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Foodborne Illness By The Numbers
by Alex Ferguson | Mar 08, 2010
Robert L. Scharff, with the help of funding from the Produce Safety Project at Georgetown University, recently published a study analyzing the financial impact of foodborne illness in the United States. Employing the same methods used by Food and Drug Administration (FDA) economists, Scharff estimates that the total cost of foodborne illness in the United States is a staggering $152 billion per year. This headline-grabbing number certainly calls attention to the significant yearly expenditures attributable to illnesses caused by foodborne pathogens. It is my belief, however, that the number is based on speculative data that, unfortunately, calls into question the accuracy of the results.
Before I begin my own analysis, let me be clear: I commend Scharff's efforts in publishing this study. Without a doubt, a significant amount of research went into this project, and the questionable results are not a product of the methodology employed. Rather, it seems that the real problem lies in the data. Specifically, the data sourced from the oft-quoted "Food-Related Illness and Death in the United States" study conducted in 1999 by Paul S. Mead. The use of data from the Mead study unnecessarily discounts the results of Scharff's paper. Indeed, if Scharff were to have published the same study using numbers of actual confirmed, reported illnesses, the results would have shown dollar costs per illness that were just as impressive, yet the results would leave far fewer lingering questions as to accuracy.
The 1999 Mead study is perhaps best known for one sentence: "We estimate that foodborne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year." (See This sentence is widely quoted in articles that discuss foodborne illness. Heck, I have even used the sentence in my own writings on the topic as a means to show the widespread nature of foodborne illness. Interestingly, some of the numbers from the text of the study are even higher than the above-quoted figures, notably the death estimate, which the study estimates is actually 5,194 persons per year.
Critics of the Mead study, however, point out that roughly 3,400, or 65 percent, of the approximately 5,200 estimated deaths were attributed to "unknown foodborne agents." Therein lies the twist. As detailed by Paul D. Frenzen, the problem with the Mead study is that the estimates of deaths attributed unknown foodborne agents were generated from hospital records and death certificates that stated a cause of death as "gastroenteritis of unknown cause." But, as Frenzen points out, "the death estimate consequently omitted deaths from unknown foodborne agents that do not cause gastroenteritis and likely overstated the number of deaths from agents that cause gastroenteritis." (See
The problems with the Mead study go beyond the death cases discussed in the Frenzen critique. The Mead study employed the same symptom-based data to determine non-death cases of foodborne illness caused by unknown foodborne agents. All said, the study attributed 62 million cases of foodborne illness to unknown agents, or fully 82 percent of the total estimate of 76 million foodborne illness cases per year. Given the imprecise means that were used to obtain the estimates of illnesses attributed to unknown agents, such a large percentage discounts the credibility of the entire data-set.
All of this is not to say that Mead was trying to hide the ball. In the last paragraph of his study, Mead points out that "further refinements of foodborne disease estimates will require continued and improved active surveillance." (See Nonetheless, this caveat is often ignored by those who quote Mead's figures.
The shortcomings of data from the Mead study became even more amplified in the context of the recent Scharff study. The Scharff study directly applied the Mead data for illnesses caused by unknown agents to its own cost calculations, simply adjusting the numbers for population growth. As a result, Scharff attributed 67 million cases of foodborne illness to unknown agents, resulting in an annual cost to United States residents of almost $96 billion. This accounts for 63 percent of the total estimated annual cost of $152 billion. (For those of you who are wondering why the figure does not account for 82 percent of the total cost, Scharff weighted the various dollar costs according to the varying cost of treatment for each pathogen studied.)
As a result of applying the Mead data for illnesses caused by unknown foodborne agents, Scharff discounted the credibility of his recent study. That is not to say that his figures are inaccurate. As far as anyone knows, the dollar figures he has assigned to foodborne illness might coincidentally be quite precise. The problem, however, is one of reliability. Followers of Scharff's study cannot rely on the accuracy of the results, because as Frenzen pointed out, "the methods used by the Mead study have several shortcomings." (See
All of this is not meant to imply that Scharff's numbers are inflated. Rather, as emphasized by Frenzen, because of the methodology used to collect the data, the number of foodborne illness victims exhibiting gastroenteritis may be overinflated, and the victims of foodborne illnesses that do not exhibit gastroenteritis are unaccounted for. For all we know, Mead's figures may in fact be underinflated. At this point, however, there is simply not enough data to support a reliable conclusion.
Like many others who work in the world of foodborne illness, I am personally very interested in the annual costs associated with victims of foodborne infections. The Scharff study followed the right approached. It sought to account for the totality of costs, ranging from quality of life losses to the cost of lost life expectancy. Indeed, as those with a bit of economic knowledge can attest, the societal costs of severe illnesses are much greater than simply the sum of all medical bills. Nonetheless, correct methodology can only take one so far when the majority of the data used to generate the final results is based on speculative assumptions.
The Scharff study would have proved more useful if it would have focused on individual average costs incurred by victims of various foodborne illnesses. This would have shown the severe economic impact that sufferers of foodborne illness endure, yet would have alleviated the problems associated with estimating aggregate costs based on the results of the Mead study. Perhaps a figure like $152 billion generates a greater wow factor, but realistic figures of actual costs would generate a more lasting impact.
Food Recalls ? Who¡¯s to blame?

