Tag Archives: FDA

A Startling Revelation

From a recent article on the Tomato/Salmonella outbreak from the UPI comes the following section. The emphasis is mine.

New York City health officials Wednesday said six more cases of salmonella poisoning caused by tainted tomatoes have been reported in the city.

They have been added to one previously reported case in New York, The New York Times said.

The new cases came as the head of U.S. food safety efforts said it’s possible the government will never track down the source of the outbreak. David Acheson, the Food and Drug Administration’s “food safety czar,” says that’s because fresh produce like tomatoes aren’t consistently labeled as to origin, and also because the outbreak, which sickened more than 277 people and hospitalized 43, is so widespread, the Chicago Tribune reported Wednesday.

So let’s see here – we have a nationwide outbreak of salmonella in our tomato supply, and the head of the FDA is saying that it’s likely that they they will never know it’s cause.

Two questions that I wish Mr. Acheson would answerimmediately pop into my mind:

  1. How is this acceptable?
  2. If it’s not acceptable, what plans are in the works to prevent it from happening again?

Of course most people who are even marginally familiar with the issues surrounding the ineffectiveness of the FDA have an answer – More effective oversight of America’s food producers and of food imports into the United States. But this requires both more money for the FDA and the political courage to embrace this very simple first step.

Let’s revisit food history over the past two years:

  • June 2008: A Nationwide Salmonella outbreak blamed on Tomatoes.
  • Feb 2008: 143,000,000 lbs of beef recalled due to poor lapses in inspections (to be fair, this is an issue for the USDA, but still reflects the state of our national food production)
  • September 2007: 21,700,000 lbs of beef are recalled due to E.Coli contamination
  • September 2007: Dole Fresh Vegetables recalls about 800 cases of salads shipped throughout the United States and Canada after Canadian government testing revealed contamination with a deadly strain of E. coli bacteria.
  • Auguest 2007 : Metz Fresh, a King City-based grower and shipper, recalled 8,000 cartons of fresh spinach after salmonella was found during a routine test of spinach.
  • June 2007: Tyson Fresh Meats Inc. 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.
  • February 2007: Carolina Culinary Food calls for a nationwide recall of Oscar Mayer ready-to-eat chicken breast strips with rib meat because they may be contaminated with listeria.
  • February 2007: Conagra has a nationwide recall of Peter Pan peanut butter that may contain salmonella.
  • September 2006: Nationwide recall of bagged spinach. Many store simply refuse to carry any Spinach due to inability of the FDA to say conclusively what brands are affected, and whether there’s a problem with non-bagged spinach or not.

It’s a simple question really, even if it may be rhetorical: How is this acceptable?

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.

Food Safety and (the lack of) Inspections

Nestled deep within the Washington Post was this article, about the current administrations perspective on the current problems surrounding food safety. Their response is rather stunning, but not all that surprising when you consider their track record on other issues.

A consensus is building among government and food industry officials that the fix for the country’s import safety system is likely to require better-targeted inspections, though not necessarily more of them.

Yesterday, Mike Leavitt, secretary of health and human services and chairman of a panel established by President Bush to study the safety of imported food, reflected that point of view when he said: “We simply cannot inspect our way to safety.” (emphasis mine)

The best interpretation for the above is that we’re not going to see any more funding for additional inspectors out in the field.

The article goes on to say the following:

Instead, the import safety panel is expected to push for expanded use of technology to more quickly identify risky imports. Leavitt has supported the use of technology at the border that could read the contents of a sports drink bottle, for example, looking for potentially toxic chemicals without opening it.

And the best interpretation for that is that some contractors are about to receive a large amount of money to develop products that…guess what…will have to be regulated. Hardware and software developed for the government does not occur in a vacuum.

The FDA is developing a food-safety strategy to be unveiled this fall that would rely on risk-based inspection but has not asked for more resources to pay for more inspections.

The only question here is why wasn’t the FDA already pursuing risk-based inspections?

I will concede the fact that throwing inspectors at the problem is only a drop in the bucket. But there’s more that can be done on this side of that fence. Companies who knowingly violate regulations, or repeatedly have the same issues should be penalized. Inspectors need to have accountability in their arsenal of tools. Currently there is precious little of that.

Also, adding more inspectors doesn’t mean that there will be a zero sum gain in findings. They will catch some issues that are not being caught now. Arguing that adding additional inspectors is a waste of time is absolutely false.

Food Safety Czar named

Dr. David W.K. Acheson, a former University of Maryland medical school professor and (until yeterday) chief medical officer at the Food and Drug Administration’s food safety center was appointed to the newly instituted Food Safety Czar position.

I’m not exactly sure what the the Food Safety Czar job entails. I presume it means that Dr. Acheson is the go to guy in evaluating and improving the current food safety programs until he is shot dead in a basement by militant Bolsheviks. Is it just me, or is entitling someone with the term “Czar” completely missing the point of both democracy and capitalism? Isn’t “Czar” a synonym for “autocrat”?


