Doyle was ready to take FSIS job; finances got in the way

U.S. President Obama has been big on the food safety rhetoric but short on actions.

Sounds familiar.

I don’t expect much from government – providing safe food is the responsibility of producers and everyone from farm-to-fork, government is there to set a minimal standard – so I’m rarely disappointed. Like I tell Amy, the lower you set your expectations of me, the less likely you are to be disappointed.

Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post reports this morning the Obama administration has had a difficult time filling the post of chief food safety official at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and it wasn’t until this week — one year into his term — that the president nominated someone to assume that role.

Elisabeth Hagen, 40, a physician with four years’ experience in food safety, was not the first choice. Most of her career has been spent teaching and practicing medicine as an infectious disease specialist. She left medicine in 2006 and went to the USDA, where she was quickly promoted through the ranks of the department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service to become the chief medical officer last year.

Layton reports that last February, the administration approached Mike Doyle, a nationally known microbiologist who directs the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia. Doyle said he was offered the job and was vetted, but the day before the announcement was to be made in May, his nomination collapsed.

The White House wanted Doyle to divest his financial interest in a patented microbial wash for meat that he had developed. Doyle offered to defer his interests until his government service was completed but the administration refused, he said.

"It’s just an awful lot to ask for. I would have taken a more than 50 percent pay cut to go to Washington, and this would have been a very big financial hit."

The administration also sought out Caroline Smith Dewaal, the director of food safety at Center for Science in the Public Interest, but Dewaal’s nomination came to a halt in August because she was a registered lobbyist, which violated the administration’s policy against hiring lobbyists.

The Administration didn’t know that before?

Doyle did add this of Hagen:

"I don’t know of her personally. She’s got a steep learning curve."

Washington Post: A reasonable and rational discussion of microbial food safety

Tomorrow’s Washington Post has a food safety feature with some relevant history and reminders that get lost in the vitriol of activist politics. Excerpts (some will say cherry picking, go read the article yourself) below.

Arthur Allen, a Washington writer and the author of "Ripe: The Search for the Perfect Tomato" (March 2010, Counterpoint), writes that whatever our politics, we increasingly eat from a communal kitchen.

“The increasing number of front-page outbreaks and the high-profile critiques of the food system by such writers as Michael Pollan ("The Omnivore’s Dilemma") and Eric Schlosser ("Fast Food Nation") can give the impression that the U.S. food supply is spiraling out of control. But is Americans’ food, in fact, more dangerous that it was in the day of home-cooked meals? People who have studied the numbers aren’t convinced. …

“In the mid-1990s, the CDC began bolstering its surveillance of food-borne illness. One result was the ability to measure whether food was becoming more or less safe. Between 1998 and 2004, illnesses reported by CDC that were caused by E. Coli, listeria, campylobacter and a few other bacteria decreased by 25 to 30 percent, perhaps because of improvements in the handling of meat and eggs. Since about 2004, however, the rate of these illnesses has basically remained steady.”

John Glenn Morris, director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida at Gainesville, said,

"It’s an ongoing problem, and consumers need to use reasonable caution in terms of food preparation. But it’s not a ‘go screaming down the hall the world is coming to an end’ kind of thing."

Based on its evolutionary tree, scientists think that O157:H7 probably has existed for hundreds or even thousands of years. But it hadn’t been noticed in our food supply until 1982, when a small-town doctor in Oregon reported to the CDC that he’d seen a group of patients with bloody diarrhea. Another group got sick with the same symptoms in Michigan a little later. All had eaten hamburgers at McDonald’s, said Michael Doyle, director of the Food Safety Center at the University of Georgia (left, exactly as shown).

McDonald’s hired Doyle to help fix the problem, and he told company officials that one way to be sure to kill O157:H7 was by heating their hamburgers to at least 155 degrees. McDonald’s officials grumbled that they would lose customers, but they did what he told them, Doyle says. At the time, FDA guidelines recommended heating to 140 degrees.

Most other hamburger chains kept cooking at lower temperatures in order to produce juicier burgers that attracted customers who didn’t like the "hockey pucks" being served at McDonald’s. That continued until 1993, when Jack-in-the-Box reaped the consequences of looking the other way — crippling lawsuits, bankruptcy, $160 million in losses.

