On September 29 Richard Raymond used his Meatingplace blog to talk about an important but unnoticed anniversary. It had been one year since he retired from his post as the USDA’s undersecretary for Food Safety, a position that has been curiously unfilled since the day he walked away.
In the week following his blog, the New York Times savaged the ground beef business with a front page bombshell of a story powered by some truths, a few dozen half truths and a laundry list of misconceptions. Right behind that punch to the gut came a cold slap to the face of most of the rest of the food processing industry; the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s list of the 10 most dangerous foods.
The list, published by major broadcast news services, dozens of national and regional print publications and an uncountable list of internet-based outlets, included leafy greens, dairy products and seafood. Ground beef got nary a mention. Every effected trade association screamed in agony, pointing out the often large holes in the NY Times and CSPI studies. If the reports are to be believed, ground beef, most of our favorite vegetables, some seafood and all dairy products are highly suspect. Take all those things off the table and our national weight problem is solved overnight as we enjoy a starvation diet of all that seems left: purified water and plain oatmeal.
But it brings a serious issue to America’s dinner table. Who and what do we trust? Has the American Food supply become so tainted that we can’t put anything in the oven without worry? Has the amalgam of local, state and federal agencies charged with insuring a safe supply of food become so toothless that there is no ‘bite’ left in their oversight? Why is Raymond’s old post still standing empty even after the Obama called improvements in food safety one of the primary goals of his administration and backed up his claim by creating an all star laden Food Safety Working Group?
Talking about the group, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said, "Shortly after coming into office, the Administration created a high-level Food Safety Working Group to coordinate food safety policies, focus greater resources on prevention, and improve response to outbreaks.”
FSWG is just a few months old but it has already launched an initiative to cut down E. coli contamination, issued draft guidelines for industry to further reduce the risk of O157 contamination, appointed a chief medical officer within USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service to reaffirm its role as a public health agency, started testing additional components of ground beef, including bench trim, issued new instructions to USDA employees asking that they verify that plants follow sanitary practices in processing beef carcasses and designed the Public Health Information System (PHIS) in response to lessons learned in past outbreaks.”
For most federal groups, that’s a decade’s worth of work but it was done in just a few short months. It indicates a seriousness of concern unappreciated and virtually unnoticed by the public or the press.
But still, there’s the little problem of a key post, the undersecretary of food safety, unfilled by two administrations. It certainly isn’t for want of qualified candidates.
Our colleges and universities can offer up dozens of experts with stunning credentials. Industry can match them man for man, woman for woman.
We’re at a watershed moment when it comes to food safety issues. The public, perhaps over-stimulated by broadcast and print exposes of questionable scientific validity, is starting to demand changes in the system that are prohibitively expensive or technically impossible. As the nation moves generationally farther from the farm and understands less and less about basic food care and preparation – the microwave is the kitchen tool of choice for an astonishing number of households – there is less room for error in food processing.
I wanted to look into the food safety issue and Washington’s role in it from both sides of the table so I asked Richard Raymond and Bill Marler, two of the most formidable men in the business, to answer the same set of questions – point/counterpoint. Raymond has worked within the government and with many others in the food processing business. Marler has successfully sued many of those processors who failed to meet their obligations and stands ready to do it again-and-again until the industry “puts him out of business.”
Raymond answered from his experiences gained from long years of service to the industry. Marler answered from the experiences gained from too many years of taking miscreants to the financial wood shed.
Although they disagreed on a few points, I was surprised at how many of their answers were similar. Here is Five Minutes with Bill Marler and Five Minutes with Richard Raymond, ten minutes of fascinating answers to important questions.
Q. It’s been just over a year since Mr. Raymond retired from his post as undersecretary for food safety. The position has remained unfilled. Has the lack of direct oversight harmed the effort to improve food safety?
Marler: “The position of undersecretary for food safety plainly exists for a reason, but if the failure to fill the position indicates that the Obama administration no longer thinks that the position has a role to play, then it should be abolished. I would, however, disagree with its abolition. In the absence of creating a replacement agency that has as its SOLE mission food safety, then the undersecretary for food safety should and needs to be the responsible person within the FSIS on this important issue, advocating and making decisions solely on behalf of public health.”
Raymond: "Career employees are very good at what they do, but they are not going to push the envelope and antagonize either the consumers or the industry with major regulatory changes. Dr Petersen’s quote in the NYT article Sunday summarized that attitude. the Under secretary must be one who can put public health and food safety first and foremost, and take the heat from all sides when it comes, as it will. Plus there is that lack of visibility with Congress, the media and others without a Senate confirmed political appointee."
(Editors note: Raymond is referring to a statement attributed to Dr. Kenneth Petersen, an assistant administrator with the Food Safety and Inspection Service who said the department could mandate testing, but that it needed to consider the impact on companies as well as consumers. “I have to look at the entire industry, not just what is best for public health,” he said.)
Q. Why didn’t/haven’t the Bush and Obama administrations moved more quickly to fill the post?
Marler: “Because there is no reason for this position to exist unless it has a singular mission on behalf of food safety, which is to say, solely on behalf of the public health, the failure to fill this position can only be seen as a refusal, so far at least, to put the interests of public health before other competing, commercial interest.