Living with ESRD
by Colin Caywood | Mar 05, 2010
What It Is Like To Live With End Stage Renal Disease (ESRD)?
In honor of March's official designation as National Kidney Month, fellow Food Safety News contributing writer Dave Babcock recently published an article, National Kidney Month Kicks Off. In his article, Babcock discusses the connection between long-term kidney health and food safety, a connection which most commonly flows from the development of hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) caused by toxins from foodborne bacteria like shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (E. coli).
As anyone who has been forced to suffer through ESRD can attest, the physical and mental effects it can cause are devastating.
While it is true that various treatment options presently exist, none of those options are especially desirable. The biggest and most obvious decision for a person diagnosed with ESRD to make is whether to sustain on dialysis for as long as possible, or seek out a kidney transplant, likely enduring dialysis anyway during the waiting period.
If given the choice, most people with ESRD will opt for a kidney transplant. There is evidence that a transplant can increase a person's life expectancy up to three times longer than dialysis alone. It can also have a much less invasive effect on a person's day-to-day life when compared with the requirements of dialysis. Unfortunately, the wait-time for a donor kidney is often a year minimum, but usually longer depending on a variety of factors.
One such wait time factor is blood type. For example, a person with a rare blood type O will have the longest wait period, usually three to four years. Because a patient with blood type O has antibodies against blood types A, B, and AB, it severely limits the donor pool from which a kidney may be harvested. If the patient is fortunate, perhaps a deceased or living close relative, such as a parent or sibling over the age of 18 and who is compatible with the patient, will be able to donate a kidney. Regardless, while awaiting a donor, an ESRD patient must undergo dialysis treatment just to survive until the transplant operation can be performed.
Assuming the patient survives the transplant procedure, they can then look forward to a lifetime of immunosuppressive medications, necessary to prevent their body from rejecting the transplanted kidney. The artificial suppression of the immune system is--as nearly anyone can surmise--fraught with considerable side effects.
Commonly used immunosuppresants include cyclosporine, tacrolimus, meclophenalate, imuran, and corticosteroids. Cyclosporine and tacrolimus have side effects that include increased hair growth and gum hypertrophy, as well as, ironically, damage to the kidney. Meclophenalate and imuran are known to cause low white blood cell count and increased susceptibility to infection. Corticosteroids can produce the undesirable Cushing's syndrome (fatty deposits around the facial cheeks, as well as on the abdomen and back), weight gain, emotional instability, cataracts, decreased growth, softening of the bones and bone pain, hypertension, acne, and difficulty in controlling glucose levels.
Immunosuppressants, like those described above, are necessary for organ transplant recipients. They reduce the body's immune response, thereby preserving the useful life of the transplanted kidney which the body would otherwise recognize as foreign and dangerous. If this occurs, it sets off a chain of events that culminate in the body's rejection of the kidney. But because a healthy and timely immune system response is the body's critical and natural defense against illness, immunosuppression therapy necessarily leads to a lifetime of heightened susceptibility to serious infection, accelerated hardening of the arteries, cancer, and chronic kidney rejection.
Assuming the transplanted kidney is received by the patient without complication, no transplant lasts forever. The patient's transplanted kidney can be expected to last about 15 years if it comes from a living donor, or about 10 years if it comes from a cadaver. Of course, the younger the patient develops ESRD, the higher the probability that a second, or even third, kidney transplant will be required during their lifetime. As each transplant reaches the end of its useful life, the patient will fall back into the cycle of ESRD, dialysis, an increase in kidney-related medical problems and then--assuming another kidney transplant is possible--recovery from transplantation.
Either decision the patient makes--transplant or dialysis--will involve dialysis treatments regardless. As with a transplant, the patient's quality of life is guaranteed to suffer markedly. There are generally two modes of dialysis an ESRD patient may undergo: peritoneal dialysis or hemodialysis.
Peritoneal dialysis has been a major physical therapeutic method of therapy for ESRD for several years. Continuous Ambulatory Peritoneal Dialysis (CAPD) and automated peritoneal dialysis, also called Continuous Cycling Peritoneal Dialysis (CCPD), are the most common form of dialysis therapy used in children. In this form of dialysis, a catheter is placed in the area around the stomach. Dialysate (a chemical bath that draws fluids and toxins out of the bloodstream) is placed into the abdomen and changed four to six times a day. While children must often go to a medical treatment facility, adults can usually perform CAPD/CCPD at home.
The known compilations of peritoneal dialysis include peritonitis (infection of the fluid), which can be a major risk. Symptoms of peritonitis include fever, excruciating abdominal pain with movement, nausea, and vomiting. If left untreated, it usually results in death.
The other common dialysis method to treat ESRD is hemodialysis. During hemodialysis, blood in taken out of the body by a catheter or fistula, and circulated in a machine that simulates the kidney's natural cleansing process, removing harmful toxins and excess fluid from the blood. While the hemodialysis process itself does not physically hurt, patients usually experience nausea and abdominal cramps as excess fluid is pulled from the body, along with fluctuations in blood pressure and heart rate. Hemodialysis is generally performed three times a week, and takes a major time commitment--three to four hours per session is the average.
Beyond the transplant and dialysis complications, bone disease is nearly universal in patients with ESRD. As a result, patients will be prone to develop bone pain, skeletal deformities and abnormal shaped bones, and have a propensity for fractures with minor trauma. Treatment of the bone disease associated with ESRD includes careful control of the patient's serum phosphorous and calcium levels with stringent dietary restrictions, calcium supplements, phosphorus binders, and various other bone disease-fighting medications.
The last major common complication of ESRD worth mentioning is anemia. Anemia can be treated with a shot of erythropoietin given under the skin one to three times a week, or once every few weeks with a longer acting dose. Erythropoietin is a hormone normally produced by the kidney that promotes the formation of red blood cells in the bone marrow. In patients suffering from ESRD, this hormone ceases to be produced, thus anemia results. Left untreated, anemia can cause severe fatigue, nerve damage, mental impairment, heart problems, and death.
Given the gloom and doom of this article, it is important to remember that a person's diagnosis with ESRD is a not a death sentence. But just because a person is fortunate enough to survive a serious shiga toxin-producing E. coli infection and HUS--often the result of foodborne contamination--kidney damage sufficient to result in ESRD will continue to affect their life long after the E. coli infection has passed. The vast complications of ESRD are incredibly serious, often painful, and certain to drastically reduce a person's overall quality of life.