But the O157:H7 seems to be out of the barn — and into the pasture. … studies have shown that "natural," grass-fed cattle are now also likely to carry it. In the Earthbound Farm case, genetic fingerprinting indicated that the spinach had been contaminated with bacteria carried by cattle that ranged on land nearby.

Centralization doesn’t necessarily mean less-safe food. A well-run centralized industry is arguably easier to police and control than a more decentralized one. For example, a handful of companies produce most of the 12 million tons of tomato paste that makes its way into pizza and spaghetti sauces, ketchup, salsas and other products. This industry’s record is very clean, in terms of contamination.

Should fruits and vegetables be cleaned with bottled washes? No

I’ve already posted on some of the dubious marketing and safety claims that accompanied the original Fit produce wash before it was abandoned by Procter & Gamble in 2001.

On Monday, the Los Angeles Times takes a look at produce washes out there – such as Veggie Wash, Fit Fruit and Vegetable Wash, Bi-O-Kleen Produce Wash, Earth Friendly Products Fruit & Vegetable Wash and Eat Cleaner All Natural Food Wash and Wipes — and concludes water is just fine.

Sandra McCurdy, extension food safety specialist in the School of Family and Consumer Sciences at the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho, says that most produce is pathogen-free because it’s been washed during processing and because handlers take steps to avoid contaminating the fruits and vegetables they stock in the produce aisle. But if it is not, a thorough rinse under water is usually all that’s needed to remove most pathogens.

Michael Doyle (left), professor and director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia in Griffin, Ga. (Doyle developed an antimicrobial technology that was licensed earlier this year by the makers of Fit produce wash.) said,

"If the bacteria get into the tissue during processing, it’s too late, it’s trapped in the tissue.”

As for pesticides, there’s little scientific evidence to support claims that washes do a better job than water when it comes to removing them, says Anne Riederer, a professor of environmental and occupational health at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga.

Mike Doyle unfairly slammed by wannabe foodies

I don’t really know Mike Doyle, other than the brief chats we have at meetings where our paths cross a couple of times a year and talk about our kids’ hockey-playing ambitions, or the time Amy and I ran into Mike and his wife at the local Orlando supermarket in 2006 cause I guess we were all too cheap to buy hotel food and went to stock up.

I have no idea if Doyle, the Director of the Center For Food Safety at the University of Georgia, is even interested in the job of director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (although I know others who have had the job and it’s not a dream posting) but his name is getting slogged through the mud that is the Intertubes in a manner that does nothing but confirm that journalism shouldn’t be dead just yet. Sometimes it’s important to check things.

Obama Foodorama, a blog apparently set up to fascinate on all things foodie about the new President, says that,

“Dr. Mike Doyle is Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack’s leading contender to head USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. … Those in the know on the pick say the choice of Doyle is a step backward for Sec. Vilsack, who has so far put together a swell team at USDA. … The word "shill" has been used frequently in e mails about Doyle.”

If shill means talking straight about microbial food safety, sign me up.

“How invested is Doyle in the economics of food safety? He actually holds patents on a number of microbiological solutions for disease outbreaks.”

Uhm, professors are supposed to get outside funding. And patents. And speak their mind in a way that can be validated. Doyle has published about 500 peer-reviewed journal articles, which is 500 more than any of his critics

I don’t really know the dude, but I know Doyle’s consistent on food safety.

Source unknown in Salmonella outbreak

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control says today it has not activated any emergency group and has not identified any food source in an outbreak of Salmonella Typhimurium that has been lab-confirmed in 388 cases in 42 states.

Apparently, that is driving Connecticut congresswoman Rosa DeLauro nuts, cause she said,

"Any delays in these critical investigations can sicken more people.”

Michael Doyle, director of the University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety, sets things straight, noting that foodborne illness investigations can be very complicated, and it can take weeks or months for health officials to interview patients, find common links in what they ate, test suspected foods and come up with a clear-cut cause.

"There’s a lot more to this than meets the eye.”

There is. And at some point, politicians like DeLauro may pack away the posturing and provide some support for public health folks trying to do their jobs.