This bizarre information came from a single document released on Oct. 17 by the consumer marketing arm of a company called Clear Labs, which had found traces of human DNA in 2 percent of the products sampled.
Even so, an executive at the company interviewed last week was unapologetic about the attention-grabbing finding.
“Its pretty unlikely that the human DNA piece is actually harmful to consumer health,” said Mahni Ghorashi, a Clear Labs founder. “We consider it more of a hygienic issue that degrades the quality of the food.”
Snopes, the rumor-debunking site, was rather more harsh, labeling the information “unproven.”
Consumers should brace themselves for more buzzworthy headlines as genome sequencing gets cheaper and Silicon Valley companies like Clear Labs, Beyond Meat and Soylent try to disrupt eating itself.
The Clear Labs story was an effort to bring marketing attention to the company’s use of gene-sequencing technology, first pioneered by the Human Genome Project. Looking at regions of the genome called bar code regions, the company identifies traces of animal species in food samples, including those that are not supposed to be there. The Hot Dog Report did contain significant findings, notably that pork had been substituted for chicken and turkey in 3 percent of samples, and that 10 percent of vegetarian products contained real meat.
But it was the human DNA detail that took off on social media.
The focus on marketing by food start-ups should not be surprising. While the technology is getting faster and cheaper, start-ups still have to attract investors.
Oyster producers have agreed to test five times more oysters at federal processing plants than were being tested before an Aug. 18 recall, said Roberta Stevenson, executive director of the BC Shellfish Grower’s Association.
Most growers support the change even though many feel a large number of the illnesses that triggered the recall could have as much or more to do with improper storage and handling of oysters than with the product they are delivering to market, she said.
“It [increased testing] came about from the recall – in order to address the perception that we are not selling a safe product, we are going to ramp up the number of animals we test, per lot of product,” she said.
“We want to reassure the public and Health Canada and everybody else that we are taking this very seriously.”
But while this week’s move put frozen treats one step closer to consumers, the company said it did not yet know which stores would ultimately restock their shelves with Blue Bell flavors, or how soon.
“We’ve still got to meet with our retailers,” said Joe Robertson, Blue Bell’s advertising and public relations manager. “Retailers have been very supportive of us.”
Three people died and several others became ill after eating Blue Bell ice cream products contaminated with the listeria bacteria. A series of recalls and cleanups at the plants failed to eradicate the problem, and in April, the company voluntarily pulled all of its ice cream from store shelves.
Mr. Robertson said that the company had hired microbiologists to help review its safety procedures, and that every batch of ice cream would be tested before shipment. State officials in Alabama began collecting their own samples in late July, and cleared Blue Bell on Aug.
The Alabama plant is the only one of the company’s plants — two others are in Texas and one is in Oklahoma — that has been reopened and is producing the company’s products. Before the shutdown, the Alabama plant accounted for about 20 percent of Blue Bell’s items, Mr. Robertson said.
Blue Bell must notify the Texas Department of State Health Services two weeks before it resumes production, according to Chris Van Deusen, a spokesman for the agency.
“In FDA testing, more than 99 percent of Blue Bell products had Listeria in it,” Mike Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, told Yahoo Health. “It was incredible. It wasn’t high levels, but it was there.”
Blue Bell has said its plants have gone through extensive cleaning and decontamination, but is it enough?
Doyle says it should be. Here’s why: Blue Bell likely had to strip down all of its plant equipment, take it all apart, and fully clean and sanitize everything. That includes getting rid of biofilms, a mucus-like substance that can surround bacteria like Listeria and protect it from sanitizers that would otherwise kill it.
Once that’s completed, the equipment will be tested and re-tested, and the ice cream will be frequently checked and swabbed to make sure it’s listeria-free.
“The FDA has jurisdiction over this, and they’re going to be monitoring the whole thing,” says Doyle. “The FDA is going to be all over these Blue Bell plants for a while.”
