BS: Academics feel the invisible hand of politicians and big agriculture

Another takedown piece on conspiracies rather than science.

I got lots of money from big ag and was never compromised in my evidence-based writings.

70 peer-reviewed papers and book chapters, not a lot, but not bad, since they get cited daily, somewhere (thanks to Amy for keeping me up to date, I admit I’m somewhat humbled but also don’t care; I know what we did).

Kate Cox and Claire Brown of The Guardian write that in a windowless conference room epidemiologist Steve Wing was frantically blacking out chunks of his own research.

Wing had been working on a study looking into the impacts of industrial-scale hog operations on health for the University of North Carolina. But the state’s Pork Council had caught wind of the research, and filed a Freedom of Information Act Request (FOIA) to gain access to his findings. “They went after Steve, asking him to turn over any documentation. They went directly to the university and got the lawyers to try and make him hand it over,” says Naeema Muhammad, one of Wing’s community partners.

I consulted on risk communication activities for the U.S. National Pork Board back in the 1990s or thereabouts. I received no money.

The others on the advisory committee were honest and devoted to their research.

Academia don’t pay much (and when it does, they find a reason to dump ya).

Me, I always spoke my mind and never felt any industry pressure – the only pressure I got was from green groups culminating in death threats taped to my lab door.

We had to involve the university cops, which was somewhat hilarious because a couple of grad students had bailed me out of jail or other situations (should be a grad student requirement).

Yes I took money. Yes we did good research that was published in peer-reviewed journals (and sometimes won awards). Yes, like my four Canadian daughters, those students have gone on to have remarkable and varying lives.

Look how young Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn are in this Stax Records clip.

Food companies, step it up: US multistate foodborne outbreaks, 2010-2014

Multistate outbreaks cause more than half of all deaths in foodborne disease outbreaks despite accounting for only a tiny fraction (3 percent) of reported outbreaks in the United States, according to a new U.S Centers for Disease Control report.

fact-sheet-vs-final-thumbnail-page-3_cropRecent outbreaks of foodborne illness linked to tainted cucumbers, ice cream and soft cheeses show the devastating consequences when food is contaminated with dangerous germs before it reaches a restaurant or home kitchen.

Highlights from the report on multistate foodborne outbreaks during 2010-2014 include:

• An average of 24 multistate outbreaks occurred each year, involving two to 37 states.

  • Salmonella accounted for the most illnesses and hospitalizations and was the cause of the three largest outbreaks, which were traced to eggs, chicken and raw ground tuna.
  • Listeria caused the most deaths, largely due to an outbreak caused by contaminated cantaloupe in 2011 that killed 33 people.
  • Imported foods accounted for 18 of the 120 reported outbreaks. Food imported from Mexico was the leading source in these outbreaks, followed by food imported from Turkey.

The report recommends that local, state, and national health agencies work closely with food industries to understand how their foods are produced and distributed to speed multistate outbreak investigations. These investigations can reveal fixable problems that resulted in food becoming contaminated and lessons learned that can help strengthen food safety.

The report highlights the need for food industries to play a larger role in improving food safety by following best practices for growing, processing, and shipping foods. In addition, food industries can help stop outbreaks and lessen their impact by keeping detailed records to allow faster tracing of foods from source to destination, by using store loyalty cards to help identify what foods made people sick, and by notifying customers of food recalls.

“Reacting to problems isn’t sufficient in today’s food system, nor is it the best way to practice public health,” Dr. Kathleen Gensheimer, director of FDA’s Coordinated Outbreak Response & Evaluation Network, said in a teleconference.

TSA4Gensheimer stressed that in the past, food safety has been focused on reacting to outbreaks, but new regulations set to take effect in 2016 will require companies to take a science-based approach to building safety controls into food production.

“Industry is a very critical partner,” she said.

For example, although it is still not clear what caused the E. coli outbreak at Chipotle, Gensheimer said on the call that the company has shared “all of their records and is working with us in any way possible to give us information about their suppliers.”

Gensheimer also said after the current investigation ends, the company expressed interest in meeting with FDA and the CDC to work out ways to prevent future outbreaks.

CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden said state-of-the-art disease tracking tools, and the introduction of gene tools, are helping to quickly track down the source of food-borne outbreaks in collaboration with state and national partners.

Frieden said disease detectives are “cracking the cases much more frequently than in past years because we have this new DNA fingerprinting tool being used increasingly,” but many cases still go unsolved.

