Wild Boar population explodes in Germany: Plenty of bacon to go around

The New York Times reports “the wild boar is multiplying and less lovable.” I’m pretty sure the closest boars got to lovable was in the Lion King, and even then: not so lovable (and not a terrific singer either). Germany has its hands full with the wild boar population. Normally, the worst thing one of Germany’s wild boars will do is ruin a field of corn, which is one of their favorite foods. Lately, however, as their population has exploded scientists estimate that it increased by 320 percent in Germany in the last year alone — the pigs have been having more and more encounters with humans. Wild boars cause extensive damage to crops and property, but also have the potential be deadly to people that come upon them.  But if they don’t kill you immediately, they could be carrying bugs that will get you later.  Wild hogs are carriers of diseases such as anthrax, brucellosis, pseudorabies and tuberculosis.

If they don’t eat all of the crops while scavenging, they could be leaving behind E. coli in their feces, which was the likely situation in 2006 when contaminated spinach from California took three lives and made over 200 ill.  These buggers are so destructive that fencing off crops is useless; the pigs plow right through them.  I’d love to see if there’s any data out there correlating E.coli cases in Germany with the increasing populations of wild boars.

Currently an estimated 2 million to 2.5 million boars roam the forests, suburbs and maize fields of Germany. No national program seems to be set up to eradicate this problem, but local hunters do their best by enjoying a roasted leg of wild boar once in awhile.

A selection of leafy green outbreaks since 1993; over 1300 ill

Because of a historical risk, leafy greens have been identified by the US FDA as a priority with in fresh produce safety (along with tomatoes, melons, sprouts and fresh herbs).

Here’s why: over 1300 illnesses in at least 34 outbreaks since 1993. See the below table for more details (or download it here).

Greens and melons and tomatoes – oh my. Will new guidelines make produce safer?

Last Friday, U.S. regulatory types announced plans to increase testing of beef trim for E. coli O157:H7 and to strengthen safety protocols for fresh fruits and vegetables. The former got lots of attention, especially with a new Salmonella outbreak that has sickened dozens and is linked to ground beef; the latter, not so much.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are one of, if not the most, significant sources of foodborne illness today in the U.S. – and it’s been that way for over a decade. As consumers increase per capita consumption of fresh vegetables, methods of handling, processing, packaging and distributing produce locally and internationally are receiving more attention in terms of identifying and controlling microbiological, chemical and physical hazards.

That was essentially the prelude for FDA publishing its 1998 Guidance for Industry: Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables. We took those guidelines, as well as others, and created an on-farm food safety program for all 220 growers producing tomatoes and cucumbers under the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers banner. And set up a credible verification system.

So why did regulators and industry make such a big deal about commodity-specific guidelines for tomatoes, melons and leafy greens that were published in the federal register last Friday – in 2009?

I looked at the 2009 CSGs and the 1998 FDA guidance document – and I can’t see much of a difference in the on-farm stuf. Maybe I’m slow on the uptake; maybe guidelines are meaningless without implementation and verification; maybe growers keep asking for government babysitters so when the next outbreak happens, they can say, but we followed FDA guidelines (good luck with that). One of the notices said the draft guidances were FDA’s first step toward setting enforceable standards for produce safety, so maybe it’s some lawmaking thing.

Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association, said in a statement released July 31,

“Our industry has worked hard since 2004 to develop commodity-specific guidance documents in each of these areas, and now strongly supports FDA taking these efforts to a new level.”

2004? Why not 1998? And do the new and supposedly improved guidelines mean fewer sick people? No. Not unless an individual grower or groups of growers, or associations, take serious steps to implement and verify, something could have been done in 1998 and does not need government oversight. We did it – how hard can it be?

It’s not, and lots of growers do it on a daily basis. So maybe the talk from Washington was rightly shrugged off as no biggie.

But why did Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, in making the announcement, choose to highlight the “vital role” consumers play in ensuring the safety of the fresh produce they eat and offer a laundry list of questionable food safety advice that would do little to reduce contamination of tomatoes, leafy greens and melons that happened in the field? Especially with all the caveats featured in the introduction to the tomato commodity-specific guide, included below.