Doyle adds that it’s actually not uncommon for Listeria to get into processing facilities, since “some soil contains listeria and it can come in on plant workers’ shoes.” However, “the key is to control it,” he says.
Unfortunately, Doyle says there’s no way of visibly telling whether your ice cream is Listeria-free — you have to trust the manufacturer.
Or they could market food safety at retail and make microbial test results public.
Under proposals to be discussed this week, shoppers could be told to avoid certain supermarkets if they continue to sell high numbers of infected chickens in an explicit bid to change consumers’ “purchasing habits.”
The highly unusual intervention is likely to provoke legal challenges from retailers if it is forced through.
Officials will also consider whether the law should be changed to make it illegal to sell highly-contaminated poultry. Shops that fail to meet new requirements might be told to cook or freeze the infected chickens to kill the bacteria before the birds go on sale.
In a document outlining the proposals, Steve Wearne, director of policy at the FSA said: “The indications are that the prevalence of campylobacter in chickens is beginning to come down.
During my brief time at IEH Laboratories (short for Institute for Environmental Health, it wasn’t a good fit for me), Mansour Samadpour asked me what the biggest food safety issue was, as we strolled through an antique shop.
Ferrières provides extensive documentation of the rules, regulations and penalties that emerged in the Mediterranean between the 12th and 16th centuries.
But rules are only as good as the enforcement that backs them up.
And increasingly, that falls to the private sector (as it should; they make the profits).
Craig Wilson, Costco’s vice president for quality assurance and food safety, told the N.Y. Times he uses government guidelines “as a minimum standard, and I always try to go above and beyond that.”
According to the Times article, Samadpour makes his way through the supermarket like a detective working a crime scene, slow, watchful, up one aisle and down the next. A clerk mistakenly assumes that he needs help, but Mr. Samadpour brushes him off. He knows exactly what he’s doing.
He buys organic raspberries that might test positive for pesticides and a fillet of wild-caught fish that might be neither wild nor the species listed on the label. He buys beef and pork ground fresh at the market. He is disappointed that there is no caviar, which might turn out to be something cheaper than sturgeon roe. That’s an easy case to crack.
On this visit, he is shopping for goods he can test at his labs to demonstrate to a reporter that what you see on market shelves may not be what you get.
While he’s out of the office, he receives a call and dispatches a team on a more pressing expedition: They need to buy various products that contain cumin, because a client just found possible evidence of peanuts, a powerful allergen, in a cumin-based spice mix. The client wants a definitive answer before someone gets sick.
Suppliers, manufacturers and markets depend on Mr. Samadpour’s network of labs to test food for inadvertent contamination and deliberate fraud, or to verify if a product is organic or free of genetically modified organisms. Consumers, the last link in the chain, bet their very health on responsible practices along the way.
Mr. Samadpour, who opened IEH’s first lab in 2001 with six employees, now employs over 1,500 people at 116 labs in the United States and Europe. He refers to his company, one of the largest of its kind in the country, as “a privately financed public health organization.”
“Ten years ago, it would have taken millions of dollars to sequence a genome,” Mr. Samadpour says. “Now it takes $100. We do thousands a year.”
Business is booming — partly because IEH clients consider testing to be a gatekeeper defense in a multitiered food economy without borders. “We’re a lot more concerned about imports,” Mr. Samadpour says, because of “lack of accountability, lack of infrastructure, lack of a culture of food safety.”
While the lab focuses primarily on safety issues like the cumin-and-peanut inquiry, there are enough fraud calls to support specialties among the lab technicians, like Kirthi Kutumbaka, referred to by his colleagues as “the emperor of fish” for his work on a seafood identification project. Once a fish is filleted, genetic testing is the only way to confirm its identity, making it a popular category for fraud.
IEH’s clients are primarily vendors who supply retailers and manufacturers, and they generally prefer to remain anonymous for fear of indicating to consumers that they have a specific worry about safety.