He said companies are also stepping up to help, noting new requirements at Wal-Mart Stores Inc for food suppliers that set new control for suppliers to reduce contamination and the wholesaler’s Costco’s use of membership card lists to notify customers about recalled foods.

The leading causes of multistate outbreaks – Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria – are more dangerous than the leading causes of single-state outbreaks. These three germs, which cause 91 percent of multistate outbreaks, can contaminate widely distributed foods, such as vegetables, beef, chicken and fresh fruits, and end up sickening people in many states. 

“Americans should not have to worry about getting sick from the food they eat,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. “Top-notch epidemiology and new gene sequencing tools are helping us quickly track down the source of foodborne outbreaks – and together with our national partners we are working with the food industry to prevent them from happening in the first place.”

Introduction: Millions of U.S. residents become ill from foodborne pathogens each year. Most foodborne outbreaks occur among small groups of persons in a localized area. However, because many foods are distributed widely and rapidly, and because detection methods have improved, outbreaks that occur in multiple states and that even span the entire country are being recognized with increasing frequency.

Methods: This report analyzes data from CDC’s Foodborne Disease Outbreak Surveillance System to describe multistate foodborne outbreaks that occurred in the United States during 2010–2014.

Results: During this 5-year period, 120 multistate foodborne disease outbreaks (with identified pathogen and food or common setting) were reported to CDC. These multistate outbreaks accounted for 3% (120 of 4,163) of all reported foodborne outbreaks, but were responsible for 11% (7,929 of 71,747) of illnesses, 34% (1,460 of 4,247) of hospitalizations, and 56% (66 of 118) of deaths associated with foodborne outbreaks. Salmonella (63 outbreaks), Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (34), and Listeria monocytogenes (12) were the leading pathogens. Fruits (17), vegetable row crops (15), beef (13), sprouts (10), and seeded vegetables (nine) were the most commonly implicated foods. Traceback investigations to identify the food origin were conducted for 87 outbreaks, of which 55 led to a product recall. Imported foods were linked to 18 multistate outbreaks.

Conclusions: Multistate foodborne disease outbreaks account for a disproportionate number of outbreak-associated illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths relative to their occurrence. Working together, food industries and public health departments and agencies can develop and implement more effective ways to identify and to trace contaminated foods linked to multistate outbreaks. Lessons learned during outbreak investigations can help improve food safety practices and regulations, and might prevent future outbreaks.

MMWR November 3, 2015 / 64(Early Release);1-5

Samuel J. Crowe, PhD1,2; Barbara E. Mahon, MD2; Antonio R. Vieira, PhD2; L. Hannah Gould, PhD


After Listeria, Jeni’s Splendid founder calls for more industry self-regulation

From the duh files.

Listeria contamination last spring at Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams taught company founder Jeni Britton Bauer one lesson: The food industry can’t rely solely on state and federal inspectors to protect consumers.

listeria4The industry also needs to take an active role.

“What has to change is how businesses view our responsibilities,” Bauer said Thursday during what was billed as a “true confessions” talk at Lowcountry Local First’s Good Business Summit in Charleston.

“Do we rely on their periodics (inspections)? Do we rely on our health inspectors any more?” Bauer said. “Absolutely no. Because we know that they are not experts in food safety, they are experts in the law and those are totally different things.

 “The responsibility is on business … to make healthy things, to keep people healthy.”

What Bauer didn’t know at the time, she said, was that the FDA had known about the Listeria problem long before it went public.

“They knew about it for like three weeks, crazy, before it ever got to us, which is very weird,” Bauer said.

FDA spokeswoman Lauren Sucher said she could not immediately verify if that timeline was accurate. The Nebraska Department of Agriculture is the agency that discovered the contamination and officials from that agency have declined to say when the sample was collected.

Been there. Done that.

Audits and inspections are never enough: A critique to enhance food safety


Food Control

D.A. Powell, S. Erdozain, C. Dodd, R. Costa, K. Morley, B.J. Chapman


Internal and external food safety audits are conducted to assess the safety and quality of food including on-farm production, manufacturing practices, sanitation, and hygiene. Some auditors are direct stakeholders that are employed by food establishments to conduct internal audits, while other auditors may represent the interests of a second-party purchaser or a third-party auditing agency. Some buyers conduct their own audits or additional testing, while some buyers trust the results of third-party audits or inspections. Third-party auditors, however, use various food safety audit standards and most do not have a vested interest in the products being sold. Audits are conducted under a proprietary standard, while food safety inspections are generally conducted within a legal framework. There have been many foodborne illness outbreaks linked to food processors that have passed third-party audits and inspections, raising questions about the utility of both. Supporters argue third-party audits are a way to ensure food safety in an era of dwindling economic resources. Critics contend that while external audits and inspections can be a valuable tool to help ensure safe food, such activities represent only a snapshot in time. This paper identifies limitations of food safety inspections and audits and provides recommendations for strengthening the system, based on developing a strong food safety culture, including risk-based verification steps, throughout the food safety system.

