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Food safety groups slam USDA egg graders at farms in recall
By Alison Young, USA TODAY

U.S. Department of Agriculture staff regularly on site at two Iowa egg processors implicated in a national salmonella outbreak were supposed to enforce rules against the presence of disease-spreading rodents and other vermin, federal regulations show.
Though USDA says its authority was limited, the agency's egg graders were at Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms at least 40 hours a week ? including before the outbreak ? inspecting the size and quality of eggs inside processing buildings.
USDA regulations say buildings and "outside premises" must be free of conditions that harbor vermin, but the agency takes a narrow view of its responsibilities. Under the USDA's unwritten interpretation of the regulations, egg graders only look for vermin inside the specific processing building where they are based, said Dean Kastner, an assistant USDA branch chief in poultry grading program.
The agency interprets outside premises as only the area immediately around the processing building's loading dock and trash receptacle, he said.
Salmonella can be spread by rodents and wild birds. Outbreak investigators from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this week released reports documenting filthy conditions in and around egg laying barns at the two companies, including rodents, rodent holes, wild birds, flies and other vermin.
Hillandale Farms spokeswoman Julie DeYoung said the barns at its facility are about 50 feet from the processing building. At Wright County Egg, the laying barns are 50 feet apart and connected to the processing plant, said spokeswoman Hinda Mitchell.
Food safety watchdogs question whether USDA egg graders should have noticed the vermin problems cited by the FDA, potentially preventing the recall of a half billion eggs and an outbreak that is linked to about 1,500 reported illnesses.
"In light of what FDA saw, why didn't these guys see the same thing in terms of raising red flags?" asked Tony Corbo of Food & Water Watch, a food safety group.
Carol Tucker-Foreman, an assistant Agriculture secretary under President Carter, said egg graders view the companies ? not consumers ? as their "clients." The graders are part of an industry-funded program in USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, which promotes products.
"In this case it appears they did not do a good job for their clients because this (the outbreak and recall) presumably would not have happened had the grading people followed their own regulations," said Tucker-Foreman, now a food policy fellow at the Consumer Federation of America.
USDA spokesman Caleb Weaver said egg graders have no authority to look at the laying barns, even though they are connected to the processing facilities.
Kastner and Weaver said they didn't know whether graders had identified any rodent issues in the areas of the facilities they considered under their watch. Their daily inspection reports are still being gathered, Weaver said.
The FDA, which is responsible for regulating the safety of eggs that are in their shells, has said new regulations that took effect in July will help prevent future outbreaks. The agency says it will inspect 600 of the largest egg processors over the next 15 months. Bills in Congress would expand FDA's food safety authority.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who chairs the House Appropriations Agriculture subcommittee, last month sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asking, among other things, about the egg graders' awareness of conditions at Wright County Egg. She's waiting on answers.
"It has never been more clear that we need to pass strong FDA food safety legislation this year," said DeLauro, D-Conn. "In the long term, a single food agency is needed that focuses exclusively on protecting our food supply." Responsibility for food safety is currently spread across 15 agencies, she said.
Vilsack said in a statement to USA TODAY that the egg outbreak situation shows the "critical need" to make improvements in the nation's food safety system. "USDA has been working to close gaps and improve the safety of the meat, poultry and processed egg products over which we have authority and the FDA is taking action to address the fact that they have not had all of the tools needed to prevent outbreaks in areas where they have authority, such as shell eggs," he said.
Regulations are only as good as their enforcement, said Doug Powell, an associate professor of food safety at Kansas State University. "It goes back to the responsibility of whoever is producing the food," he said. "How do you establish a corporate culture where people pay attention to food safety?"