Costco is one of the retailers that use IEH’s services, and the company doesn’t mind talking about it.
“We have to inspect what we expect,” says Wilson, meaning that products have to live up to their labels, particularly items in Costco’s own Kirkland Signature line.
Costco has a smaller margin of error than most food retailers; the company stocks only about 3,500 so-called S.K.U.s, or stock keeping units, while most retailers offer as many as 150,000. A single misstep is a far greater percentage of the whole. That’s why, in addition to retaining IEH, it operates its own 20-person testing lab.
“We’re not typical,” Mr. Wilson says. “We have one ketchup, one mayonnaise, one can of olives, Kirkland Signature olive oils and a couple of others.” Since 2003, the United States Department of Agriculture has required the testing of beef used for ground beef, resulting in a 40 percent reduction in cases of E. coli traced to beef consumption. Costco, which processes 600,000 to 700,000 pounds of ground beef daily, does extensive micro-sampling of the meat at its California facility, Mr. Wilson says.
The company expects its suppliers to absorb testing costs and gets no resistance, given the size of the resulting orders. Costco sells 157,000 rotisserie chickens a day. As Mr. Wilson put it: “If vendors get a bill for a couple hundred bucks on a $1 million order, who cares? They don’t.”
The sheer volume also enables Costco to demand action when there is a problem. After a 2006 outbreak of E. coli tied to Earthbound Farm’s ready-to-eat bagged spinach, in which three people died and more than 200 became ill, Mr. Wilson, one of Earthbound’s customers, instituted what he calls a “bag and hold” program for all of Costco’s fresh greens suppliers. He required the suppliers to test their produce and not ship it until they had the results of the tests.
Earthbound responded to the outbreak with a “multihurdle program that places as many barriers to food-borne illness as we can,” says Gary Thomas, the company’s senior vice president for integrated supply chain. Earthbound now conducts 200,000 tests annually on its ready-to-eat greens.
Not everyone was as quick to embrace change; some growers were concerned about losing shelf life while they waited for results. Mr. Wilson was unmoved by that argument. “If you can test and verify microbial safety, what do I care if I lose shelf life?” he says.
About five years ago, Mr. Wilson decided it was time to send an employee to Tuscany to collect leaves from Tuscan olive trees. Costco now has an index of DNA information on “all the cultivars of Tuscan olive oil, about 16 different ones,” he says. “When they harvest and press, we do our DNA testing.”
Mr. Samadpour says that in multi-ingredient products, the source of trickery is usually hidden further down the food chain than the name on the package. “It’s not the top people who get involved in economic adulteration,” he says. “It’s someone lower down who sees a way to save a penny here or there. Maybe it’s 2 or 3 cents, but if you sell a million units, that’s $20,000 to $30,000.”
David Gombas, senior vice president for food safety and technology at the 111-year-old United Fresh Produce Association, echoes the position of the Food and Drug Administration: Testing is not a sufficient answer for his members, who include anyone engaged in the fresh produce industry, “from guys who come up with seeds to growers, shippers, fresh-cut processors, restaurants and grocery stores, everyone from beginning to end,” from small organic farms to Monsanto.
Their common ground, he says, is a commitment to food safety — but members disagree on how to achieve it, including Mr. Gombas and Mr. Samadpour, who are both microbiologists. “Microbiological testing provides a false sense of security,” Mr. Gombas says. “They can find one dead salmonella cell on a watermelon, but what does that tell you about the rest of the watermelon in the field? Nothing.”
Testing has its place, he says, but as backup for “good practices and environmental monitoring,” which includes things as diverse as employee hygiene and site visits. “I’m a fan of testing,” he says, “if something funny’s going on.” Otherwise, he has taken on the role of contrarian. “People think testing means something. When I say it doesn’t, they smile, nod and keep testing.”
