persons. Even if Canada has more incidences, it has a decreasing trend of late, which means that all levels of the government had begun to control the situation."

Based on a population of just over 33 million, that means 1.65 — 4.95 million reported illnesses by foodborne pathogens, I’m assuming per year. Nowhere near that many cases of foodborne illness are actually reported. And the best guess on the actual incidence of foodborne illness in Canada is 11-13 million cases per year, slightly higher that the World Health Organization’s estimate of 30 per cent of citizens in developed countries getting sick from the food and water they consume each year.

The report authors also claim,

"Canada was also rated as a ‘progressive’ country based on its food safety education programs for consumers. Unlike other countries, the level of cooperation among the different levels of government in the country is significant and most programs target all segments of the population."

Apparently, no effort was made to assess whether such information was accurate.

Canada finished fifth, and the U.S. came in seventh. The United Kingdom had the highest ranking of the 17 countries studied. Make mine piping hot.

Who has the safest food in the world? Wrong question.

Which country has the safest food in the world? No one knows

America has the safest food supply in the world. True or False?

It’s impossible to say. The statistics don’t exist to make such a claim. But that doesn’t stop meatpackers, lobbyists, lawmakers and even government regulators who should know better, from repeating the claim every time there’s a food-borne illness outbreak or major food recall.

So says Philip Brasher, writing today in the Des Moines Register.

Brasher says unfounded claims can undermine the credibility of the government and the industry and he cites and our special safest-food-in-the-world section at

Kansas State University Professor Doug Powell wrote on a blog where he tracks food safety news,

"Bland blanket statements serve only to amplify rather than mollify consumers (concerns)."

Brasher goes on to say that the problem with making these claims is that it’s now impossible to compare one country’s statistics to another country’s, experts say. Most foodborne illnesses go unreported, so government agencies must come up with estimates of how many actually occur. How to do that varies.

Paul Frenzen, a demographer with the Agriculture Department’s Economic Research who specializes in food safety, said that even a factor that would seem relatively simple to measure, such as cases of food-related diarrhea, isn’t easy to track because definitions vary, and there are also cultural differences between countries as to when victims of foodborne illness go to the doctor.

Other countries offer universal health insurance, making it more likely that people will get to a doctor when they’re sick.

Brasher concludes that after the nation’s largest meat recall was announced earlier this year, Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer didn’t claim that U.S. food is the world’s safest. Instead, he said,

"The United States enjoys one of the safest food supplies in the world."

No one is going to argue with that.

Canada’s food not the safest in the world: prof

In what must shurly be a shock for smugly complacent Canadians (we have the best health care in the world – not) Rick Holley, a professor in the department of food science at the University of Manitoba says that Canada’s food isn’t as healthy as everyone thinks.

In the most appropriate use of the word "eh" I’ve seen today, Holley asked his audience in a March 19 seminar,

"So food in Canada is the safest in the world, eh?"

Every year, one in three people suffered a food-related illness, and around 500 to 1,000 cases were fatal.

Holley said if an outbreak does occur, only one in five people seek medical attention and, out of these, samples are only collected from 13 per cent of these cases. Twice as many Canadians are infected with salmonella and camylobacter when compared to Americans, and eight times as many Canadians than American report E. coli infections.

"These aren’t exactly results you would expect to see if Canada’s food is the safest in the world."

Holley also noted the United States has set targets to drastically cut the spread of these illnesses, which Canada has not.

iFSN interviews anti-GMO types at the Biojustice 2002 rally in Toronto

I’d say anti-GE, as in genetic engineering, cause I’m always careful to use the correct terminology, but youtube culture would think I’m talking about appliances, not food.

Back in the day when genetic engineering of food was on the front lines in Canada, my lab shot a lot of video. We just didn’t know what to do with it.

Then youtube came along.

So I’ll be posting a bunch of our old videos, and you can all judge for yourselves how evil, boring or indifferent we all were.

And make fun of our hairstyles.

First up: iFSN students Ben and Christian go hang out at the 2002 Biojustice picnic, more formally known as, The 6th International Grassroots Gathering on Genetic Engineering June 7-9, 2002, Toronto, Canada, which was held at the same time as the annual meeting of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) annual meeting in Toronto, 2002.

The video editing was all Christian; he was good …

It’s not a first: GE labeled corn sells better than non-GE is reporting that the Avila Valley Barn in San Luis, Calif., clearly labels sweet corn it sells as genetically engineered — “Our own GE corn" — and offers customers a choice of traditional corn.

“People have the right to know what they are eating,” DeVincenzo said.