Poll: Food Makes 4 in 10 Americans Sick
by Dan Flynn | Mar 05, 2010
Four in every ten Americans suffered through foodborne illnesses sometime during the last two years, according to a national poll conducted Jan. 13-15, 2010.
The Harris Poll by Harris Interactive, which surveyed 2,010 adults over the internet, found that 42 percent of the respondents were victims of foodborne illnesses during the past two years.
Harris said the public's perceptions about "food-attributed illness poses a major problem for our nation's food manufacturers and suppliers." Almost seven in ten or 69 percent of those who were ill think they know the identity of the food item that made them sick.
"As a result, one-quarter (26 percent) of those who indicate they become sick from something they ate have eliminated that food from their diet entirely," Harris reported. "Moreover, another 15 percent indicate that they advised family, friends and colleagues not to eat that food item, increasing the impact of the individual experience."
Four types of fresh foods are causing the public the most concern, according to the Harris researchers. They are: fresh meats (31 percent); fresh poultry (23 percent); fresh fish (20 percent); and fresh vegetables (16 percent).
Yet, the Harris findings show that Americans are giving food manufacturers and suppliers the benefit of the doubt when it comes to food safety. Most Americans, the pollster says, do not have large levels of concern about the safety of different foods.
Respondents were either extremely or very concerned about the following foods, by category: fresh foods (21 percent); canned foods (15 percent); other packaged foods (14 percent) and frozen foods (13 percent).
"When we cast our net broader and include those who are at least somewhat concerned we see that at least three quarters to one half of Americans are concerned to some extent that these foods are safe to eat: fresh foods (73 percent); packaged foods (64 percent); canned foods (59 percent) and frozen foods (53 percent)," said the pollster.
"While Americans generally trust our foods are safe to eat, the result of food-related illness can be a severe consumer backlash in form of a permanent de-selection and grass roots advocacy against consumption of a food product that can extend well after a bad experience," Harris added.
"At worst, food illnesses can lead to heightened media scrutiny and more legislative and regulatory effort at the local, state, and national level.
Harris also found Americans do not feel they know enough about the health and nutritional value of foods.
The survey was conducted online but results were weighted for age, sex, race and ethnicity, education, region, and household income to bring them in line with the actual proportions in the population.

Enzi Praises Reportable Food Registry Longtime Advocate of Registry Lauds Focus on Prevention
Posted on March 5, 2010 by Bill Marler
Washington, D.C. ? U.S. Senator Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), Ranking Member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee today commended the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for using the Reportable Food Registry to take prompt action to protect the public following the early identification of Salmonella in a Las Vegas, NV food company flavoring product. ¡°This is exactly how the Reportable Food Registry is supposed to work,¡± Enzi said. ¡°I have long advocated the rapid development and implementation of the Reportable Food Registry, and I am pleased to see it work to quickly and effectively protect the public.¡± One year ago, Enzi began an effort to ensure that FDA implement the Reportable Food Registry, as Congress intended with passage of the bipartisan ¡°Food and Drug Administration Amendments Act of 2007,¡± a bill he helped write and pass through the Senate. ¡°Our tools, expert knowledge and innovative spirit must continue to protect the public health from contaminated food. The Reportable Food Registry is one of our best resources in this effort,¡± Enzi said.