At any rate, Dr. Acheson is off to a rousing start. From the article:

During a conference call with reporters updating the pet food contamination, Acheson, 51, declined to answer what was different about his new job. “The goal is to develop a strategic way of thinking, moving into the future, acknowledging there has been change,” he said.

Or, if I can translate his poli-speak into English.”I don’t know what’s going on yet. Talk to me in 90 days”.

I’m willing to give him a wait-and-see approach. Here’s what to look for to determine if this new position carries any weight, or if it’s simply an empty gesture.

  • The FDA gets increased funding
  • The USDA and FDA get stronger legal authority to enforce current regulations against big industries.
  • The FDA puts more investigators into the field.
  • Less stringent rules and regulations will be set for smaller farms and businesses.
  • More plans are put into place that deal with prevention of food-borne illness outbreaks.
  • The various industrial food lobbies will lose some of its power to influence regulation regarding food safety.

I’m not holding my breath that any of these will occur.

FDA: The definition of Toothless

Do you recall the Spinach-E.Coli incidents from last September? Do you remember the peanut butter recall earlier this year? The FDA remembers, because they knew that there were problems with both of these products about a year prior to their respective outbreaks.

In late 2005, a year before a deadly outbreak of E. coli in spinach, the Food and Drug Administration sent a letter to California growers expressing its “serious concern” over ongoing outbreaks of food borne illness from that state’s lettuce and spinach crops. CBS News correspondent Nancy Cordes reports.

There had been 19 outbreaks since 1995.


In the peanut butter case, an agency report shows that FDA inspectors checked into complaints about salmonella contamination in a ConAgra Foods factory in Georgia in 2005. But when company managers refused to provide documents the inspectors requested, the inspectors left and did not follow up.

You’re going to hear more about the FDA today as the Democratic-controlled Congress is holding a hearing as to determine what is going wrong at the agency.

In the interest of time, however, I can provide a brief synopsis of the problems at hand.

  1. The FDA is understaffed.
  2. The FDA is underfunded. Consider the following – For 2008. The USDA has a proposed budget of 20 Billion dollars, the FDA has a proposed budget of 1.6 billion. Yet the FDA is responsible for overseeing 80% of the food items sold in the United States.
  3. The FDA lacks any authority. The snippet above regarding ConAgra is the perfect illustration of this. When the FDA requested documentation regarding a batch of peanut butter that was destroyed, ConAgra provided…well, nothing. In response to ConAgra’s inaction, the FDA simply walked away, as there was little in the way of legal recourse available to them.

There. I just saved you from watching C-Span for 8 hours. You can thank me later.

Meanwhile, considering the FDA’s failing, I wonder why they are even there in the first place. If they are understaffed, underfunded, and lack any legal authority to provide even a minimal amount of food safety oversight, why have them at all? It’s more expensive in the long run to maintain a false sense of security, than it is to be realistic about the safety of our food supply.

Of course I would love a Food agency that could provide an adequate level of oversight to the food producers and importers of this country. But with a presidential administration that sees any regulation as an abhorrence, and a overall budget that has spending out of control, there’s little chance that adequate funding will be supplied, at least in the short term.

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.

Raw Milk

There’s an article on Salon about Raw Milk (warning: Nag ad click-thru needed) which should not be missed for those interested in said topic. There’s so much to talk about within the piece, that it would be impossible to cover it all in one post here.

Instead, I’m going to quote the item that caught my attention:

Meanwhile, the FDA has just announced that it’s safe to eat meat and drink milk from cloned animals. In such an Orwellian universe, where raw milk from cows that have two biological parents is considered dangerous, while pasteurized milk from cloned cows is safe.

I flip flop a fair amount on raw milk — I don’t believe it’s a drink that should be taken for granted. I have little doubt that the tasteless pasteurized milk is a safer product, especially if industrial dairies ever decided to get into the raw milk business.

Within the article, there’s a raw milk comparison to Sushi which I think is apt. A dairy farmer that has skills equivalent to those a Sushi chef, or heck, even a decent fish monger, would have enough experience to limit risk in the drinking of raw milk. Given proper attention to sanitary conditions, and respect for the cows and their environment and upbringing, I think a safe product could be brought to market. The amount of work and resources needed to create such a product would make it an expensive one, especially when taking the sort shelf life of the milk into account.

But in the real world, I don’t think the USDA or FDA would ever allow it. The primary influence upon food standards is what works best for industrial farms and dairies. And what works best for industrial farms is often counter-intuitive for the local small farms.

At any rate, there’s a fair amount of interesting bits in the piece. As a side note, this quote…

“Milk is big business. When you think milk, think Exxon.”

…is spot on. Or more to the point – Dean’s Dairy is to milk as Exxon is to Oil. In my opinion, they are THAT ruthless in their pursuit of profits.

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