Couldn’t agree more. Consumer right to know is a fundamental value for North American shoppers. Labels may not be the best way to provide such information.

Andrew Christie, director of the local chapter of the Sierra Club, said,

“We still don’t think enough testing has been done on GE crops, but failing that, GE products should be labeled. We heartily endorse the precedent Dr. DeVincenzo is setting."

The store offers the GE and traditional corn at the same price.

While some customers complained that GE corn was offered at all, DeVincenzo said the typical customer says they prefer the modified type because it is not shucked and looks fresher. Traditional corn has to be partially or completely shucked to eliminate ears that are infested with worms.

Contrary to what the story says, it’s not a first, to have genetically engineered and conventional whole produce sold side-by-side. Jeff Wilson of Birkbank Farms in Ontario, and my gang, did this beginning in 2000. We published the results in the British Food Journal in 2003 (Powell, D.A., Blaine, K., Morris, S. and Wilson, J. (2003), “Agronomic and consumer considerations for Bt and conventional sweet-corn”, British Food Journal, Vol. 105 No. 10, pp. 700-13.), and won best paper for the year.

People have been complaining ever since, and making a lot of accusations about me and the research.

In response, this is what I published, again in the British Food Journal, Aug, 1, 2006 (Vol  108 Issue 8).

Would you eat wormy sweet corn? Or cabbage? Or broccoli?

That is what Ontario, Canada, producer Jeff Wilson often asks his customers. With 200 acres of fresh fruit and vegetables and a retail market on the farm, inquiring about his customers’ preferences is not just good manners, it is good business.

Throughout the 1990s, Wilson’s customers expressed a desire for reduced pesticides in the fresh produce purchased at his Birkbank Farms market. Wilson adopted an intensive integrated pest management program, but when cool, wet weather struck in 1997 – ideal for European corn borer – many of Wilson’s customers who had previously said they could tolerate wormy corn by breaking off the damaged ends were no where to be found.

Wilson lost about $25,000 on sweet corn sales that year; an expensive lesson in people say one thing, but when it comes to grocery shopping, often do another.

So when I approached Jeff Wilson in 1999 about growing a genetically engineered Bt-sweet corn that in Florida field-trials had significantly reduced the need for pesticide sprays to control corn borer, he was enthusiastic.

I was eager to see what consumers would do when given a choice between genetically engineered and conventional whole produce – in this case sweet corn and potatoes – in a market setting instead of a survey or willingness to pay experiment which are both notoriously misleading.

As described in our paper (Powell et al., 2003), conventional (what we labeled as “regular” based on customer feedback) and genetically engineered Bt-sweet corn and potatoes were grown in similar eight acre plots, harvested, segregated and made available for sale at the Birkbank Farms Market.

Joe Cummins, and others on the Internet, have accused me, and my co-investigators, of academic fraud and bias, because a sign sitting atop the bin of regular sweet corn asked, Would you eat wormy sweet corn?

That is a question Jeff Wilson cares about, with his pocketbook. It is also the language consumers use when talking about sweet corn, and what they are looking for when they peel back the silks of corn-on-the-cob.

But is it language intended to manipulate consumer purchasing patterns?


The use of language, and its shared meaning, is always subjective. I have always based such work on the integrative risk analysis framework, first promoted by the US Presidential/Congressional Commission on Risk Assessment and Risk Management in 1997 (available at: which argues that risk assessment, management and communication activities should be intertwined and reciprocal, rather than separate entities. And the best way to deal with value judgments in risk analysis is to openly declare potential sources of bias.

My bias is that science has a responsibility to lead, to explore the use of new technologies to enhance the safety and quality of the food supply while actively minimizing risks and respecting the concerns of affected consumers. For over a decade I have devoted my career to reducing the incidence of foodborne illness, and to the responsible use of new technologies to enhance the safety of the food supply.

Wilson and his staff at Birkbank Farms are committed to providing consumers with high quality food produced in the safest manner, as well as clear and accessible information regarding how that food is produced. Our shared goal is to understand consumer preference, not shape it.