FDA can’t afford new food-safety law; wants industry to pay

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it is having difficulty implementing expansive new rules to improve food safety, nearly two years after President Barack Obama signed them into law.

Reuters reports that FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg predicted yesterday that her agency “very soon” will issue new regulations needed to enforce the Food
Safety Modernization Act, a sweeping law enacted to upgrade the security of the U.S. food supply after a deadly salmonella outbreak in 2009.

Hamburg called on private industry to help finance the law’s provisions. The FDA regulates about 80 percent of the U.S. food supply. The Department of Agriculture oversees meat and poultry.

Provincial law in Canada to ban information on farm-based disease outbreaks

When someone asks, What’s wrong with Kansas, I reply with, What’s wrong with Canada?

My journalism friends have long complained that the flow of information about public health – public anything – is a tinkle in Canada compared to other places.

According to a report in The Province, British Columbia’s Liberal government is poised to further choke off the flow of public information, this time with respect to disease outbreaks.

The Animal Health Act, expected to be passed into law by month’s end, expressly over-rides B.C.’s Freedom of Information Act, duct-taping shut the mouths of any citizens – or journalists – who would publicly identify the location of an outbreak of agriculture-related disease such as bird flu.

"A person must refuse, despite the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, to disclose . . . information that would reveal that a notifiable or reportable disease is or may be present in a specific place or on or in a specific vehicle," Section 16 of the Act reads.

It is quite conceivable that the provincial government, in the event of a disease outbreak at a farm, would delay releasing a warning in order to protect the farm in question or the industry it’s part of.

In that event, should you as a citizen hear about the outbreak, or if you were an employee at an affected farm, you would be breaking the law by speaking publicly about it or bringing concerns to the media.

Will the law also apply to farms identified as sources of foodborne illness, like tomatoes from a B.C. greenhouse, or BSE traced to a B.C. farm, or stupidity traced to a government bureaucrat who lives on a farm?

The proposed law will probably have no practical effect because there is no animal disease or foodborne illness traced to B.C. farms; it’s all imported.

Canada, where complacency rules.

New egg safety plans unveiled by industry and government

Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports exclusively this morning that egg producers and government regulators are separately taking steps to improve egg safety in the wake of a nationwide salmonella outbreak that was tied to farms in Iowa.

Producers "want nothing else to happen like what happened in Iowa," said Howard Magwire, vice president of government relations for the United Egg Producers. The trade group is developing safety standards for the industry that would go beyond federal regulations.

Good. Because government sets minimal standards that repeatedly cannot even catch the food safety outliers. Consumers, the ones who buy eggs, and producers, the ones who sell eggs and all suffer during an outbreak, deserve better, and the best way to do that is take charge and stop waiting for Godot or government.

The United Egg Producers is developing industry standards that will mirror the agency’s production rules and go a step further by requiring participating producers to vaccinate all hens against salmonella. Because of contamination that the food agency found in feed at one of the Iowa operations, the producers’ group also is considering writing sanitation standards for feed mills, Magwire said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has announced plans to inspect every major farm in the nation, starting with operations that have had past trouble with government officials, and it is working on coordinating oversight with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Sixteen inspections had been carried out by midmonth. The agency expects to conduct about 600 inspections in the next 14 months.

Meanwhile, the USDA and FDA have given themselves until Nov. 30 to come up with a plan for training employees to spot food-safety problems, according to a Sept. 15 letter. "It is imperative that field employees are properly educated as to these responsibilities," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack wrote in the letter. Vilsack told The Des Moines Register that the food agency will train USDA egg inspectors to spot problems on egg farms.

About time.

Industry speaks: Restaurant letter grades are misleading

Rich Stytzer, state board member and immediate past president of the Westchester/Rockland Chapter of the New York Restaurant Association and vice president of Antun’s of Westchester Catering in Elmsford made the following points in Westfair Online. My comments follow.

“The New York State Restaurant Association (NYSRA) and its members believe food safety is of the utmost importance and take steps every day to educate members and workers about proper food handling techniques. NYSRA holds ServSafe training classes throughout the state to educate members, offers products and materials to train employees and has even lobbied in favor of mandatory foodhandler certifications to better protect its members, the industry and the customers.”

