As Food Recalls Continue to Sprout, What Can a Consumer Do?
of Article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/04/06/AR2009040602586.html
April 7, 2009; Page HE03
and pistachios have much in common. Neither is a true nut: the peanut is a
legume, same as a bean or a pea, while the pistachio is a seed. Long
dismissed as high-calorie snacks, both are enjoying newfound recognition as
healthful foods, full of fiber, beneficial fats, vitamins and minerals that
make them worth including in your daily diet.
were also the subject of recent food-safety alarms. The large-scale recall
of products containing peanut-based ingredients processed by the
Georgia-based Peanut Corporation of America, which started in January, and
last week's recall of pistachios processed by Setton Pistachio in
California have highlighted the flaws (and, yes, some strengths) of the
nation's food-safety system. The circumstances surrounding those recalls,
however, have little in common.
peanut recall stemmed from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's
detection last fall of clusters of salmonella infection. It took months of
sleuthing to tie them to a tub of contaminated peanut butter in a Minnesota
nursing home and from there to PCA; months later, products containing PCA
peanuts and peanut paste are still being identified and recalled by manufacturers
who bought those ingredients. We learned in March that Nestlé USA had
conducted its own inspections and found conditions so filthy it declined to
do business with PCA. Hundreds have been sickened, and at least nine deaths
are attributed to the outbreak.
contrast, in late March Kraft Foods reported to the Food and Drug Administration
that one of its affiliates had inspected the Setton plant and found
contaminated pistachios. Kraft's decision to share that information with
the FDA enabled the agency to get ahead of any potential outbreak (which
may still occur), issuing a blanket warning to consumers to avoid any foods
containing pistachios until more is known. No illnesses or deaths have been
definitively tied to the pistachio contamination.
Acheson, the FDA's associate commissioner for food safety, notes that although
the agency has worked to get the word out about recalled products, it's in
a reactive mode; he'd like to see the agency more frequently on the
proactive side of events. "We're getting better on the reactive,
rapid-response side of things," Acheson says, "but we need to
modernize our techniques and approaches" to better prevent outbreaks
in the future.
the situations have unfolded, one thing has grown increasingly clear:
Somebody has to be in charge of keeping our food safe. As it stands, that
responsibility is parceled out among more than a dozen government agencies,
most prominent among them the FDA and the Department of Agriculture, whose
jurisdictions are defined in mysterious ways. (For instance, if a frozen
pizza has just a cheese topping, it's regulated by the FDA, but if it has
meat, it's the USDA's to monitor.) Once people are sickened by food-borne
pathogens such as salmonella and E. coli, the CDC joins in,
investigating and tracking outbreaks and providing information about
preventing and treating illness caused by those pathogens.
industry has adopted some food-safety measures on its own. Many companies
routinely sponsor independent inspections of their factories, for instance.
And many follow HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points)
practices, a set of protocols developed for NASA in the 1960s to ensure
that astronauts aren't sickened by food-borne pathogens while in space. But
politicians, pundits and the public are turning up the heat, noting that
self-policing hasn't worked and calling for increased government
recognizing a hot-button issue when they see one, have offered proposals to
fix the food-safety system. Among the key recommendations: giving the FDA
the power to institute mandatory recalls (which many of us likely assumed
the agency already had), establishing a single new agency to oversee all
aspects of food safety and improving the government's ability to track food
"from farm to fork." Reforms are likely to be costly.
Obama, who has expressed concern over the safety of his daughter's
peanut-butter sandwiches (which are likely safe, if they're made with
jarred grocery-store peanut butter, which hasn't been implicated in the
ongoing recalls), has called for creation of a working group to advise him
on beefing up food-safety laws and coordinating government efforts to keep
the food supply secure. He has also earned praise for appointing Margaret
Hamburg, an expert in both bioweapons and infectious diseases, to head the
FDA. That move signals the president's understanding of the grave
implications posed by threats to our food supply.
and E. coli, currently the two major food-contamination culprits,
typically infect animals and are spread via their feces and can thus easily
contaminate meat and poultry. But if contaminated water runoff from
livestock or poultry farms reaches a produce farm, it can infect the food
growing there; rodents can also spread these bacteria.
hygiene among workers picking and handling produce can also spread
infection, as can cross-contamination, when pathogen-ridden food comes into
contact with as-yet-uncontaminated food. Restaurant staff and other food
handlers can also contaminate food if they don't follow proper sanitation
procedures such as washing their hands after using the bathroom.
majority of food-borne infections aren't related to broad outbreaks but to
more-isolated exposure in homes, restaurants and other venues. That's why it's
important to continue washing and drying fresh produce, keeping that egg
salad out of the sun and in the fridge, using a separate knife and cutting
board to handle raw meat, and cooking meat and eggs thoroughly. But to
assume such food hygiene will protect us from all the bad bugs out there is
moment when I almost threw up my hands came in 2001, when I reported on
salmonella- and E. coli-tainted bean sprouts. Everyone had been
thinking of bean sprouts as health food until they started sickening
people. It turns out that even thorough washing of bean sprouts doesn't
help, as the salmonella bacteria are often embedded in the seeds
themselves. There's no way to know your bean-sprout seeds or the sprouts
that sprout from them are infected. And while cooking vegetables can kill
most pathogens, when's the last time you've cooked a peanut or pistachio?
what's a concerned consumer to do?
Acheson says, not much. "Obviously, when you buy a product that's in a
bag, like peanuts or pistachios, you take it on good faith that the company
has done due diligence," Acheson says. "With something like raw
chicken, you know you have to cook it thoroughly. But there is nothing a
consumer can do about a product that's in a package."