Blocking E. coli Bacteria Before They Move In
By Rosalie Marion Bliss
September 7, 2010
A U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientist and his colleagues have discovered key gene and chemical interactions that allow Escherichia coli (E. coli) O157:H7 bacteria to colonize the gut of cattle. The animals not only host, but can shed the deadly human pathogen.
Many E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks have been associated with contaminated meat products and cross contamination of produce crops. Because the bacteria do not cause cattle to show clinical symptoms of illness, and due to other unknown variables, they can be hard to detect within cattle and the environment.
The researchers, including USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) animal scientist Thomas S. Edrington, reported how the E. coli sense a key chemical that plays a critical role in allowing the bacteria to colonize inside the cattle's gastrointestinal (GI) tract. ARS is USDA's principal intramural scientific research agency. This research supports the USDA priority of ensuring food safety.
Edrington is with the ARS Food and Feed Safety Research Unit in College Station, Texas. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was conducted at the University of Idaho, Moscow, Idaho, campus. It involved researchers from several universities and was headed by Vanessa Sperandio, who is with the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, in Dallas.
To proliferate, E. coli express genes differently based on their environment, such as outside the cattle host, inside the cattle rumen, or even at the end of the cattle GI tract. Having a better understanding of when, why and how these bacteria colonize could lead to practical applications in the future, according to Edrington.
The researchers showed that "quorum sensing" chemicals called acyl-homoserine lactones (AHLs), which are produced by other bacteria, are present within the bovine rumen but absent in other areas of the cattle GI tract. AHLs are important because E. coli harbor a regulator, called SdiA, which senses these AHLs and then prompts the E. coli to attach and colonize.
Limiting production of the SdiA chemical, or blocking bacterial reception of the AHLs, may eventually lead to new strategies for keeping E. coli from attaching inside the animal.

A Salmonella Victim's Statement to the Senate
by Barb Pruitt | Sep 09, 2010
First, let me make it clear that I have no authority or expertise in the field of foodborne illnesses, however; I am a survivor of Salmonella poisoning and can speak from experience. I speak for ALL that have experienced, could experience, or have died from food poisoning. In addition, I speak for those that are left disabled for life, such as me, due to the inadequacies and failures within our food industries. I choose to be the voice for us all.
If I were to personally stand before you today, I would implore you to please pursue the vote for the Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510). The Act will enable increased authority for the FDA and food regulations will be more effective. What I like best is that the Act would require preventative programs. It is clear that the regulations we currently have in place are not followed nor are they effective. The Food Safety Modernization Act would provide necessary modification of and improved regulations. Food poisoning is preventable, let us enforce it.
As citizens, we should not be fearful of the food that we consume. We are hard working Americans who spend our hard working money on life's necessities--FOOD. We should NOT under any circumstances fear the consumption of our food; we assume and TRUST that our food is prepared with quality and that it is SAFE. No one ever assumes that their next bite of food may sicken them or worse yet kill them, leaving families destroyed and experiencing financial devastation with medical bills.
The failure in our system is that producers focus on quantity rather than quality. They have the ability to focus on quantity rather than quality because our current structured food regulations are failing. We have the power to change that. We must stand together and apply strict regulations and by all means ENFORCE them. We have to give authority where necessary to preserve human life and quality of life.
When a food product is produced and sent to the public, when tainted, millions of unsuspecting people may be facing a death sentence or lifetime disabilities. It is not like a piece of clothing that has been sewn incorrectly so therefore it is sold at a discount store. This is food we are talking about. Our food, more often than not, is not tested for quality until it is consumed by the public. There is no taking it back once it has been eaten and someone falls prey to illness.
Every case of foodborne illness is a case of a failure in our food industry regulations and a lack of regard for human life as producers are able to ignore current regulations and push for quantity rather than quality. It is sad that we have come to the point of actually having to babysit our food supply, not only on a local level but worldwide; we must also be strict with our incoming food as well. All food must be produced with the mindset that EVERY human life is valuable.
I urgently ask you to please vote on this Act and pass it. Stronger regulations, increased involvement from authorities, and preventative programs are a necessity. I know I am but only one voice, but I hope that I am ultimately a strong, and unfortunately very experienced, voice.

Supersalmon: Our First Engineered Entree?
by Ross Anderson | Sep 09, 2010
In a nation that loves big stuff--from cars and certain body parts--you'd think people would be pretty excited about a new line of fast-growing farmed fish.

And especially when the genetically modified (GM) fish pronounced safe last week by the Food and Drug Administration is being billed as cheaper to produce, therefore cheaper for the consumer.

