Tag Archives: E.Coli

The Complicity of the USDA

From the New York Times:

Two years ago, after an 8-year-old girl in Albany County, N.Y., was sickened by Topps ground beef, the Agriculture Department scrutinized the Elizabeth plant and found relatively few problems. But since then, the department said, Topps cut its microbial testing on finished ground beef from once a month to three times a year, a level the department considers inadequate.

Federal investigators said they had recently learned that the company failed to require adequate testing on the raw beef it bought from its domestic suppliers, and it sometimes mixed tested and untested meat in its grinding machines.

The Agriculture Department acknowledged that its safety inspectors, who were in the Topps plant for an hour or two each day, never cited the company for these problems.

Now I’m no legal expert in any sense of the term, but it seems to me that if the USDA knew about the indiscretions of the Topps company, and then did nothing, then the USDA is partially culpable for the outbreak.

AGGGH!! This is what is so frustrating about our food regulations! The USDA and FDA know that it’s better to have these regulations on the book. There’s no scenario in which it’s a good idea to not check for E.Coli on a monthly basis, especially when you deal with high volume meat products.

And yet for reasons that are not adequately explained, it was the friggin’ government inspectors who didn’t say anything when Topps decided to go off the ranch? What the hell????

Toothless. Benign. Impotent. All of these adjectives describe the USDA and FDA.

From later in the article:

“When someone says we are a toothless tiger and we are not doing anything, this is an example of something we are doing that I believe is making the food supply safer,” Dr. Raymond said.

Dr. Raymond, when you order detailed and aggressive inspections after an outbreak, then you’ve already failed in your job. There’s simply no other way to spin this.

The world in which we live

From the newswire:

SPRINGDALE, Ark. (AP) — Tyson Fresh Meats Inc. on Friday recalled more than 40,000 pounds of ground beef shipped to Wal-Mart stores in 12 states after samples tested at a Sherman, Texas, plant showed signs of E. coli contamination.

No illnesses had been reported. Springdale-based Tyson Foods Inc. said the recall is not related to contaminated ground beef distributed by California-based United Food Group LLC.

That’s right… we live in a world where one recall due to E.Coli has to differentiate itself from a complete different recall due to E.Coli.

Can someone remind me again why these folks don’t need stricter regulation and oversight?

Outrage Fatigue – Realities in Food Safety

I have to say that it only took a year full of various e.coli outbreaks, spinach recalls, and a handful of other food safety news stories to make me feel resigned to the state of our food culture. There’s only so much bad news and unfortunate circumstances that one can take before these episodes become less of a news story and more of a common fact of life.

As the pet food story evolved from the recalls of the various pet foods to the discovery that the chemical Melamine had been used and is the root cause of the way too many animal deaths, I mentioned in passing to a friend that the odds of this chemical being fed to our food sources was an even money bet. I had hoped that it wouldn’t be so, but when my prediction turned out to be true, I wasn’t surprised.

Like a child who grows jaded upon learning the truth behind Santa Claus, so too becomes a person who hears repeated stories of the failures of an industry who’s primary purpose is to maintain the health and well-being of their consumers. At some point news reports of these types stop being the exception and instead become the rule.

Part of this cynicism sits at the feet of the instant news culture. Out of all of the news reports surrounding the Salmonella outbreaks last year, or the various E.Coli reports this year, very few outlets highlighted the fact that a typical American’s chance of catching these diseases from the products in question was practically zero. But this fact doesn’t sell newspapers or bring people to websites. However, the amount of people who were or could be affected by these diseases was only one of the messages meant to be heard. It’s the unintentional subtext to all of these stories that gets us riled up…

…that our quest for cheaper food is putting us at greater health risks.

The problem is that these two points are directly contradictory to one another. If it was unlikely, to a tune of almost zero percent probability, that we could get salmonella or E.Coli, how is our health at greater risk? The answer depends upon one’s perspective.

Some would argue that x amount of deaths versus y amount of illnesses is an acceptable risk. When deaths and illnesses due to food is compared against traffic injuries and fatalities, it’s easy to draw this conclusion.