U.S. Sen. Harkin: Salmonella outbreak demonstrates urgency of passing comprehensive food safety legislation
Posted on March 5, 2010 by Bill Marler
Harkin: Salmonella Outbreak Demonstrates Urgency of Passing Comprehensive Food Safety Legislation
WASHINGTON, D.C. ? Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) released the following statement today after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) launched an investigation into findings of Salmonella Tennessee in hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP) manufactured by Basic Food Flavors, Inc., in Las Vegas. HVP is a commonly used ingredient used as a flavor enhancer in many processed foods, including soups, sauces, chilis, stews, hot dogs, gravies, seasoned snack foods, dips and dressings.
¡°Consumers should not have to think twice about the safety of a food item when they reach into their pantry. Unfortunately, our nation¡¯s food safety system is outdated, lacks proper resources and, quite simply, does not adequately protect American consumers. This most recent outbreak demonstrates once again that we cannot wait any longer to pass comprehensive food safety legislation.
¡°Fortunately no one was made ill with this most recent case of Salmonella, but we are not always so lucky. We must give FDA the tools to prevent a food borne illness outbreak before it happens, rather than react when it is already too late. And when food is tainted, we must provide the tools to respond quickly and protect consumers. Both the House and Senate bills do just that and it is my hope that we can have a comprehensive food safety bill on the President¡¯s desk in the very near future.¡±
Harkin is the Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee. On November 18, 2009 the Committee reported out S. 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, without a single dissenting vote.

FDA Investigation Reveals Salmonella Tennessee at Plant that Makes Flavor Enhancers for Food Processors and Other Distributors
For Immediate Release: March 4, 2010
Media Inquiries: Rita Chappelle, 301-796-4672,
Consumer Inquiries: 888-INFO-FDA
Salmonella Tennessee Identified in a Processed Food Ingredient
FDA taking steps to instruct industry and protect consumers
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is taking steps to protect the public following the early identification of Salmonella Tennessee in one company¡¯s supply of hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP). This is a common ingredient used most frequently as a flavor enhancer in many processed foods, including soups, sauces, chilis, stews, hot dogs, gravies, seasoned snack foods, dips and dressings.
In coordination with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, other federal agencies, and state health departments, FDA is closely monitoring and assessing the potential risks of illness from affected products.
¡°Our investigators were able to identify this problem before any illnesses occurred," said FDA commissioner Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg. "While the investigation is continuing, the agency is supporting reasonable steps to continue to protect the public health.¡±
The manufacturer of the affected product is Basic Food Flavors Inc in Las Vegas, Nevada. Only HVP manufactured by Basic Food Flavors is involved in this recall. The FDA conducted an investigation at the facility after a customer of Basic Food
Flavors reported finding Salmonella Tennessee in one production lot of HVP to the new FDA Reportable Food Registry.
FDA collected and analyzed samples at the facility and confirmed the presence of Salmonella Tennessee in the company¡¯s processing equipment. The company is recalling all hydrolyzed vegetable protein in powder and paste form that it has produced since Sept. 17, 2009.
¡°This situation clearly underscores the need for new food safety legislation to equip FDA with the tools we need to prevent contamination," said Dr. Jeff Farrar, associate commissioner for food protection, FDA¡¯s Office of Foods.
At this time, there are no known illnesses associated with this contamination.
At this time, FDA is taking several steps to instruct industry and protect consumers from potential Salmonella infection.
FDA is advising industry that the recalled bulk HVP product should be destroyed or reconditioned according to FDA-approved procedures. FDA is also recommending recalls of certain products that might be eaten by consumers without any processing or
cooking steps to address the potential risk. FDA is recommending that consumers should:
Check www.foodsafety.gov1 for a list of recalled products;
Remember to follow cooking instructions for all foods.
Report symptoms of Salmonella or other food-related illness to your local
health care professional.
Salmonella is an organism that can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems. Healthy people infected with Salmonella often experience fever, diarrhea (which may be blood), nausea,vomiting, and abdominal pain. Most healthy people recover from Salmonella infections within four to seven days without treatment. In rare circumstances, infection with Salmonella can result in the organism getting into the bloodstream and producing more severe illnesses, such as arterial infections (infected aneurysms), infection of the lining of the heart, and arthritis.
For more information on the basics on Salmonella (such as sources, symptoms, duration of illness):

FDA Faulted for Giving Additives a Free Pass
Andrew Schneider Senior Public Health Correspondent

