Who should be in charge of food inspections?

The New York Times reported this morning on the California leafy greens industry’s hiring of government inspectors in lieu of government-imposed visits by inspectors.

The almond industry and the Florida tomato industry have also instituted their own safety measures that invited oversight by federal agencies when the government did not independently provide it.

“It’s an understandable response when the federal government has left a vacuum,” said Michael R. Taylor, a former officer in two federal food-safety agencies and now a professor at George Washington University. But, he added, “it’s not a substitute” for serious federal regulation.

Is it the government’s responsibility to ensure that food is safe to eat, or is it the responsibility of those producing, processing, and selling it? Both, of course, in addition to those choosing to consume it and feed it to their loved ones.

Then, what’s so great about government-imposed inspections as opposed to inspections the food industry asks for? After devastating outbreaks in each industry awakened them to their invested interest in food safety, these three have been vigilant about minimizing the microbial risks to their commodities. Would the feds do a better job?

According to the Washington Post, a report by Taylor and his colleagues at George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services determined that federal regulation of the inspection system and others is necessary to provide cohesion (and presumably increase efficacy) among safety-assuring efforts. In the report the authors urged Congress to “create a single cohesive food safety network composed of local, state and federal agencies and accountable to the secretary of health and human services.”

Some coordination certainly might move the country toward reducing the number of people who get sick from the food they eat. But each link in the food supply chain must remain proactive in their role in assuring food is safe to consume—regardless of who’s the boss.


Raw milk: ‘media coverage far beyond its importance’

Here’s the most important point in a column written by long-time Toronto Globe and Mail medical reporter Andre Picard:

The trial of Ontario raw milk farmer Michael Schmidt has garnered media coverage far beyond its importance.

Oh, and the outcome is largely irrelevant.

It seems somewhat absurd to jail a man for selling a product that clients desperately want and which, on the surface at least, seems harmless. But, hey, it happens to pot dealers every day.

What is not harmless is Mr. Schmidt’s attack on pasteurization and on food-safety regulations more generally.

Under the guise of civil liberties and freedom, he and his supporters have uttered all kinds of nonsense and portrayed themselves as martyrs for pure food. …

Farmer Schmidt and his acolytes can suckle the milk from the teat of a cow, a goat, a cat, or any other lactating mammal to their hearts’ content.

Their rights and freedoms are in no way compromised.

What the law restricts is the commercial sale of raw milk.

Mr. Schmidt tried to circumvent this fact by selling "cow shares" and arguing that his clients were actually proprietors and free to consume raw milk from their own cows.

Whether that little manoeuvre exempts him from the law is up to the courts to decide. But it seems unlikely. After all, bar owners tried this technique to sidestep anti-smoking laws, selling "shares" in their establishment and arguing that patrons were smoking in a private club. Judges saw through the subterfuge. …

Another argument is that meat – which can also contain pathogens – is sold raw, so why not milk? The practical reason for this is obvious. It is easy and efficient to pasteurize milk; it is not practical to cook meat before selling it, but its refrigeration (designed to minimize the growth of bacteria) is mandatory and regulated.

The peanut butter solution

With at least eight dead, 575 sick and 1,200 products recalled because of Salmonella in peanut thingies, the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee began hearings yesterday to figure out the peanut butter solution.

Some want jail time for company execs; more inspectors; public oversight of microbial test results; a single food inspection agency; better auditors, and so on.

Maybe the 1985 movie, The Peanut Butter Solution, had it right. Or late 1960s psychedelic band, The Peanut Butter Conspiracy. Or the B-side to the Jimmy Buffett tearjerker, He Went to Paris, from the 1973 album, A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean, "Peanut Butter Conspiracy."

Do happy cows make happy milk?

Are humans safer when they’re happy? Are you?
Ok. Now follow this logic…
Are cows?

I’m willing to go along with the California Cow commercial that claims “Great cheese comes from happy cows” and maybe even the only happy cows in the world come from California. Why not – the weather is nice and the people are laid-back. But does that necessarily mean their milk is safer?

In a post today on http://wewantorganicfood.com/
author, Lynn Cameron says, “If there could be a master key to safe raw milk, I think it would be contented cows.” The author contends that today, some raw milk is unsafe because some cows spend their days indoors, “living on field corn and soybeans to the degradation of their milk and the degeneration of the nation’s health.” I guess this is something akin to the cubicle complex.