Mr. Samadpour says sampling “can reduce the risk tremendously but can never 100 percent eliminate it,” but he will take a tremendous reduction over a food crisis any day. The government’s “indirect” stance, which mandates safety but does not require testing, allows companies to interpret safe practices on “a spectrum,” he says, “from bare minimum to sophisticated programs,” and he worries about safety at the low end of that range.
He says consumer vigilance is the best defense against the selling of groceries under bare minimum standards.
That’s all nice, but consumers have heard this before, only to be eventually disappointed. Over time, or bad economics, or both, someone will cut corners. The best producers should be marketing the authenticity of their products and make the testing to validate those claims available for public review.
Market food safety and authenticity at retail. The technology is apparently there.
On the evening of Jan. 16 at the end of the work day, the state Department of Health issued a food-recall alert, warning that anyone who had recently purchased Queseria Bendita cheese should throw it out because of a listeria outbreak. The cheesemaker had been linked to three cases of listeriosis after the
Queseria Bendita was linked to a similar outbreak five years ago, when five people were hospitalized for listeriosis in Washington and Oregon. No one died, but two pregnant women in Oregon were infected, causing premature births, Oregon health officials said at the time.
Since the most recent recall, retailers have pulled Queseria Bendita products. While the cheese shop owners maintain that investigators have not found listeria in their cheese, but only in the Third Street facility — implying their products are safe — experts say the evidence is clear.
“One of the things I’m hearing — ‘Because they didn’t find it in the cheese, it’s not from these guys’ — no, it’s not true,” said Dr. Scott Lindquist, the state communicable disease epidemiologist. “This is not a common strain, and to have three patients in the state have it, and to have it in this Queseria Bendita, is not a coincidence.”
The case of Queseria Bendita illustrates how painstakingly difficult it can be to track down a foodborne illness and efficiently notify the consuming public of the danger: Roughly six weeks passed between the reported illnesses and the recall.
And despite new food-safety laws and multiple regulatory agencies to enforce them, inspections of high-risk food manufacturers are intermittent at best. When they do take place, the inspections may be superficial and unable to detect a culprit like listeria, which is good at hiding and not easy to eradicate.
While the family-owned company is vowing to clean up and come back, trust could be hard to regain.
Several different agencies share responsibility for food safety. The Yakima Health District, for example, periodically checks Queseria Bendita’s refrigerators — not the cheese or cheese-making equipment — to make sure already-packaged products are cold enough.
The state Health Department, the first to hear about the three infected patients from medical providers, investigated the illnesses and notified the Food and Drug Administration, which took over the investigation.
The state Department of Agriculture licenses Queseria Bendita, along with 3,000 other food processors in the state, and tries to have inspectors on-site at least once a year, though there is no law requiring a certain number of visits.
Agriculture Department officials inspected the cheese shop most recently in June 2014 and November 2013, and it passed both times. Those inspections, however, are limited: Officials check that employees follow general sanitation practices and that the floors and equipment look clean.
The Agriculture Department also conducts random product sampling statewide, rotating through different food products in different weeks. Thus it may have tested Queseria Bendita cheeses in recent years, but it has no record of environmental sampling at the Yakima facility since 2010, said Kirk Robinson, assistant director of food safety and consumer services.
“Sometimes, even doing product sampling, you’re not always going to catch it at that time,” Robinson said. “You try to do the best you can.”
The FDA has jurisdiction when a company’s distribution crosses state lines, so it also inspects the food-processing side of the cheese shop. FDA guidelines say high-risk facilities — those with known safety risks and a history of foodborne illness — must be inspected at least once within the first five years of the Food Safety Modernization Act, passed by Congress in 2010, and then at least once every three years going forward. FDA did not have mandatory recall authority until passage of the act.
Records show the last time the FDA inspected Queseria Bendita was January 2011, which was within the agency’s recommended guidelines.
“They might have damaged their reputation enough that they’ll never sell again,” he said.