Others would argue that there’s little to no excuse for allowing preventable illnesses from entering the food supply. Would we pay an additional 5 cents to a quarter more per pound of ground beef, head of lettuce, or jar of peanut butter if it meant saving one life or preventing 200 people from getting ill?

And still others would claim that all of the free market checks and government regulation in the word cannot completely prevent a company from behaving badly and putting people at risk.

None of these perspectives are illogical to take. But each one becomes more and more tiresome either to hear or to espouse with each new story of failure of oversight someone’s loved ones (be they friends, family or pets) becoming ill. Instead, we become inured to the stories.

And as we hear of melamine being fed to farmed fish and workers who need new lungs due to a chemical used in artificial butter flavor, we give a quick thanks that these stories haven’t affected us directly and then move on to Iraq or the Alberto Gonzalez hearings.

FDA releases Report on the 2006 Spinach/E.Coli Outbreak

Well, after all of the people who got sick, the several people who died, the hundreds of thousands spent on investigating the outbreak, and the FDA says that the culprit was…


…they still don’t really know.

Because the contamination occurred before the start of the investigation, and because of the many ways that E.coli O157:H7 can be transferred — including animals, humans, and water — the precise means by which the bacteria spread to the spinach remain unknown.

That’s not to say that they don’t have their suspicions. They were able to identify the environmental risk factors and the areas that were most likely involved in the outbreak. “Contaminated irrigation water, uncomposted manure used as fertilizer, the presence of wildlife and livestock and the hygiene of the workers handling the crops all might have served to transport the bacteria”, they said.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

However – Fresh Express has seemingly come to their own conclusions on the causes and is refusing to buy lettuce and spinach from farmers who don’t stop using compost and recycled water.

This action by Fresh Express is both welcome and needed. At the very least, it will provide an interesting comparison against produce companies who do not have similar requirements.

UPDATE: As Jack alluded to in the comments, compost is actually preferable to using chemical fertilizers in produce use, something that slipped my mind completely. Personally, I believe that the recycled sewage water played the larger role, and was focused more on that than the compost issue.

Ready Pac and Green Onions

This L.A. Times article about the Taco Bell/E.Coli outbreak gives some interesting pieces of information:

New Jersey food safety regulators and the FDA are investigating two suppliers: McLane Foodservice and a Florence, N.J., facility operated by Irwindale-based Ready Pac Foods Inc.

McLane is the sole distributor of ingredients for Taco Bell restaurants in New Jersey, New York’s Long Island, Pennsylvania and Delaware. Ready Pac Produce processes lettuce, tomatoes and onions.

Green onions are processed exclusively for Taco Bell in one section of the Ready Pac plant.

Ready Pac? Where have I heard that name recently?

Oh yeah….in the Spinach/E.Coli outbreak news from September. They were one of the many companies that distributed the spinach grown by the ironicially named Natural Selection Foods.

Technorati Tags: Green Onions, E.Coli, Taco Bell

Green Onions, Taco Bell and E.Coli

Word on the street (well, not the street, but rather USA Today), has it that Taco Bell has pulled green onions from all of their U.S. locations.

What was once a regional issue has now gone national.

Technorati Tags: Taco Bell, Onions, E.Coli

Spinach/E.Coli update

So the cause of the E.Coli outbreak in September was…wild pigs?

For an area of farmland that has been suspected in no less than twenty outbreaks of the disease over the past ten years or so, it is highly improbable for rampant, wild pigs to be the root cause. Think of the statistical likelihood of a pig being exposed to the disease from a local cattle farm, and then trotting to a nearby spinach farm to lay waste (no pun) to the produce field. Now factor the probablity that this happened, not once, but twenty times.

Sorry…It doesn’t strike me as credible.

Meanwhile, in a move that anyone with a smattering of public relations knowledge could have predicted – Growers respond to E. coli outbreak with mandatory guidelines.

Technorati Tags: Spinach, E.Coli