Call me a skeptic, but I really need some science to back up this happy feeling. It’s nice to think that happy cows frolicking on the hill cannot produce anything bad. The author of the article rightfully makes a call to our nostalgia – to a happier time before farming was industrialized. Nostalgia is nice, but it does not make food safer. While Cameron says, “It’s not complicated science to understand that quality of life as well as diet affects cows’ milk quality,” her inability to produce that uncomplicated science leaves me completely unconvinced. This kind of thinking, that cows “raised entirely outdoors on green grass and/or hay, their milk is proven time and again greatly reduced in pathogens (bad bacteria),” has really not been proven as explained by David Renter in September 2006. “Cattle raised on diets of ‘grass, hay and other fibrous forage’ do contain E. coli O157:H7 bacteria in their feces as do other animals including deer, sheep, goats, bison, opossum, raccoons, birds, and many others.”

I’m completely in favor of good conditions and happy cows – who wouldn’t be? But even in the best conditions, microbiological contamination can happen – just as it happens in very happy homes with very content cooks. “Confinement cows” or “happy cows,” the only scientifically proven measure to reduce the risk of dangerous pathogens in milk is pasteurization.

Conspiracy alert: Safe almonds are part of big food agenda

After two salmonella outbreaks in 2001 and 2004 were traced to almonds from California farms, the Almond Board of California, the marketing agency for California’s largest tree crop, decided to push for a regulation requiring nearly all almonds grown in the United States to go through a pasteurization process before they are passed on to consumers.

The new regulation applies to growers who sell more than 100 pounds per day to an entity, typically retailers and restaurants. Generally, farmer’s markets and roadside stands will remain unaffected.

That exception is not enogh for some folks.  Vinicio Penate says that eating a raw almond is like eating the almond tree, stating,,

"All that strength, all that force, all that information, all the genetics. They’re all there. They’re just untouched."

Jean Chevalier of Taber Ranch in Yolo, whose almonds will now be pasteurized, called the regulation ridiculous, adding,

"I eat ’em raw right out of the field. I still have both legs and I’m not sick."

Judith Redmond, owner of Full Belly Farms in Capay Valley, who has grown organic almonds since 1985, said,

"The mode of industrial agriculture is that instead of addressing the cause, they deal with the problems.”

Apparently the cause is being a farm larger than an acre. And while we’re all delighted to know that Chevalier still has both legs, those who have barfed on almonds in the past may prefer the pasteurization approach.

Almond board spokeswoman Marsha Venable said,

 "As an industry, we have our consumer’s health and safety in mind."

You got a reaction, didn’t you? You took a white orchid turned it blue

Typing "almond" and "pasteurization" into a Google search brings up the Almond Board’s action plan to pasteurize all California almonds, followed by a long list of websites with content criticizing the Board’s decision, including: Mandatory almond pasteurization is WRONG; We like it raw; and Raw food, right now (followed by lots of exclamation marks).

If you read my postings you know that I feel strongly about the need to pasteurize milk. As I read through the almond arguments I see strong parallels between the two debates, and for good reason, they’re both rooted in this burgeoning need to eat as nature intended, without the interference of any sort of large-scale food technology. But I’m much less familiar with the history of almonds and foodborne illness and at this point I can appreciate both the consumer and industry’s point-of-view. I do however agree that pasteurized almonds should not be labeled raw because by definition they are not.

At any rate, I had a good chuckle reading the following excerpt from the Cleansing Blog this morning: 

"Many almond growers, not surprisingly, are hopping mad at the ABC for this “pasteurization tyranny” that will now require almond growers to kill a perfectly good product before they can sell it to consumers. It’s almost like being in the flower business and, after growing beautiful orchids for your customers, some stupid state agency comes along and says you have to cook all the flowers before you can sell them because somebody once stuck their nose in a pot of orchids and sniffed up a creepy crawler. Cooked orchids, alas, are not nearly as beautiful as living orchids."

Thanks to the White Stripes (American rock band) for the catchy title; should attract some fresh faces to the world of food safety communication.

Raw almonds, the new raw milk

According to a press release from the  Cornucopia Institute small-scale farmers, retailers, and consumers are renewing their call to reassess a USDA plan to "pasteurize". The press release says that all domestic almonds must have the treatments by early next year in response to outbreaks of Salmonella in 2001 and 2004.

Will Fantle, research director for The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based farm policy research group, was quoted as saying, "The almond ‘pasteurization’ plan presents many harmful impacts for consumers and the agricultural community. The logic behind both the necessity and safety of the treatments processes has not been adequately analyzed."

Last Wednesday, the California Almond Board requested a delay in the treatment mandate until March, 2008, which had previously been set for September.

Fantle was further quoted as saying, "We support this delay, but a delay, due to the industry being unprepared, isn’t enough. The USDA must also re-open the rule for public review and comment so that those who have been shut out of the decision-making process can have input into any almond treatment plan."

Already producers were coming up with ‘nutty solutions’ to offer customers the opportunity to “rent” trees for the season. In the same way that cow share programs allow raw-milk advocates to legally obtain unpasteurized dairy products,  “tree shares” would allow almond eaters to keep eating raw almonds.