But most of the excitement that greeted the FDA assessment was not what the promoters would have wished for. Many environmental and health groups remain deeply suspicious of bioengineered foods.

The analysis was "misguided and dangerous," says the Center for Food Safety. Federal tests were "insufficient in determining the long-term, unforeseen consequences" of genetic engineering, says Wenonah Hauter, director of Food & Water Watch.

Such responses come as no surprise to the scientists and entrepreneurs in Massachusetts who have been working for a couple of decades to develop the genetic salmon technology. Few issues generate more controversy among environmentalists than the idea of genetic engineering of food.

GM foods such as soy and corn and other grains have been in our food supply for many years. But the modified salmon promoted by AquaBounty Technologies of Massachusetts promises to be the first bioengineered animal protein--the first main course.

The salmon technology dates back more than 20 years, when a researcher in Newfoundland froze a tank of flounder. To his surprise, the fish survived, and further research led scientists to discover an "antifreeze gene" that is part of the DNA of cold-water fish.

Scientists initially hoped to use that gene to develop a strain of Atlantic salmon that could be farmed in icy Canadian waters. As gene-splicing techniques were developed, they learned that the same gene also controlled the rate of growth.

When injected into salmon eggs, the gene alters the way the fish's natural hormones work, allowing it to grow to market size in half the time of normal farm fish. That discovery was patented and now AquaBounty Technologies, of Waltham, Mass., could receive the FDA's go-ahead to start producing the transgenic fish, now using a gene from Chinook salmon and the antifreeze "promoter" from another cold-water fish, the ocean pout.

The technology has many other potential applications, says Elliot Entis, the Harvard-educated seafood entrepreneur who has spent nearly 20 years promoting the idea.

For genetic engineers, fish offer a number of advantages over most other animals. A spawning salmon produces thousands of eggs, which do not have to be carried by the mother. That greatly simplifies the task of implanting and cultivating fish in captivity.

So, when scientists implanted the antifreeze gene in Atlantic salmon back in the 1990s, they essentially created a new species. But the newly created fish is identical to normal salmon--with the exception of one gene out of approximately 40,000 that comprise the creature's DNA.

That single gene "allows the fish to reach market weight in half the time of traditional Atlantic salmon," says Dr. Ronald Stotish, the AquaBounty CEO.

That fast growth cuts the company's overhead costs by half, which gives them a huge economic advantage in a competitive market now dominated by Chilean and Norwegian salmon farms.

But the critics believe that the gene also creates a whole set of uncertainties and potential threats to human health or to the environment. Hauter, of Food & Water Watch, warns that the fish have not been adequately tested for allergies or toxicity.

She cites a recent study that claims transgenic salmon could have a greater effect on the environment. In particular, environmentalists warn that GM fish will inevitably escape into the open sea and compete with native fish.

Anticipating those arguments, AquaBounty says it will produce only female fish and all their fish will be biologically sterile--incapable of reproducing. In addition, they will raise their fish in enclosed, land-locked hatcheries where fish can't escape into the environment.

Entis, a former AquaBounty CEO, still serves on the company board and finds himself swimming upstream as an unofficial spokesman for the embattled bioengineering industry.

People are predisposed to fear anything new--especially when it involves food and health, he says.

"I'd like to get rid of words like "genetically modified,'" he says. "But I can't."

The industry's challenge, he says, is to help people understand that genetic modification occurs constantly in the natural world. Evolution continues to occur as a series of genetic mutations. Most of those mutations fail, but those that succeed lead to new and more successful genetic strains.

"Over the centuries, we have been creating food hybrids using traditional methods--including the majority of fruits and vegetables we eat today. And often those hybrids have crossed species lines."

Bioengineering is a more powerful and precise form of hybridizing, because it condenses a process into a much shorter time frame, Entis says. It can get salmon to grow faster, or make wheat more resistant to disease, or increase the nutritional value of rice.

"We should not condemn or be fearful of the technology," he says. "We need to use it to our advantage and to the advantage of the environment."