Based on his experience with companies of all sizes, Bill Marler, a prominent Seattle attorney who has handled foodborne illness cases for more than two decades, said he wouldn’t call Queseria Bendita a bad actor, as listeria is so difficult to control.
But, “Companies that produce food have a moral and legal responsibility to produce food that doesn’t sicken and kill its customers,” he said. “So they’re responsible for what they sell.”
“Organic is not enough,” he said Oct. 1 during the GE Capital Corporate Finance Food & Beverage Summit. “Consumers want total information, total transparency. Some people want it all.”
Yes, I want it all. Especially microbial food safety.
Instead consumers will be offered a buffett of “good,” “better,” and “best” labels that will be displayed throughout the retailer’s produce department. The labeling system is based on an index to measure the performance of products relevant to such sustainable topics as pest management, farmworker welfare, pollinator protection, water conservation and protection, soil health, ecosystems, biodiversity, waste, recycling and packaging, energy and climate – good, better and best.
“People have a hunger for more transparency,” Mr. Mackey said Oct. 1. “We have the technology to make that transparency come alive. Every product we sell has a story attached to it. People want it and we try to give it to them.”
Bring that technology alive for microbial food safety – the stuff that makes people barf.
Cattle in Michigan have been electronically tagged and tracked since 2010 in a bid to control bovine tuberculosis.
According to NPR, whenever a steer or cow leaves a farm in Michigan, or goes to a slaughterhouse, it passes by a tag reader, and its ID number goes to a central computer that keeps track of every animal’s location.
If an animal is discovered to be sick, “we can track that animal all the way back, through every herd that it’s been in, through any sale yard it’s been through, back to the farm of origin,” said Steve Halstead, Michigan’s state veterinarian.
“There’s a large number of people that would like to know where their food comes from, just understand that better,” says Daniel Buskirk, an expert on the beef industry at Michigan State University.
He’s using the university’s own herd of cattle to experiment with ways to track those animals and then make information about them available to shoppers in the store.
“This is one way that we can hopefully kind of connect the story of how this food is being produced with the consumers who are consuming it,” Buskirk says.
Last year, when 72 of the university’s steers went to the slaughterhouse, Buskirk set up a system that transferred the identity of each animal from its electronic ID tag to a new set of tags — little square bar codes.
Those bar codes were pinned to the carcass. And as butchers went to work on it, cutting it into smaller pieces, they used a little handheld device to scan that first bar code and print new ones for each new cut of meat. In this case, the meat just went to the university’s food service, not a grocery store.
But the same system eventually could produce a label that would go on a package of meat in the store. “Then if you have a smartphone,” Buskirk says, “I can scan that two-dimensional bar code, and it will give information about the origin of that beef.”
In the case of the meat that went to Michigan’s food service, it showed an aerial picture of the farm. But in theory, the label could link to any information at all. It could tell consumers “what goes on at the farm, how the animals might be cared for, how they might be fed,” Buskirk says.
Even better, microbial food safety data and interventions used to reduce the risk of dangerous pathogens.
Technology is also changing the business of restaurant inspection disclosure
Government Technology reports that a new national open data standard, called the Local Inspector Value-Entry Specification, was created. To enable any city to voluntarily share restaurant inspection scores on Yelp or other websites to make that data more transparent.
On the mobile app front, Sacramento County, Calif., and other municipalities are releasing smartphone apps that will make looking up inspection scores easier.
Launched in late 2011, the Sacramento County Food Facilities Inspections app shows a person’s current location in the county and nearby retail food facilities, which are marked on a map and on a list. The color of the markers on the map indicate the most recent food inspection result, inspection date and links to more detailed information. Food inspection data refreshes daily and is complete for all food facilities in the county, including restaurants, bars, grocery stories, convenience stores, school cafeterias and most facilities that dispense food to the public.
This isn’t surprising: produce is fresh, not cooked, so there is ample opportunity for cross-contamination and pathogen transfer, such as norovirus.