(March 8) -- A new report from federal investigators says the Food and Drug Administration has failed to ensure the safety of thousands of additives manufacturers put in what we eat.
The Government Accountability Office, the congressional watchdog agency, singled out a longstanding and controversial exception to FDA rules that for decades has concerned consumer and public health advocates. Substances "generally regarded as safe" by food companies' own scientific panels are immune from rigorous FDA analysis, meaning that manufacturers that want to include an additive in a product are often spared having to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in safety tests and can save years in getting the product to market.
The GAO determined that:
? The FDA generally doesn't know about most of these determinations of "generally regarded as safe," or GRAS, because companies are not required to inform the agency.
? The FDA has not taken steps that could help ensure the safety of additives listed as GRAS.
? Food products may contain numerous ingredients, including GRAS substances, making it difficult, if not impossible, for public health authorities to attribute a food safety problem to a specific GRAS additive.
? The FDA does not systematically reconsider the safety of GRAS substances as new information or new methods for evaluating safety become available.
The investigators also noted that while the FDA has issued guidance to minimize the potential for conflicts of interest among its own staff members who look at the safety of GRAS substances, it has not issued any restrictions for companies to use with their hired scientific experts.
"There is a relatively small community of experts qualified to sit on the GRAS designation panels, and, inevitably, these experts may have corporate or financial affiliations that could bias their decisions," the report said.
The investigators said it was almost impossible to link adverse effects to GRAS additives because their presence in food is rarely known to anyone beyond those responsible for it.
The GAO report was issued Friday, a day after the FDA recalled HVP, a GRAS-designated flavor enhancer used in thousands of foods, because of possible salmonella contamination.
In the new report, the GAO said the FDA told it that complaints and public concerns could prompt it to reconsider the safety of a GRAS substance. But since banning the artificial sweetener cyclamate 40 years ago, the FDA has turned down at least 11 petitions from safety and consumer groups to remove specific substances from GRAS designation.
A serious debate over another GRAS additive is going on today and is generating repeated demands from unions, public health experts and others for another ban. The substance is diacetyl, a chemical butter flavoring linked to a handful of deaths and hundreds of illnesses among workers in microwave popcorn factories, bakeries and other processing plants.
Worker and food safety advocates are angry that many manufacturers say they have switched to a substitute additive that government researchers have determined contains just as much or more diacetyl than the old formula. But it too is listed as "generally regarded as safe" under FDA rules.
The GRAS designations started in 1958, when Congress amended the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act to say that the safety of an additive "does not need to be established with absolute certainty." Instead, the law said, a scientific panel selected by the manufacturer can rule that no harm will result from the intended use of an additive.
In reality, the only ones who know whether the additives are actually safe are the company and its own analysts, or the outside labs it hires.
Thousands of exemptions are granted by panels designated by food industry trade groups. The largest such organization, the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association, has bestowed GRAS on more than 2,600 additives since 1960.
The GAO expressed added concern over two specific areas -- imported additives, where the level of safety consideration is often completely unknown, and the growing use of GRAS designation in engineered nano-material in food.
In responding to the report, the FDA said it agreed with many of the faults the GAO documented but said the agency would have to seek authority from Congress to require all companies to inform it of their designation of additives as GRAS.
If that were to happen, the FDA said, it could place an added burden on food producers and tax the FDA's resources.
The GAO investigation was requested by two Democrats, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin and Connecticut

Safety Zone
By James Marsden

Food recalls are becoming so common place that unless enormous quantities are involved, they barely go noticed. There are a lot of misconceptions about recalls. Although they make good publicity for FDA and USDA, showing the public how tough these agencies are on errant food companies, they generally are too little and too late to really protect the public.
The very nature of recalls implies that the food product(s) suspected of causing food borne disease are already in commerce and are being consumed. This means that the recalled products have passed both the company's pre-shipment review and government inspection, yet somehow made their way into commerce in an adulterated state. In addition, most recalled products are not actually recovered. Most "recalled" product ends up being consumed and much of the returned product is not even part of the recall.
Another problem with recalls is that they often represent a systematic failure in the food safety systems employed by the manufacturer. For every failure that is caught, there may be many others that go undetected. If food manufacturing processes are unreliable or inadequate, the problem is much bigger than what is captured in a single recall.
USDA recalls involving foodborne illness outbreaks are even more problematic because of the intense inspection presence in USDA inspected plants. A food safety failure in a meat or poultry product is a failure of the inspection system as well as the manufacturing process. When USDA recalls are expanded to include all products made over long periods of time (as they have been), remember that inspectors were present and actively involved in the oversight of plant operations, SSOP's and HACCP plans throughout that entire period.
Most importantly, recalls do little to protect the public health. Adulterated products should not enter commerce in the first place. When they do, they are consumed and people are at increased risk of foodborne disease. A recent report of the cost of foodborne illness in the US estimated that the cost is $152 billion per year ( Since foodborne illnesses are almost always preventable, there is a strong incentive to fix what is wrong.
So what is the solution? Certainly, it is not more recalls. The solution is in the development and implementation of safe food processes that reduce or eliminate the risk of foodborne pathogens (i.e. pasteurization technologies) and consumer education on safe food handling and preparation. USDA and FDA should place their focus on requiring safe food processes under already existing HACCP regulations. Recalls represent a failure by all parties.

