September 2010

Today, The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released the results of a survey of 1,710 federal food safety workers aimed at gauging their independence from business interests, and even interference from officials within their own agencies.  In the wake of Wright County Egg’s salmonella outbreak, the FDA and USDA have been criticized for perceived failures in food safety oversight (despite failures in this outbreak, Wright County Egg deserves all the blame), but the present survey was completed before anybody knew about the Wright County Egg outbreak, which makes it even more concerning.  From the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy’s (CIDRAP) comments about the survey:

About 38% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that public health has been hurt by agency practices that defer to business interests. Twenty-seven percent said they had personally experienced instances when businesses withheld food safety information from agency investigators in the past year. A quarter responded that they knew of instances when corporate interests forced their agency to pull or revise policies or actions that were designed to protect consumers in the past year.

Similarly, when researchers asked if Congress or "nongovernmental groups" had forced their agency to withdraw or change food safety policies or actions in the past year, 24% and 22% said yes, respectively.

Dean Wyatt, a USDA veterinarian who supervises slaughterhouse inspectors, said in the UCS statement that the agency retaliates against inspectors who document legitimate safety violations. "Upper level management does not adequately support field inspectors and the actions they take to protect the food supply," he said. "Not only is there lack of support, but there’s outright obstruction, retaliation, and abuse of power."

More than 100 respondents said agencies asked them to delete or change scientific information, the UCS report said. For example, 16% said they saw officials selectively use data to justify a particular regulatory outcome. Ten percent said their agencies had asked them to exclude or change information or conclusions in scientific documents. They said interference has decreased slightly under the Obama administration compared with the Bush years.

Grifo said respondents overwhelmingly said stronger whistleblower protections for inspectors and regulators would improve food safety. They also voiced support for other reforms, many of which are included in the passed House bill and the proposed Senate bill, such as requiring companies to conduct hazard analyses and implement prevention programs and improving the system for tracing food products.

The CDC reports that from May 1 to August 31, 2010, approximately 1,519 illnesses were reported that are likely to be associated with this outbreak.

In addition, the FDA is nearing completion of initial investigations at both of these firms in Iowa. The investigations involve sampling, records review and looking for potential sources of contamination, such as feed. FDA’s inspectional observations, in addition to sample results, indicate substantial potential for Salmonella to have persisted in the environment and to have contaminated eggs (see 483 Inspectional Observations on the Egg Recall).

The CDC warns:

Don’t eat recalled eggs. Recalled eggs might still be in grocery stores, restaurants, and consumers’ homes. Consumers who have recalled eggs should discard them or return them to their retailer for a refund. (see searchable database of products affected by the recall is available to consumers).

And, Individuals who think they might have become ill from eating recalled eggs should consult their health care providers.

We reported on Labor day weekend that health authorities in Michigan were investigating a cluster of E. coli O157:H7 illnesses that appeared to match each other, and were thus thought to have come from the same source.  In fact, Michigan state and local health officials recently announced their conclusion that the three confirmed cases are actually from quite different strains of E. coli O157:H7.  Thus, it appears that there was no single source of infection. 

This is a good example of the utility of microbiology in investigating foodborne disease, and how it relates to the science of epidemiology in tracking outbreaks.  The testing done to distinguish E. coli O157:H7 from its other E. coli counterparts is called serotyping. Pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (“PFGE”), sometimes also referred to as genetic fingerprinting, is used to compare E. coli O157:H7 isolates to determine if the strains are distinguishable. 

Through PFGE testing, isolates obtained from the stool cultures of probable outbreak cases can be compared to the genetic fingerprint of the outbreak strain, confirming that the person was in fact part of the outbreak. Because PFGE has proved to be such a powerful outbreak investigation tool, PulseNet, a national database of PFGE test results, was created to enable health investigators to track more-than-baseline occurrences of specific strains of bacteria to determine whether an outbreak is occuring. 

PFGE testing, in combination with other methods of identifying similarities between the genetic profiles of bacterial isolates, must be employed alongside more traditional epidemiological methods.  These would include consideration of food exposures for any matching illnesses, geographical proximity between cases, the time of exposure as it relates to the existence of an implicated food in the marketplace, and other things. 