This guidance is intended to assist domestic firms and foreign firms exporting tomatoes to the United States (U.S.) by recommending practices to minimize the microbial food safety hazards of their products throughout the entire tomato supply chain. It identifies some, but not all, of the preventive measures that these firms may take to minimize these food safety hazards. This guidance document is not intended to serve as an action plan for any specific operation but should be viewed as a start­ing point. We encourage each firm from the farm level through the retail or foodservice level to assess the recommendations in this guidance and tailor its food safety practices to its particular operations by developing its own food safety program based on an assessment of the potential hazards that may be associated with its operations.

In addition, effective management of food safety requires that responsibility be clearly established among the many parties involved in the production of fresh produce. There may be many different permutations of ownership and business arrangements during the growing, harvesting packing, processing, and distribution of fresh and fresh-cut tomatoes. For this reason, it is important to identify which responsibilities rest with which parties, and to ensure that these responsibilities are clearly defined. For example, growers commonly contract with third parties to harvest their crops. Also, it is important that growers clearly identify which party is responsible for each applicable provision of this guidance, such as providing adequate toilet and handwashing facilities and worker training. Approaches to addressing responsibilities include delegating them to individuals within the firm and formally addressing them in contractual agreements when third parties are involved. Each party should be aware of its responsibilities to ensure microbial food safety hazards for tomatoes are minimized at each stage of the supply chain.

The commodity specific guidelines are available for leafy greens, tomatoes and melons. Guidance, however, does not mean responsibility. That’s up to industry, and it begins on the farm.


K-State food safety types contribute to new book on causes, solutions to produce contamination

Anyone can bitch. My colleagues and I try to provide solutions.

So Ben, Casey and I jumped at the chance to write the concluding chapter  for a new book, "The Produce Contamination Problem: Causes and Solutions," slated for release July 15 from Academic Press.

"We should eat fresh produce because it’s good for us, but it’s also a significant cause of foodborne illness," said Doug Powell, an associate professor of food safety at Kansas State University.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that when leafy vegetables are counted with fruits and nuts, they account for the majority of foodborne disease outbreaks in 2006. Together, these types of produce are blamed for 33 percent of outbreaks. In comparison, poultry was the culprit of 21 percent of outbreaks that year.

One of the main things the authors convey is that the tomato grown in your home garden is as likely to make you sick as is the tomato purchased at a big-box grocery store or discount chain.

"Everyone is big on their local garden, but it’s no different whether I have a thousand acres or a little plot in my backyard," Powell said. "You have to keep dog, cat and bird poop out of the product you eat."

Although factory farms often take the blame for outbreaks, Powell points out that the contaminated spinach circulating in 2006 came from a farm with a 70-head cattle operation.

"It was nothing near to being a factory farm, but cattle were kept next to the spinach," he said.

"With produce, anything that comes in contact with it has the potential to contaminate, whether it’s people’s hands, irrigation water or manure.”

The authors suggest that changes in food safety practices have to begin with producers.

"Other than asking questions about food safety practices, there isn’t much consumers can do," Powell said. "Contamination has to be prevented on the farm."

FDA chief focuses on produce safety

Dr. Margaret Hamburg, the new chief of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said a couple of weeks ago she was going to focus on preventing contamination of fresh fruit and vegetables.

That’s good, because this year has brought a new crop of unrealistic expectations about the microbial safety of fresh produce, created primarily by the largest producer of fresh produce, California.

While the industry is busy blowing itself over the steps it finally took after the 29th outbreak involving leafy greens, a cone of silence has apparently fallen over any outbreak involving fresh produce. How hard is it to traceback lettuce? Apparently that depends on who wants to know the answer.

Meanwhile, a bunch of Taco Bell franchisees won damages from their insurance company over a 2006 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak involving California bagged lettuce when the judge ruled that the lettuce should be considered an ingredient, which would be covered by the policy, instead of a product, which would not be covered.

The Onion, in this satirical-but-a-little-to-close-to-reality piece, has the perfect solution for Taco Bell.

Taco Bell’s New Green Menu Takes No Ingredients From Nature

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.


Outstanding achievement in the leafy greens field of excellence

There must be awards for everything.

Whenever a university or company talks about recreating itself to be more excellent, I’m reminded of Homer Simpson winning the First Annual Montgomery Burns Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence.

Homer is awarded $2,000 and agrees to loan the money to his bitter half-brother, Herb Powell (no relation) who becomes rich again by making a machine to translate a baby’s babbling into actual English. Amy figures she’s already mastered the sounds of baby Sorenne and can differentiate the cries for “I need to be fed” and “I just had a huge dump.”