House OK's food safety bill
By: The Associated Press | 09 Mar 2010 | 12:08 PM ET
ATLANTA - The Georgia House has approved a bill that puts teeth in a food safety bill that cleared the Legislature last year.
It was prompted by a 2009 salmonella outbreak that originated in a south Georgia peanut processing plant, sickened hundreds and was linked to the deaths of at least nine people.
On Tuesday the House voted 142-20 to approve a bill from Rep. Kevin Levitas, an Atlanta Democrat, that would make it a felony to knowingly distribute a tainted food product. Violators could face up to 20 years in prison and a $20,000 fine.
A law that passed last year requires plants to alert state inspectors within 24 hours if internal tests show their products are tainted. The new bill would make the failure to do so a misdemeanor.
H.B. 883:

GAO: FDA Oversight on Additives Lacking
by Helena Bottemiller | Mar 09, 2010
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not exercise adequate oversight over certain widely used food additives, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released last week.
The GAO, the investigative research arm of Congress, found that FDA's oversight process simply "does not help ensure the safety" of new additives deemed "generally regarded as safe" (GRAS) by food companies.
"Currently, companies may determine a substance is GRAS without FDA's approval or knowledge," said the report. As GAO notes, there are have been instances where additives initially deemed GRAS were later banned for safety reasons.
In 1986, FDA banned the use of sulfites on fruits and vegetables intended to be served raw and added labeling requirements for food containing the additive because of potentially severe allergic reactions. Sulfites had been considered GRAS since 1959.
Despite a slew of concerns from consumer groups over the safety over certain GRAS additives, the GAO found that FDA has not reconsidered the safety of any substances in the category since the 1980s.
"FDA is not systematically ensuring the continued safety of current GRAS substances," according to the summary of findings. This lack of oversight goes against FDA regulations, which require the agency to reconsider the GRAS status of a substance as new scientific information emerges.
Not only is the agency not reviewing the safety of GRAS additives, but it has not responded to a series of petitions from consumer groups over certain substances.
Individuals and consumer groups submitted 11 petitions between 2004 and 2008, expressing concerns on salt, partially hydrogendated oils, and other substances, and FDA has only definitively responded to one.
The report also expressed concerns about the FDA's lack of information and oversight on nanomaterials in GRAS substances. While the report acknowledged certain nanomaterials could enhance food safety, there are also potential public health risks and "uncertainties remain about how to determine their safety in food."
"FDA encourages, but does not require, companies considering using engineered nanomaterials in food to consult with the agency regarding whether such substances might be GRAS."
Under the current voluntary notification scheme, companies are not required to identify nanomaterials in GRAS substances.
According to GAO, "FDA has no way of knowing the full extent to which engineered nanomaterials have entered the U.S. food supply."
The report also points out that in Canada and the European Union, any food ingredient that incoporporates engineered nanomaterials must clear regulatory hurdles before being approved for the marketplace.
The full report is available here.

Lag time in tracing tainted food puts kids at risk
By Peter Eisler, Elizabeth Weise and Blake Morrison, USA TODAY