Good work by state and local Michigan health authorities.  It is just as important to quickly and efficiently determine what illnesses are not related to each other as those that are. 

The Wall Street Journal today lambasted the USDA and FDA, though less specifically, for failure to communicate about many sanitation problems at Wright County Egg in the months during the current Salmonella debacle (a/k/a outbreak). 

In written remarks, the USDA graders repeatedly noted problems with bugs, trash and egg residue. "The scanning equip[ment] had egg yolk everywhere," read an April 29 note. "Lots of bugs dead on the floor," read another on July 1.

The graders didn’t stop production. The USDA says that is because they notified the plant manager each morning when they saw issues, and facilities were cleaned up before production began. "The egg graders did their jobs," the USDA said in a statement.


Even in the week of Aug. 15-21, after the FDA inspectors arrived at Wright County, they didn’t know that USDA graders a few dozen feet away were marking their reports "unsatisfactory" day after day in critical areas, according to FDA officials.


When the FDA finally did come for an inspection in August, it found many sanitation problems at Wright’s henhouses including mice, maggots and manure piles as high as eight feet.

The article continues:

FDA food official Jeff Farrar said the two agencies needed to improve communication and they were working on it.

USDA officials have repeatedly said safety of eggs isn’t their job. They say badges such as "USDA Grade A" refer to the eggs’ size and color, and consumers shouldn’t interpret the grade as an indicator of safety.

Grading is optional for egg producers, but packaging eggs with a USDA shield allows them to charge more. The producers pay the USDA for the personnel.

Mr. Vilsack [Secretary of Agriculture] said this week: "Our people are focused on grading eggs. They are not necessarily focused on all of the other issues that the FDA had, and all the responsibilities FDA had."

Yet another reason for a more centralized, holistic regulatory approach to food safety (Food Safety Modernization Act?)  Nah, just keep it like it is. 

A report today confirms the link of two E. coli O26 infections in Maine to the Cargill outbreak and recall.

The Maine CDC has identified two adults with a matching strain of E. coli O26. The date of onset of illness for the two patients, who live in Androscoggin and Oxford counties, was July 8 and July 16. Both patients prepared and consumed ground beef. One patient in New York State also matches this strain of E. coli O26. The patient in New York also had exposure to ground beef.

The ground beef involved was distributed by Cargill Meat Solutions, and sold at BJ’s Wholesale Club stores in Maine. 

The product involved in the recall:

42-pound cases of "Ground Beef Fine 90/10," containing three approximately 14-pound chubs each. These products have a "use/freeze by" date of "07/01/10" and an identifying product code of "W69032."

E. coli O126 is a strain of Escherichia coli that produces a toxin (shiga-toxin) that causes illness in humans.  E. coli O126 is not currently regulated by USDA, although Bill Marler and Marler Clark are pushing the agency to do so.  The bacteria causes the same type of illness, including the risk for HUS, as the more well known E. coli O157:H7.

Jens Manuel Krogstad and Phil Brasher at the Des Moines Register this morning published another article on the conditions at Wright County Egg during the egg outbreak . . . and, for some, extending back a decade or more.  The reports came from past and present workers at the company.