ServSafe is nice but does it really work? Is it as effective as those signs that say, ‘Employees Must Wash Hands?’ And if the industry wanted mandatory foodhandler certifications, it would already exist – for everyone, not just a manager.

“NYSRA’s concerns about this letter-grading legislation lie with the assumption that letter grades are associated with improved compliance by restaurants and will lead to a decline in foodborne illness.”

Those assumptions are full of holes. That’s why I argue restaurant inspection disclosure is really about improving the microbial food safety culture and awareness among patrons and staff. Citizens also have a right to information collected through the tax dollars.

“NYSRA believes educating operators, rather than fining or publicly humiliating them, is a better course of action.”

How, where and when will this ‘better education’ happen?

“The idea of using letter grades for restaurant inspections is not widely accepted as a means to improve cleanliness or as an inspection method at all. In 1993, the Food and Drug Administration removed scoring from the model food code citing problems with the system.”

No one said letter grades is an inspection method, and if they did, they were wrong. Grades are a tool to promote food safety issues and awareness.

“As recently as 2008, the FDA was asking for research to evaluate and assess scoring methodologies. The national trend among the majority of public health professionals generally has been to avoid the use of scores or grades, which are considered to be misleading and inaccurate.”

We’ve been doing the research. Got a reference for that statement about the majority of public health types, or are you just speaking on their behalf?

“In a 2004 study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it was concluded after studying more than 167,000 restaurant inspection reports, that there was no difference in average letter grades given to restaurants experiencing outbreaks compared to those that were not.”

Like any study, there were limitations. Restaurant inspection disclosure is about enhancing the food safety conversation throughout the public and with food service staff. Our own research (in press) has found embarrassment to be a powerful motivator among restaurant managers.

For those still wondering, here’s a review paper discussing the pros and cons of disclosure systems.

Filion, K. and Powell, D.A. 2009. The use of restaurant inspection disclosure systems as a means of communicating food safety information. Journal of Foodservice 20: 287-297.

Abstract??The World Health Organization estimates that up to 30% of individuals in developed countries become ill from food or water each year. Up to 70% of these illnesses are estimated to be linked to food prepared at foodservice establishments. Consumer confidence in the safety of food prepared in restaurants is fragile, varying significantly from year to year, with many consumers attributing foodborne illness to foodservice. One of the key drivers of restaurant choice is consumer perception of the hygiene of a restaurant. Restaurant hygiene information is something consumers desire, and when available, may use to make dining decisions.

FDA takes action on Salmonella in pistachios

Salmonella has been detected in two of the 200 environmental tests of the California processing plant operated by Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella, Inc. that has already recalled 2 million pounds of potentially contaminated pistachios, the New York Times reported yesterday.

Additionally, a joint inspection of Setton’s plant by the FDA and the California Department of Public Health found that Setton employees often used the same transport bins, conveyors and packing machines for both raw and roasted pistachios. Kraft suggested last week—after issuing their own recall—that cross-contamination between raw and roasted nuts could have been the issue.

On Monday Setton expanded its recall to include all lots of roasted in-shell pistachios and roasted shelled pistachios that were produced from nuts harvested in 2008.

FDA officials told the NY Times that the agency’s interim head, Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, hoped to avoid some of the problems associated with the ongoing Peanut Corp. recalls and started conference calls over the weekend with as many as 40 agency officials conversing about the appropriate next steps.

“The food industry needs to be on notice that FDA is going to be much more proactive and move things far faster,” said Dr. David Acheson, associate commissioner for foods at the Food and Drug Administration. “We’re going to try to stop people from getting sick in the first place, as opposed to waiting until we have illness and death before we take action.”

That, of course, sounds like an excellent plan.

Swift action, though, means taking some broad precautionary steps that many in the pistachio industry have already expressed concern over. They don’t want the mistakes of one company to reflect badly on all of them. FDA, impressively, is trying to be mindful of that and is pointing interested consumers to a list industry organizations have constructed of products that are not linked to the Setton recall.

This proactive mindset, coupled with attention to industry concerns, is actually reminiscent of the FDA’s approach to the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak last summer. But no one appreciated it then.

If the FDA can continue to dialogue with members of the food industry—including whistle-blowers like Kraft and concerned pistachio growers—and clearly communicate its plans to consumers, it may have a terrific shot at salvaging its reputation as an agency committed to the health of consumers and supportive of the success of food producers with the same commitment.

It might also be able to reduce the number of people that get sick from food. That would be most appreciated.