As Food Recalls Continue to Sprout, What Can a Consumer Do?

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By Jennifer Huget

Tuesday, April 7, 2009; Page HE03

Peanuts 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.

Both 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.

The 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.

By 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.

David 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.

As 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.

Private 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 regulation.

Lawmakers, 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.

President 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.

Salmonella 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.

Poor 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.

The 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 naive.

The 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?

So what's a concerned consumer to do?

Unfortunately, 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."


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