With that in mind, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was honored yesterday with the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement “Golden Checkmark” Award for his leadership and support of mandatory government inspection of food safety systems within the produce industry. 

Joe Pezzini, a leafy greens farmer and chairman of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement Board said that with the creation of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, a system is now in place which involves mandatory government inspections to ensure food safety practices are being followed by California leafy greens farmers.  Since the LGMA’s inception in April 2007 nearly 1,000 audits of California leafy greens farms have been conducted by government inspectors. 

The same government inspectors that visited Peanut Corporation of America in Georgia? Or William Tudor’s butcher shop in Wales?

I thought it was the producer’s job to provide a safe product, not the babysitter’s.


Recalled lettuce grown in Salinas Valley?

The Monterey County Herald is reporting tonight that two of the three lettuces in a Dole bagged salad mix recalled this week were grown in the Salinas Valley. If confirmed, it means that whatever shreds of credibility the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement had will vanish.

As it should.

Top-down approaches rarely work and require a lot of muscle to succeed — and that isn’t going to happen in the reality of competing government resources.

Politicos like Senator Tom Harkin or Congresswoman Rosa L. DeLauro (Conn.-3), and lobhyists like the Center for Science in the Public Interest can chatter all they want inside the Beltway but that isn’t going to matter much in America’s salad bowl. Especially on the farms, where E. coli O157:H7 contamination invariably begins.

Any hope that the safety of leafy greens will improve after 29 outbreaks over the past 15 years has nothing to do with calls for government inspections, new technology, or even pledges by growers to be extra super special careful. It can be found in the final report on the fall 2006 outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in spinach (http://www.DHS.ca.gov), which sickened 205 and killed three

The first line of defense is the farm, not the consumer. Since 1998, American consumers have been told to FightBac, that is to fight the dangerous bacteria and virus and parasites found in a variety of foods, by cooking, cleaning, chilling and separating their food. Solid advice, but limited.

(Coincidentally, the FightBac folks were today congratulating themselves back in the Beltway on their consumer messaging — yet, produce peanut butter and pet food are not consumer issues, just like the lettuce today.)

Fresh fruits and vegetables are good for us; we should eat more. Yet fresh fruits and vegetables are one of, if not the most significant source of foodborne illness today in North America. Because fresh produce is just that – fresh, and not cooked — anything that comes into contact is a possible source of contamination. Every mouthful of fresh produce is an act of faith — especially faith in the growers — because once that E. coli O157:H7 or Salmonella gets on, or inside, spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, sprouts or melons, it is exceedingly difficult to remove.

In 2004, Salmonella-contaminated Roma tomatoes used in prepared sandwiches sold at Sheetz convenience stores throughout Pennsylvania sickened over 400 consumers. The FightBac folks told the public that, "In all cases, the first line of defense to reduce risk of contracting foodborne illness is to cook, clean, chill and separate."

Consumers were being told that when they stop by a convenience store and grab a ready-made sandwich, they should take it apart, grab the tomato slice, wash it, and reassemble the sandwich.
Which would have done nothing to remove the Salmonella inside the tomatoes. The fall 2006 outbreaks finally focused the buying public on the farm. Top-down approaches like audits and marketing agreements may appease worried buyers but do little to foster a culture on each and every farm that values microbiologically safe food.

The recommended best practices for growing safe produce need to be practiced every day on every farm. That was a key message out of the California report. New manuals, guidelines and plans are not required; what is essential is that farmers and their staff follow the already established good agricultural practices on a daily basis. Yes more research is important, yes there are new technologies to be utilized, but given that produce is being pooled from multiple growers at the packing shed, how can consumers be assured that every grower is doing what they say they are doing? Calls for mandatory government inspection is akin to mandatory restaurant inspection — it sets a bare minimum standard, is a snapshot in time, and has little to do with future outbreaks of food poisoning.

Rules and regulations look pretty on paper. But they are not comforting to those 76 million Americans who get sick from the food and water they consume each and every year. Instead, every grower, packer, distributor, retailer and consumer needs to adopt a culture that actually values safe food.

Top down approaches to food safety are cumbersome and ineffective.

The first company that can assure consumers they aren’t eating poop on spinach, lettuce, tomatoes and any other fresh produce, will make millions and capture markets.