E. coli in lettuce: Spongebob containment dome silencing public communications

New developments in the Freshway Foods romaine lettuce E. coli O145 outbreak:

1. Why the corporate finance dude shouldn’t be the public spokesthingy.

Freshway Foods recalled romaine lettuce products sold for food service outlets, wholesale, and in-store retail salad bars and delis last week after links with over 50 sick people in Ohio, Michigan and New York were established.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said that multiple lines of evidence implicated shredded romaine lettuce from one processing facility as a source of infections in a multistate outbreak to which this recall may be related.

“The evidence includes preliminary results of product traceback investigations that indicate:
• the shredded romaine lettuce consumed by ill persons in three states originated from one processing facility;
• preliminary results of a case-control study in one state that found a statistically significant association between E. coli O145 infection;
• ingestion of lettuce from the same processing facility; and,
• recovery of E. coli O145 from an unopened package of shredded romaine lettuce from the same processing facility that was obtained from a food service entity associated with the outbreak.”

To which Freshway Foods vp of finance Devon Beer told The Packer,

“It’s really a precautionary step.”

No. It’s an outbreak and a public health step. At what point did FDA abandon epidemiology and require positive test results in an unopened package? How long were people eating potentially contaminated romaine lettuce at salad bars while regulators assembled sufficient evidence? What is the FDA policy on going public? (It doesn’t exist, at least not in any public form.) The six confirmed and suspected cases amongst students in New York’s Wappinger Central School District who came down with E. coli in April may want to know. And the lettuce they were served in the school cafeteria tested positive.

2. The suspect lettuce was grown in Yuma, Arizona

It was announced Friday that federal investigators were looking at a farm in Yuma, Ariz., as a possible source of the suspect romaine lettuce.

3. Look for pathogens and they will be found

In the wake of the E. coli O145 outbreak in romaine lettuce, a laboratory in Ohio started testing bags of romaine and found another E. coli which lead to a very private recall on Friday.

Misti Crane of the Columbus Dispatch reported this morning that the E. coli positive (strain not identified – dp) led a California company to recall about 1,000 cartons of produce that went to two customers who then processed the lettuce before sending it on to food-service establishments.

Amy Philpott, spokeswoman for Andrew Smith Co. in Spreckels, Calif., said none of the lettuce was sold in grocery stores and that only two food processors bought the cartons.

She said she didn’t know the names of those customers and did not know whether Freshway Foods in Sidney, Ohio, was one of them.

Ohio Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Kaleigh Frazier said the test was on an unopened bag of Freshway romaine shredded lettuce with a sell-by date of May 10, and her department is sending the sample on to federal officials for further testing.

Andrew Smith issued the recall privately on May 7 for lettuce that was shipped in mid-April, she said.

4. Our stuff is safe

As with the spinach outbreak of 2006, other regions are quick to proclaim the safety of their products, even in the absence of any data.

New Jersey State Agriculture Secretary Douglas Fisher said Friday that fresh romaine lettuce from New Jersey is safe.

"It certainly is an unfortunate coincidence of timing that this recall is occurring just as our farmers’ fresh romaine is coming into the market, but there is no connection between the two."

OK, but why not use the opportunity to explain the food safety steps taken by NJ lettuce growers to ensure microbiologically safe food, rather than saying we have a task force.

5. Blame consumers

Bob LaMendola of the Florida Sun Sentinel writes the E. coli is deadly but preventable by keeping raw meat separate from other foods, cooking meat to 165F, washing produce and hands vigorously.

This has nothing to do with romaine lettuce at salad bars.

After the 2006 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak linked to California spinach, the 29th outbreak linked to leafy greens and after years of warning from FDA, California growers formed the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, which is supposed to have food safety performance standards. Yet the most noticeable achievement since the Agreement has been the containment cone of silence that has descended upon outbreaks involving leafy greens, and an apparent shift in FDA policy that sets epidemiology aside and requires positive samples in unopened product – a ridiculous standard since no one routinely tests for other Shiga-toxin producing E. coli like O145.

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Eating Well bonus question: how best to improve food safety

What is the single most important thing that can be done (by food growers, producers, government, consumers – any, or all of the above) to improve food safety in the United States? (bios in previous post)

Tsai: It’s tried and true for a reason: wash your hands. And, in any language, say the ABC’s twice while you’re doing it. Also, when you leave a bathroom, use a paper towel to turn the handle, and use your foot to keep the door open while you throw the towel away.