Food director Jackie Anderson didn't get word last month until it was too late ? after students in the Arlington (Texas) Independent School District already had eaten tacos filled with beef that should have been destroyed.
None of them got sick, but the meat was among 5.8 million pounds of beef recalled since January by Huntington Meat Packing. Federal inspectors found that the Montebello, Calif., company had made the beef under unsanitary conditions and concluded that some of the meat could contain potentially deadly E. coli O157:H7 bacteria.
When the recall was announced on Jan. 18, Anderson had no reason to believe it would affect the 63,000 students in her school district outside Dallas. She hadn't bought beef from the company, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) ? which donates 15% to 20% of all food served in schools through the National School Lunch Program ? also had not bought Huntington beef.
When the recall was expanded Feb. 12, a company that used Huntington meat to make tacos and burritos began contacting customers. And on Feb. 17 ? just hours after an Arlington school served some of those tacos ? Anderson became one of scores of administrators nationwide who gained a firsthand look at the difficulties of determining whether recalled food has reached schools.
Recall meeting Wednesday
Federal officials meet in Washington Wednesday to discuss ways to trace more quickly the path of contaminated food. Food often is repackaged and resold before reaching consumers, and the USDA wants to find ways to ensure that recalled products are pulled from circulation before they're sold or served, whether in stores or at schools.
No one knows how many schools got products containing the recalled beef. A USA TODAY review of state and federal records, local news reports and accounts from food service contractors suggests at least several hundred.
"For us, it was primarily just different varieties of pre-made, frozen burritos," says Karen Cutler, a spokesman for Aramark, a food service contractor for more than 500 school districts nationwide.
Aramark relied on suppliers to tell it whether its products contained Huntington beef. Some suppliers took precious extra days to get the word out: Aramark got its first notice on Feb. 15 from a supplier alerting the company it had received products made with Huntington beef; the last supplier to send such a notice didn't alert Aramark until Feb. 24. In each case, Cutler says, "we immediately notified all locations to remove the products."
The number of schools affected continues to grow. Consider California's experience: By late February, health officials had identified hundreds of establishments that had received food covered by the recall, but not a single school. Two days later, officials learned that three school districts had gotten products made with Huntington beef. By early March, the list included more than 200 schools.
As the recall's reach became clear, Matt Constantine, public health director in Kern County, Calif., had his staff call all of the county's 48 school districts. "We found out that not only did some schools receive (the meat) but ¡¦ some schools served it."
Arlington's Anderson is perplexed by how much time passed before she learned that the Fernando's "taco snacks" served by the district contained recalled beef. She didn't get the news through a phone call or e-mail. It came in a letter sent via regular mail from Fernando's in Compton, Calif.
"There needs to be a way to notify people earlier ? obviously, if we'd known sooner, we would not have served those tacos," Anderson says.
Arlington served more than 11,000 tacos made with Huntington meat in February. School officials used newspapers, Internet announcements and phone messages to alert parents, and all students who had eaten the tacos cleared the 10-day infection period for E. coli without falling ill.
Huntington, which has ceased operations during a criminal probe by the USDA's inspector general, expects no illnesses anywhere, spokesman Paul Carney says. Though the beef was part of a Class I recall, meaning there's "reasonable probability" that it can cause serious illnesses, Carney notes that most of the meat was precooked at commercial facilities for use in products such as burritos. Those facilities ensure that meat is cooked to at least 165 degrees, so all dangerous pathogens should have been killed.
Direct calls from USDA 'a good thing'
In November, after a USA TODAY investigation showed that schools know little about the food they serve, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the USDA would do a better job alerting schools when it suspects they may have gotten contaminated products. "There has been a ¡¦ gap in communication, which results in school districts not getting information on a timely basis," he said.
USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service already "is striving to improve the tracing of contaminated product," says spokesman Caleb Weaver, and today's meeting in Washington will focus on how to identify suppliers of source material in products testing positive for E. coli O157:H7.
In the Huntington case, schools contacted by USA TODAY say they were called by USDA staff recently to assess the recall's effectiveness ? a first, for some.
"It's great," says Dee Clements, food services director for the Reef-Sunset Unified School District, which serves about 2,500 students in Kings County, Calif. She received calls from three separate USDA staffers to make sure she didn't use 15 cases of suspect beef burritos she'd bought.
"They're really stepping up," she says. "It's a good thing."

Basic Food Sold Additive After Salmonella Found, FDA Says
WASHINGTON?Basic Food Flavors Inc., the Las Vegas company at the center of a recall of more than 100 food products, continued to make and distribute food ingredients for about a month after it learned the bacteria salmonella was present at its processing facility, according to a Food and Drug Administration report.
The FDA last week recommended companies recall products, from chips to soups, that contain a commonly used additive made by Basic Food Flavors that tested positive for salmonella. The additive is mixed into foods to give them a meaty flavor.
FDA officials inspected Basic Food's plant for about two weeks starting in mid-February and found the company didn't adequately clean equipment and store foods to protect against the growth of contaminants such as salmonella, according to the inspection report.
The report comes as the number of products being recalled has expanded to over 100, including vegetable dips made by McCormick & Co. and honey mustard pretzels sold at CVS Caremark Corp. drug stores and Safeway Inc. grocery stores.
The inspectors noted that "light-brown residue" and "dark-brown liquid" was observed on or around where Basic Food makes flavor-enhancing ingredients used in foods. The inspectors said brown residue was also found in a plastic pipe used in making food ingredients.
Basic Food makes a flavor enhancer called hydrolyzed vegetable protein, or HVP. The FDA report said the company first learned salmonella was present at its processing facility for HVP on Jan. 21. The company continued to distribute the ingredients until Feb. 15. A representative for the company wasn't immediately available to comment. The company hasn't responded to earlier requests for comment.
No illnesses have been reported related to the recall, said FDA spokeswoman Rita Chappelle.
FDA and other health officials have said the risk of people getting sick from products containing the HVP is low because the flavor enhancer generally makes up less than 1% of all the ingredients in a food. The FDA also said cooking some products before consuming them may kill the salmonella.