This is nothing new, and nothing to be scared of.
It means that food safety starts on the farm, and goes all the way through to the fork.
I don’t know what it is about moral outrage in the U.S. but it was rampant when we were there for the past two months and it seems like every group out there feels a higher duty to dictate to the masses.
So it was predictable when the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement said with a straight face today, that produce food safety is a “shared responsibility” and that “we believe this program is the best model for producing safe food because it establishes a culture of food safety on the farm.”
No evidence was offered to substantiate such a claim; but they got all the groovy words in their PR.
For the number of outbreaks, for the number of severely ill and dead, for the decade of inaction, you don’t get to lecture Americans about how it’s a shared responsibility.
Take care of your own stuff, admit when California leafy greens are involved in outbreaks instead of stalling and obstructing, and if you’re program is so great, publish all test results and market food safety at retail.
Otherwise, save the morality lectures and go back to growing crops, making money, and try not to make people barf.
Each year, >9 million foodborne illnesses are estimated to be caused by major pathogens acquired in the United States. Preventing these illnesses is challenging because resources are limited and linking individual illnesses to a particular food is rarely possible except during an outbreak. We developed a method of attributing illnesses to food commodities that uses data from outbreaks associated with both simple and complex foods. Using data from outbreak-associated illnesses for 1998–2008, we estimated annual US foodborne illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths attributable to each of 17 food commodities. We attributed 46% of illnesses to produce and found that more deaths were attributed to poultry than to any other commodity. To the extent that these estimates reflect the commodities causing all foodborne illness, they indicate that efforts are particularly needed to prevent contamination of produce and poultry. Methods to incorporate data from other sources are needed to improve attribution estimates for some commodities and agents.
Food safety needs to be marketed at retail, otherwise consumers have no idea what they are buying.
Hucksters and posers can gas on about how their food is natural, sustainable, local and comes from a farmer I can look in the eye, but I’d rather know the food safety program behind the fruit and veg, along with the data to verify things are working.
Few hawkers, at a market or a supermarket, can answer those questions.
Consumers are left with faith-based food safety.
That faith usually rests with buyers at supermarkets and retailers.
“The cantaloupes and honeydew melons involved in this expanded recall were sold to distributors between June 23rd and July 27th, in the following states: FL, GA, IL, KY, MA, MD, ME, MI, NC, NH, NJ, NY, OH, PA, SC, and VA, VT and WV. The melons may have further been distributed to retail stores, restaurants and food service facilities in other states."
Complete distribution details on the melons are not available, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Everyone buys it.
The Packer reports today that Listeria contamination at the Burch Farms melon packing facility in Faison, N.C., was confirmed on Aug. 13.
Company spokeswoman Teresa Burch said it has not had its cantaloupe operation audited by a third party for food safety practices, and although the company has traceability programs for other items, there is none in place for its melons.
Burch Equipment LLC, doing business as Burch Farms, originally recalled about 5,200 cantaloupes July 28 after the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Microbiological Data Program found listeria on one melon at retail during a random sampling.
The grower expanded the recall to include 188,900 cantaloupes Aug. 3 and corrected the variety from athena to caribbean golds. That expansion came after the FDA revealed it had found “unsanitary conditions” at the Burch packing shed.
Owner Jimmy Burch Sr. said he uses the sanitizer SaniDate in his packing facility’s water. According to the Burch Farms website, the operations are audited by PrimusLabs.
PrimusLabs in-house counsel Ryan Fothergill confirmed that the company has audited the leafy greens processing and field operations at Burch Farms but not the cantaloupe operation. Fothergill said Primus records show its staff was last at the Burch operation in March.
Burch said he planted only about 10 acres of honeydews for this season. The entire crop went to wholesalers. He said his farm has not had food safety issues in the past.
Of course not. Ignorance is bliss. And that’s the way growers and sellers prefer it. Market food safety at retail.