  • Dozens of chickens died daily, their bodies lying undiscovered in cages for days, and perhaps weeks, at a time, they said.  "There’s always been mice," former worker Lucas Garcias said through an interpreter. "I saw maggots and sometimes mice on the conveyor belt."  NOTE:  the presence of rodents and other vermin is to be expected in henhouse operations, but this is no excuse for the apparent level of infestation at Wright County Egg.  FURTHER NOTE:  the FDA’s Egg Rule sets forth specific measures to take for control of vermin infestation.
  • Garcias, a former Dominican employee at Wright County Egg who worked there for a decade before the outbreak said he always knew when the doors to the hen houses were open because ammonia wafted into his building and made his eyes water.  According to the Des Moines Register article, "News of the salmonella outbreak did not come as a shock, he said.  "I wasn’t surprised, because they’re not careful," he said through an interpreter. "They could do more."
  • Hundreds of mice killed by poison can fill about 50 cage traps in each hen house several times a week, he said. About four months ago, he said he noticed workers emptying the cages once a week or less.  "Lately, there have been a lot of mice," another worker said through an interpreter. "It’s been kind of ignored. But now it’s better. Ever since it came out that there was disease, they started working on it."
  • Current workers described a daily routine that starts at 6:30 a.m. by checking the chicken’s drinking water. They then toss dead chickens into bins about as tall as their chests. Workers estimate they find as many as 20 dead chickens per hen house daily, though that number can triple on hot summer days.  Sometimes days go by before a decomposing chicken is discovered, the workers said. Once a week, workers said they inspect the cages with flashlights to look for chickens they may have missed. Trampel, the ISU poultry veterinarian, said a 0.1 percent mortality rate for caged laying hens is typical. Dead chickens should be picked up every day, he said. Several former employees said deceased chickens sometimes went undiscovered for a week or more.  "They’d leave them there for weeks," Jorge Santiago said through an interpreter. 

A Mexican woman who quit in January called the conditions inside the hen houses "incredible." "I don’t understand how the government allowed them to operate like this," she said through an interpreter.  We are increasingly wondering the same thing.  Here are some more findings released earlier. 

New York State Agriculture Commissioner Patrick Hooker today alerted consumers that Midland Farms, located in Menands, New York, is voluntarily recalling certain milk products due to the potential of improper pasteurization.

The recalled milk products are all sold in plastic containers and are marketed under the brand names Midland Farms, Corrado’s Market, Jersey Dairy Farms and Trade Fair Premium. They all possess the plant code 36-1661. The products also possess a black ink date code near the top of the container. The recalled products were sold in New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Rhode Island. The products involved in this recall include:

Recalled Gallons:

• "Midland Farms Milk" with the date code SEP24
• "Midland Farms Reduced Fat, 2% Milk Fat Milk" with the date code SEP24
• "Midland Farms Low Fat, 1% Milk Fat Milk" with the date code SEP24
• "Midland Farms Fat Free Milk" with the date code SEP24
• "Corrado’s Milk" with the date code SEP24
• "Corrado’s Market Reduced Fat, 2% Milk Fat Milk" with the date code SEP24
• "Corrado’s Market Low Fat 1% Milk Fat Milk" with the date code SEP24
• "Corrado’s Market Fat Free Milk" with the date code SEP24
• "Jersey Dairy Farms Vitamin D Milk" with the date code SEP24
• "Trade Fair Premium Milk" with the date code SEP24
• "Trade Fair Premium Reduced Fat, 2% Milk Fat Milk" with the date code SEP24
• "Trade Fair Premium Low Fat, 1% Milk Fat Milk" with the date code SEP24
• "Trade Fair Premium Fat Free Milk" with the date code SEP24

Recalled Half-Gallons:

• "Midland Farms Milk" with the date code SEP24
• "Midland Farms Reduced Fat, 2% Milk Fat Milk" with the date code SEP24
• "Midland Farms Low Fat, 1% Milk Fat Milk" with the date code SEP24
• "Midland Farms Fat Free Milk" with the date code SEP24
• "Jersey Dairy Farms Vitamin D Milk" with the date code SEP24

Recalled Quarts:

• "Midland Farms Fresh Whole Milk" with SELLBY 9/24/10
• "Midland Farms Reduced Fat Milk" with SELLBY 9/24/10
• "Midland Farms Fresh Low Fat Milk" with SELLBY 9/24/10
• "Midland Farms Fresh Fat Free Milk" with SELLBY 9/24/10

Recalled Pints:

• "Midland Farms Whole Milk" with SELLBY 9/24/10

The problem was detected by New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets’ milk inspectors during an inspection on September 7, 2010 when they found a failure of pasteurization equipment at the Menands milk plant.  While the recalled products have not been found to be contaminated with any harmful pathogens, the company is voluntarily recalling all production as a precautionary measure.  No illnesses have been reported to date to this Department in connection with this problem.