The point-of-sale information in 2000 (and in subsequent years not described in Powell et al., 2003) at Birkbank Farms consisted of a large placard describing the options Wilson had to produce non-wormy corn, smaller handwritten signs describing the treatments received by corn available for sale on a specific day (which varied weekly throughout the course of the six-week consumer data collection period to reflect the different conditions under which different rows of corn were grown and variations in weather) and information pamphlets. This presentation can be viewed at:

The large placard contained the following text:

“Delivering High Quality Sweet Corn
In order to provide you with the quality of sweet corn that you want we have three options
1. Genetically engineered Bt-sweet corn:
contains Bt protein in leaves and stalk; and requires fewer insecticides to prevent worm damage thus minimizing environmental impact.
2. Bt-spary
same Bt protein as in genetically engineered variety but sprayed on leaves; and
protein exists naturally in environment and breaks down rapidly …
3. Conventional pesticides:
used by most farmers to create worm free corn; and
applied according to guidelines set by governments, but harm to beneficial insects observed”.

Because the work at Birkbank Farms was an overall risk analysis experiment in providing the public, and anyone else, with full and transparent information about how a particular commodity was produced, a press conference was held at Birrkbank Farms on 30 August 2000, to mark the beginning of the sweet corn harvest. The handwritten sign over the regular sweet corn asked, Would you eat wormy sweet corn, and then listed the treatments that corn had received to produce less-wormy sweet corn. The handwritten sign over the GE sweet corn (and we deliberately chose the label GE sweet corn because that is what it was – not just genetically modified, not a product of biotechnology or other terms that proponents of GE have suggested may be more palatable to the consuming public) said “Here’s what went into producing quality sweet corn”, and listed no pesticides but herbicide and fertilizer. The handwritten signs were changed the following week.

A critic of GE may charge that simply asking the question, Would you eat wormy sweet corn, unduly influences consumer preference. A supporter of GE may charge that by labelling the corn genetically engineered unduly stigmatises the product and influences consumer preference (Powell, 2001).

I find such categorizations simplistic.

However, one journalist, among the dozens of other journalists, scientists, activists and hundreds of consumers who visited Birkbank Farms during the data collection period, and cited by Cummins, apparently interpreted the sign as evidence of manipulation.

We observed no evidence to support that charge, either through formal intercept interviews or anecdotal conversations; quite simply, no one else mentioned the wormy corn aspect of our signage (which was referred to in the description on the placard and, briefly, on the handwritten sign), although we admittedly did not specifically ask the question. What we did observe and respond to was heightened customer interest in methods of food production generally, and in response we developed and maintained a three kilometre self-guided walking tour on Birkbank Farms outlining the various tradeoffs and choices that face a commercial producer. Hundreds of people who wanted to know more about how their food was produced and the challenges involved took a stroll through the farm in 2000, and hundreds more in subsequent years.

In 2001, when we deliberately downplayed the research at the farm after the extensive media attention the previous year, sales of GE sweet corn outsold regular sweet corn 5:2. The presentation used that year is available at: = 4&c = 18&sc = 137&id = 889.

Cummins also alleges that the point-of-sale literature was promotional. The only literature that I am aware of present at point-of-sale was a brochure written by Katija Blaine and me, that contained information about benefits, risks and management strategies. Interested readers can make their own conclusions about the alleged persuasive nature of the brochures – one for Bt-sweet corn and one for Bt potatoes – by viewing them at: = 3&c = 9&sc = 53&id = 886 and = 3&c = 9&sc = 53&id = 887,respectively.

The research at Birkbank Farms had strengths and weaknesses and both were related to the commercial nature of Wilson’s operation. However, since May 2000 when we first wrote to Wilson’s neighbours to inform them of our intent and hosted a public meeting for others to voice their concerns, we have been completely open about our intentions and results, and welcomed criticisms as a way to improve the project.

Powell, et al. (2003) explicitly acknowledged the limitations and applicability of the research by stating, “The labels on the produce bins may have influenced consumers to buy, just because they were there or perhaps because there was detailed information provided”, and concluded, “This research is a starting-point and describes the experience of one farmer on one farm during the 2000 growing season”.

Finally, to suggest that I possess some extraordinary persuasive skills, and that if I did, I would influence sweet corn purchases, one buyer at a time (with an intercept interviewee who was not included in the study) says more about the preconceived notion of my critics. What some allege is manipulation could more readily be described as conversation. Talking to people is good for Jeff Wilson’s business and good for researchers.

Douglas Powell
Associate Professor, Department Diagnostic Medicine/Pathobiology, Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS, USA


Powell, D.A. (2001), “Mad cow disease and the stigmatization of British beef”, in Flynn, J., Slovic, P. and Kunreuther (Eds), Risk Media and Stigma, EarthScan, London, pp. 219-28.

Powell, D.A., Blaine, K., Morris, S. and Wilson, J. (2003), “Agronomic and consumer considerations for Bt and conventional sweet-corn”, British Food Journal, Vol. 105 No. 10, pp. 700-13.