In the case of salmon, Entis argues that bioengineered salmon, produced in the U.S., will use less fish food, and less energy for transportation. It also adds to food safety, he says, because the hybridized salmon will be produced in land-locked and regulated plants, so any tainted product can be quickly and easily traced back to its source.

None of this satisfies the critics. "What about the masses of corporations that will no doubt race to produce GM fish in the crowded open ocean facilities they already utilize?" asks Wenonah Hauter. "These fish will likely escape from their floating pens."

Entis can only sigh. "At the end of the day, our salmon is still a salmon," he says.

To Wright County Egg, on behalf of thousands of sick people: thanks for caring
Posted on September 4, 2010 by Drew Falkenstein
The CDC's most recent case count in the egg outbreak rose to 1,469 the other day. It seems to have been understood from the beginning that prolific contamination in the facilities at Wright County Egg, resulted from inattentiveness, at best, and blatant disregard, at worst, in the production environment. As more evidence comes in, one has to begin wondering when punitive damages might come into play.
Here are some of the FDA's findings to date:

Chicken manure located in the manure pits below the egg laying operations was observed to be approximately 4 feet high to 8 feet high at [multiple]locations. The outside access doors to the manure pits at these locations had been pushed out by the weight of the manure, leaving open access to wildlife or domesticated animals.
Un-baited, unsealed holes appearing to be rodent burrows located along the second floor baseboards were observed.
Dark liquid which appeared to be manure was observed seeping through the concrete foundation to the outside of the laying houses at [multiple] locations.
Standing water approximately 3 inches deep was observed at the southeast corner of the manure pit located inside Layer 1 ? House 13.
Un-caged birds (chickens having escaped) were observed in the egg laying operations in contact with the egg laying birds at Layer 3 ? Houses 9 and 16. The un-caged birds were using the manure, which was approximately 8 feet high, to access the egg laying area.
Layer 3 ? House 11, the house entrance door to access both House 11 and 12 was blocked with excessive amounts of manure in the manure pits.
There were between 2 to 5 live mice observed inside the egg laying Houses 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, 10, 11, and 14.
Live and dead flies too numerous to count were observed at [multiple] locations inside the egg laying houses. The live flies were on and around egg belts, feed, shell eggs and walkways in the different sections of each egg laying area. In addition, live and dead maggots too numerous to count were observed on the manure pit floor located in Layer 2 ? House 7.
And the hits keep on coming. A married couple, Deanna and Robert Arnold, former employees at Wright County Egg, appeared on CBS's "The Early Show" this morning to discuss some of the inexcusable safety violations that occurred at Wright County Egg during their tenure there. A few examples:

repacking old eggs as fresh
live cats, live mice, dead mice, chicken bones, live chickens, dead chickens
the company routinely took eggs returned by grocery stores and repackaged them as fresh
Robert Arnold: "The stuff that I seen there, you come to work in the morning, you'd see -- supposedly it was all cleaned up and you would see egg yolk underneath the belts mixing up with the grease from the gears and stuff. You would see old eggs getting repacked and putting today's date on them. When I'd question that, it was, 'Oh, we do that all the time. Just go back to work."
Mr. Arnold also stated that he wouldn't eat eggs from the plants he worked in. "It's like somebody going to the candy store and getting a chocolate bar that's like two months older. I mean, it should have been taken off the shelf," Arnold explained.
Wright County Egg issued its own response to Arnolds' claims, saying, "Anytime there is a perceived issue on our farm, we expect our employees to immediately bring it to our attention, so that we may address it appropriately and swiftly. That is our policy, and that is their responsibility. To the best of our knowledge, no concerns were ever raised."
When told of Wright County Egg saying "no complaints were ever raised" by himself or Deanna, Robert replied, "You sit there and you tell a supervisor, 'This ain't right. You know, we're putting old eggs into the containers. We're putting today's date on them.' That's as far as it went. (They'd say) 'Robert, you just - OK, that's just the way it is. Go back to work and finish out your day,' and that's as far as it goes.
My guess is that more and more problems will continue to come out of the woodwork for Wright County Egg. Their history, and the evident food safety violations that laid the foundation for this outbreak, are too alarming to believe otherwise.

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