Marler: Prepare food, from farm to fork, like you were preparing it for your 4-year-old child. Do it safely.

Kender: Education! There are numerous websites (even YouTube) and informational brochures, such as Fight Bac, that are specific on the topic of food safety. Clueing in the average consumer may be as simple as teaming up with your local grocer to display a series of food safety messages on the flat-screen televisions at the prepared foods and deli counters.

Vergili: Shorten the food chain. The foodborne outbreaks of recent years—when you consider the large number of victims and their wide geographical distribution—point toward buying local as a possible solution. In the case of the 2006 outbreak of E.coli in spinach, the source of the contamination was a centralized packer of leafy vegetables located in California that packages up to 80 percent of all spinach and lettuce mixes. The 2009 Salmonella outbreak that hospitalized 116 people in 46 states was the result of contamination from a single supplier of peanuts. This is not to suggest that there would be no problems if we bought local, but that they would be limited in scope.

Donnelly: We can revamp regulations and production practices in the meat and poultry industry. The numerous recent recalls and outbreaks prove that as our farms grow larger their operation becomes more unsafe. The dangers posed by Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, agricultural facilities that house and feed a large number of animals in a confined area, or CAFOs, are many: animals in these operations harbor antibiotic-resistant pathogens, and runoff from these facilities has been implicated as a source of contamination in produce outbreaks. With regard to the environment, we have yet to define regulations which look at CAFOs’ handling of waste and runoff, and the long-term environmental impact when the “farms” cease to operate.

Rosenbaum: You cannot improve food safety in the United States without knowing exactly what is making people sick. Only 4 to 6 percent of those who fall ill from foodborne pathogens find out what caused their illness. The government must ramp up funding on a national and state level to improve the surveillance and diagnosis of foodborne illnesses. And consumers—when they suspect foodborne illness—need to seek medical care and demand answers and lab culture tests.

Nestle: We don’t have a food safety system in this country, so step one would be to create one. Combining the current food safety features of the USDA and the FDA, this food agency would oversee the production of all foods with science-based food safety procedures. This would include, most notably, pathogen reduction and HAACP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point, a system that predicts possible problems in the flow of production and takes steps to prevent them from occurring).

Donnelly: We need to hold all producers and manufacturers to Safe Quality Foods (SQF) certification standards. SQF certification is an HAACP-based (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) system that manages food-safety risk instead of reacting to it, essentially foreseeing and taking steps to prevent future problems.

Powell:  Be the bug. Think about where dangerous bugs originate and how best to control them, whether it’s dangerous E. coli in a spinach field, Salmonella carried by birds or rodents that contaminate peanuts after they’ve been roasted, or the pathogens on hands that can be transferred to fresh foods at a restaurant.

More Canadian listeria reports; more bureaucratic BS

The bureaucrats have been busy.

Three more Canadian government studies on the listeria outbreak of 2008
which killed 21 were quietly posted Friday afternoon while the House of Commons was adjourned – what the Canadian Press called a traditional dumping ground for news the government wants to bury.

The Public Health Agency of Canada, Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency each released their Lessons Learned Report today, following a thorough review of the steps taken during last year’s tragic listeriosis outbreak.

Despite the fact that Canada has one of the best food safety systems in the world, and that outbreaks like the one in the summer of 2008 are extremely rare, it was clear that further improvements were needed.

Who writes this shit?

I already read one government report today and wanted to gouge my eyes out. I’ll need to spread these out over the weekend with viewings of old movies which make me feel secure and happy, like Monty Python and the Holy Grail which is playing right now.

Some early highlights from media coverage:

Despite having an emergency response protocol, the CFIA never did activate an emergency operations centre as laid out it the plan. Still, the report concludes: "In general, the CFIA exercised its inspection and other statutory powers during the recall process."

The CFIA report first congratulates federal agencies on their "timely and appropriate exchange of information."

But under the heading "Areas for Improvement," the report states that timely determination of an outbreak and timely notification of the public require "additional clarity at provincial and federal levels … as to protocols and leadership roles."

Conservative Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz was the lead government spokesman during the crisis, and came under fire for making a tasteless joke about "death of a thousand cold cuts" during one internal conference call.

Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett said she can’t understand why Ritz was given the role of communicating to concerned Canadians.

"It seems that there was interference, political interference, in what was clearly a public health outbreak that should have been managed by public health officials and done in a clear communication with the people of Canada.”