Videotaped consumers ignore rules while cooking ground beef
By Ann Bagel Storck on 3/10/2010
ORLANDO, Fla. ? When it comes to how consumers really prepare ground beef ? not what they say they do ? they're often not cooking product to the recommended temperature, and their risk of cross-contamination is high, according to research presented here at the Annual Meat Conference, hosted by the American Meat Institute and the Food Marketing Institute.
Christine Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer Research at the University of California, Davis, videotaped 200 volunteers in their homes while they prepared burgers and salad. She observed their methods of defrosting the meat ? frozen, preformed burgers ? their refrigerators' temperature, whether or not they put themselves at risk for cross-contamination and how they determined whether the meat was done.
Consumer preferences prior to research
Most (75 percent) of the study participants ate burgers at least once a month. Half were families with kids under age 12, and 22 percent were adults age 56 or older ? both groups at higher risk for foodborne illness.
Other consumer preferences included:

Twenty-five percent said they prefer their burgers pink.
Eighty-three percent said they used visual clues, rather than a meat thermometer, to determine the doneness of their burgers.
About half owned a meat thermometer, but almost all of those participants said they used it on larger cuts of meat, not burgers.
Seventy-five percent said they were unlikely to use a meat thermometer on burgers.
Observations during research
Even though participants knew they were being videotaped, many did not follow recommended guidelines when preparing their burgers, Bruhn noted.

Although 90 percent of consumers were observed washing their hands prior to food preparation, the average hand-washing time was just seven seconds, and only 31 percent dried their hands with a clean towel (either a paper towel or a cloth towel that had not been used previously).
Potential cross-contamination ? defined by the study as "an event in which pathogens could be transferred from one surface to another as a result of contact with a potential source of contamination" ? occurred in 74 percent of the households.
While a bar graph showing the temperature distribution of the finished burgers demonstrated that many were at or near the recommended 160 degrees F, a few of the burgers' temperatures were recorded to be much lower ? as low as 112 degrees F. (Study coordinators observing consumer behavior made sure all burgers were cooked to 160 F before volunteers consumed them.)
Consumer opinions after research
Even after the exercise, only 23 percent of participants said they would use a meat thermometer on burgers in the future.
When asked about irradiation of ground beef and told that the process kills pathogens, 49 percent said they would buy irradiated burgers. Twenty-nine percent said they would not, and 22 percent were not sure.
Based on the research, Bruhn advised conference attendees that additional pathogen-destruction steps for ground beef should become common practice in the industry.
"Consumer education is not sufficient," she said. "Take the extra step. It protects the public, and it protects you."

CDC Successfully Uses Supermarket Data Cards in Salmonella Tracking
For the first time, CDC has successfully used data from supermarket shopper cards to track the source of a national salmonella outbreak to a Rhode Island salami manufacturer and two companies in New York and New Jersey that make a seasoning used on the meat, the AP/Ventura County Star reports.
After conducting interviews with people infected with the salmonella, CDC officials suspected that an Italian meat product might be the source but were uncertain what brand was responsible.
Researchers with CDC then asked supermarkets for information from seven victims in Washington about suspect products they had purchased.
CDC did not disclose how many customers from whom it sought information or how many consented. However, CDC noted that it only used information from customers who agreed and that most customers who were asked consented.
Still, some consumer advocates fear that the practice could switch from a voluntary to a mandatory system (Mercer, AP/Ventura County Star, 3/10).

Ingredients: the new food safety scourge?
By Rita Jane Gabbett on 3/11/2010
Two giant recalls plaguing the food industry did not come from the kill floor. They came from pepper and hydrolyzed vegetable protein.
Illnesses related to Salmonella Montevideo that prompted Rhode Island-based Daniele International Inc. to three times expand its recall of salami/salame products have also resulted in recalls by Dayton, N.J.-based Mincing Overseas Spice Co. and Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Wholesome Spice Co. Both companies sell pepper products directly to commercial customers that use them in their products ? like Daniele did.
So far, 245 people have been infected with a matching strain of Salmonella Montevideo in 44 states and the District of Columbia.
Meanwhile, hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP) contaminated with Salmonella Tennessee has resulted in nearly 100 products being recalled, according to the FDA. While no illnesses have yet been linked to the tainted HVP, the Centers for Disease Control is watching closely for any sign of increased illnesses.
HVP is a common ingredient used most frequently as a flavor enhancer in many processed foods, including soups, sauces, chilis, stews, hot dogs, gravies, seasoned snack foods, dips and dressings.
Las Vegas-based Basic Food Flavors Inc. is recalling all hydrolyzed vegetable protein in powder and paste form that it has produced since Sept. 17, 2009. Much of that product already resides in further-processed foods.
Who cares?
Daniele is so far the only meat processor caught up in these massive recalls. However, the food safety concerns created by them could catch the meat industry in its net.
"If (a meat processor) has gone though everything and has had no problems with the meat and then you have something else that may be put on that meat and it's got a problem, who's going to take the blame for this?" John Nalivka, president of livestock and meat consulting firm Sterling Marketing told Meatingplace. "The public perception always comes back to meat."

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