Unfortunately, this conflict of interest is inherent (systemically and practically) in the USDA. FSIS has FOOD SAFETY as the main part of its name, and, to me, this mean that safety should be its sole mission, with the undersecretary for food safety as the keeper of this mission. Arguably, however, if the FSIS truly took to hearts its mission on behalf of food safety, then the FSIS administrator would be the keeper of the mission, making it unnecessary to have an undersecretary doing so.”
“But the bottom-line, I think, is that the theoretical desire to fill this position with someone would do nothing but put the safety of the public first is being undercut by the political and practical reality that appointing someone like this would be fiercely opposed by industry.”
Raymond: "Who knows the answer to this question? The President has said "our food safety system is a threat to the public’s health. Yet the number one position in the US government for food safety goes unfilled"
Q. Would you both agree on two points made in Raymond’s blog – the odds of getting a food borne illness from beef is extremely slim, but if it’s your child "who becomes ill with O157 from eating beef, it is 100 percent for him or her, and you should be demanding even better odds?" Taking it to the next step, demanding better odds are a noble pursuit but not very effective. More importantly, the demand should be followed with action steps. What should be done to improve those odds?
Marler: “The odds of getting a foodborne illness from beef are NOT extremely slim, and it is silly to so suggest. Instead, the odds of an OUTBREAK of illnesses being linked to the consumption of beef are slim. As we have known for a long time, foodborne illness is hugely prevalent in the United States, it’s just that most is never linked to any particular food product.”
“Claims about the odds of foodborne illness simply cannot be seriously made without there being increased surveillance and testing. Indeed, right now, we barely have an inkling about the prevalence of pathogens in the meat supply given the paucity of testing over the years. So, sure the 100% odds for a child with a confirmed E. coli O157:H7 infection linked to a recalled meat product makes for a tragic story, but that shouldn’t be allowed to be a diversion from the reality of how much illness, injury, and death might be attributable to meat products that we simply do not know about.”
Raymond: “Make non-0157 STECs an adulterant. Make whole beef cuts contaminated with E coli adulterated. Make whole carcass low dose irradiation a processing aid, not an additive. Make all further processors test incoming product before fabrication and/or blending—then the big packers cannot black ball them as they do now, or no one would buy their products. Spend money on educating the consumer similar to that spent educating America on going digital for TV. Trace back to the source–the new bench trim policy is an example of fluff with absolutely no teeth in it because of the stance by the big packers. Sounds nice, but it could do a whole lot more without any more testing."
Q. Most people who are in the business of supplying food to the public are conscientious about their responsibilities; a few have proven themselves to be less so.
First, how should we deal with those businesses that knowingly take shortcuts and put the public in danger?
Marler: “Most businesses are neither overly conscientious nor knowingly careless. Instead, businesses seek profits, and profits come first. To the extent that improved safety and quality are consistent with being profitable, companies will invest in the improvements. But to analyze food safety in terms of levels of conscientiousness versus levels of recklessness and malice is to create an either-or that does not really exist.”
“Businesses do not have consciences; they have bottom-lines. And the real utility of companies like Peanut Corporation of America, which was truly an example of a company that knowingly took shortcuts, is that the existence of PCA allows all the other businesses to more convincingly argue that they are different. The differences are, however, differences of degree, not kind.”
Raymond: "When found, they need to be heavily fined, maybe sentenced to jail time, and put out of business. If I knowingly endanger the public by drinking and driving, I pay a steep penalty. If a producer knowingly puts contaminated product out for sale, is s/he not equally endangering the public? And to find more of these bad apples, we need risk-based inspection but Congress said we could not do it. And the associations need to stop protecting these bottom feeders."
Q. Other businesses, despite their best efforts and the use of HACCP programs that are as up-to-date as the state-of-the-art allows, have had their products recalled. What is their responsibility? And is there a point when the consumer has to take some responsibility for illnesses caused by poor handling in the home?
Marler: I don’t even know what “despite their best efforts” might mean if used in a way that wasn’t sophistry. Similarly, what does it mean to say that “the consumer has to take some responsibility” when we are talking about meat contaminated with E. coli O157:H7? A consumer “takes some responsibility” when they get sick, end up in the hospital or die. So, if we are asking here whether we should deny some of these consumers a legal remedy, or full compensation—well, the answer is:
We already do.
Raymond: HACCP will not detect contaminated boxed beef and testing every three months will not, either. They need to test before blending and hold the product until negative results are in. Testing ground beef and still moving it out the door before results are back is ridiculous.
I do not know how to respond to the second question, except that parents are responsible for child car restraints, helmet wear when biking, teaching kids to look both ways when crossing a street, wearing a life jacket in a boat, having smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, etc., etc. Why it is not their responsibility to safely handle and cook meat I just do not understand. We can do better, but we cannot at this time and place, absolutely guarantee that raw meat and poultry do not contain pathogens."
Q. It’s often been said "America has the safest food supply in the world." Do you agree? Are there other nations you can point to with outstanding food safety programs?
Marler: Saying that “America has the safest food supply in the world” is meaningless happy-talk. Safest compared to what? Now, if you want to compare particular kinds of food, then things start to be more meaningful. So, how about Denmark? Over a decade ago it eliminated Salmonella from ALL chickens and eggs. Are America’s chickens safer than that? I think not. And the list could go on.
Raymond: Absolutely and it is getting better all the time. But there are many things that can be done to make it even safer. New Zealand, Japan and Australia come to mind when looking at nations with good food safety programs."