US PIRG, the federation of state public interest groups, released a report today on outbreaks and illnesses since the House’s passage of HR 2749, a/k/a the Food Safety Enhancement Act, known in its current iteration before the Senate as the Food Safety Modernization Act.  The report, stamped with a red label that reads "Recipe for Disaster," details 85 recalls resulting in 13 known outbreaks and over 1,800 illnesses nationally since the date, July 30, 2009, that the House of Representatives passed its version of the Food Safety bill. 

Among the notable outbreaks are:

  • Wright County Egg recall contaminated by Salmonella enteritidis (1,470 illnesses currently reported)
  •  Mincing Overseas Spice black pepper recall contaminated by Salmonella (272 reported illnesses)
  • Freshway Foods shredded romaine lettuce contaminated by E. coli O145 (26 confirmed illnesses and 7 probable)
  • Caldwell Fresh Foods sprouts contaminated by Salmonella (44 reported illnesses)

The Food Safety Modernization Act would require food manufacturers to develop written food safety plans and to implement preventive measures; it would give the FDA a mandate to conduct inspections of food processing facilities, and to conduct microbial testing; it require high-risk producers to be inspected more frequently; and it would give the FDA the authority to order companies to recall potentially tainted foods.

This makes good sense.  Despite remonstrances to the contrary by those who fear that revamping our almost century old regulatory approach to food safety will entomb small-scale producers, more pressure needs to be brought to bear on manufacturers, who always will be the primary line of defense in protecting consumers against foodborne pathogens.  Giving the government the resources it needs, both in terms of manpower and regulatory flexibility, is an important pressure point in forcing manufacturers to respect the rules that they’re bound by, and forcing them to adopt and respect best practices when there’s no laws on point. .

A recent raw milk outbreak of E. coli O157 among 30 plus folks in Colorado serves as an important reminder of the enormous risks associated with consumption of raw milk and raw milk products, especially for kids and the elderly.

Jennifer Brown at the Denver Post has written an excellent article on one family’s horrific experience.  Like most parents, Mary and Mike Pierce were trying to do something beneficial for their kids.  They even did online research on the risks and benefits associated with raw milk consumption, which led them to believe the level of risk was low.  They went ahead and bought raw milk to feed to their 2 year-old daughter and 5 year-old son.  Both became deathly ill with E. coli O157 infections, leading to Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS) and weeks of dialysis.

Of raw milk’s enormous risk, Mary Pierce says it best: "It’s not worth it. You can’t understand until it’s your kid lying in the bed."

This story highlights just how confusing and downright misleading much of the information available on the internet is when it comes to the topic of raw milk.  It is for this reason that Marler Clark has funded the creation of Real Raw Milk Facts.  The website aims is to provide the interested public with scientifically based information on raw milk risks and benefits, and was developed by a working group of scientists and health educators.

In between my day job as managing partner at Marler Clark, my evening job as blogger at Marler Blog and my middle of the night job as publisher at Food Safety News, I spend some time traveling the world pitching “why it is a bad idea to poison your customers.” Here are some upcoming trips:

September 7-9, 2010 – Australian Food Safety Conference, Melbourne, Australia

September 13-14, 2010 – New Zealand Food Safety Authority Conference, Auckland, New Zealand

October 17-20, 2010- Food Microbiology Symposium, University of Wisconsin, River Falls, Wisconsin

October 27-28, 2010 – ACI Food-borne Illness Litigation Conference, Chicago, Illinois

November 3, 2010 – International Conference for Food Safety and Quality, San Francisco, California

November 4, 2010 – University of Arkansas Law School Lecture, Fayetteville, Arkansas

November 10-12, 2010 – China International Food Safety Conference, Shanghai, China

February 21-24, 2011 – Dubai Food Safety Conference, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

March 23-24, 2011 – Canada Food Processors Association, Calgary, Alberta

May 12, 2011 – Red Meat Abattoir Association, Pretoria, South Africa