Guest Blog: Risk-Free Eating In The EU: It’s Promise Time

It’s not only US-based politicians and bureaucrats who have the hubris to proclaim that “we have the world’s safest food supply.” The European Union is not immune from making equally absurd and unsubstantiated claims.

The following Guest Blog first appeared on Le Blog d’Albert Amgar under the title “Une alimentation sans danger dans l’UE: le temps des promesses” and is reproduced here in English translation with the kind permission of its author, Albert Amgar.

Risk-Free Eating In The EU: It’s Promise Time

by Albert Amgar
(translation by Phyllis Entis)

The EU communiqué announcing the release of the RASFF 2011 Annual Report is quite a joke. Consider the title of the communiqué, “Food: Latest Report shows EU Controls ensure our food is safe.”

For starters, the European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy makes the following statement, which cannot be verified, insofar as such comparisons are impossible to measure: “European consumers enjoy the highest food safety standards in the world.”

Those German consumers who became ill or died in 2011 would appreciate that!

What to make of this type of statement: “In 2011, we dealt with a number of important crises such as the effects of the Fukushima nuclear incident, the dioxin and the E. coli crisis.” The “important crisis” was that many sushi-lovers believed that these products were imported from Japan and stopped patronizing these establishments! See “Why Japanese restaurants have fallen out of favor”/Pourquoi les restaurants japonais n’ont plus la cote?

Did food safety hazards nevertheless present a risk to consumers?

E. coli in fenugreek sprouts was responsible for 3842 illnesses and 55 deaths in Germany; in France, the Bordeaux episode caused 24 cases of infection.

An EU Commission Staff Working Document enumerated several important lessons learned from the 2011 crisis, among which are:

  • improving the RASFF by launching iRASFF, an on-line notification platform that will enable RASFF to operate with greater speed and effectiveness than ever before;
  • review operational procedures for crisis management to ensure adequate  flexibility;
  • review the regulations relating to traceability to find hazardous products and remove them from the marketplace faster and more effectively;
  • organize, in conjunction with major trading partners and in cooperation with the European Food Safety Agency and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, specialized training on the investigation of food-borne diseases and outbreak management, as well as improvement of hygiene in primary food production [via the EU program “Better Training for Safer Food”]
  • develop specific regulations for seeds and the production of sprouts;
  • improve the coordination and clarity of communication during a crisis.

A few simple observations:

  • It is very nice to discover that i-notification exists – in 2012!
  • It is not necessary to review the traceability regulations – just to ensure that everyone follows the regulations that already are on the books.
  • Regarding the development of regulations for seeds and the production of sprouts, I share the thoughts of Richard Lawley, in his article “Can seed sprouts be made safe?” Yes, without a doubt, but only by cooking.

As for improving the coordination of communication during periods of crisis, it seems to me that Europe has already demonstrated that it’s everyone for himself.

About Albert Amgar: Albert Amgar lives in Paris, France. He worked as a young scientist at the Parasitology and Tropical Medicine Service of the Pitié Salpétrière Hospital and later spent 12 years in the pharmaceutical industry. In 1989, he became director of a new association of agro-food industrialists named ASEPT in Laval (France). He was the general manager of ASEPT until his retirement.

Guest Blog: In Defense of Food Safety Leadership

The following Guest Blog first appeared on Food Safety News, and is reproduced here with the kind permission of its author, Nancy Donley.

In Defense of Food Safety Leadership

by Nancy Donley

My only child, Alex, died from hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) caused by eating E. coli O157:H7-contaminated ground beef back in 1993 when he was only 6 years old. It was the most horrendous experience possible.

His first symptoms were severe abdominal cramping and bowel movements that consisted strictly of blood and mucus. Alex suffered terribly as his organs shut down one by one. At one point one of his lungs collapsed, requiring bedside surgery. His brain swelled so horribly that shunts were drilled into his head in an effort to relieve the pressure, but to no avail.

My brave little boy’s last words to me before slipping into a coma were, “Don’t cry, Mommy” as I couldn’t stop the tears from silently flowing. His last gesture to his dad was to blow him a kiss. I was with him when he suffered a grand mal seizure and was put on a ventilator. My little boy, my only child, was dead.

Alex had wanted to be a paramedic when he grew up so that he “could help others” — his words. So when he died we hoped to be able to donate his organs so that he could fulfill that wish of helping others, but his organs were unsalvageable because of the damage caused by the E. coli toxins.

There was no cure for this awful disease then and there still isn’t today. Doctors can only hope to support bodily systems until the toxins pass through. It is for this reason that it is critically important for meat and poultry companies to put into place prevention strategies and technologies to ensure that contaminated meat doesn’t make its way into the marketplace.  That’s why we need to support innovations and advances that enhance food safety.

After Alex’s death, I felt compelled — really more like obligated — to fulfill his wish of helping and protecting other consumers by being his voice and working with federal regulating agencies and with companies to see to it that we did a better job as a country in generating a safer food supply. In the process, I have visited numerous meat and poultry plants, have provided input on public policies and food safety laws, and have served on the National Advisory Board for Meat and Poultry Inspection.

One of the many plants I visited was Beef Products, Inc. I got to know the owners, Eldon and Regina Roth, and was impressed by their complete commitment to the safety and wholesomeness of the meat products they produced. I was also impressed by the food safety culture they instilled throughout their company. We shed tears together over what happened to Alex and realized how we share the common goal of preventing illness and death from foodborne pathogens. Ever since that moment, BPI has generously supported STOP and has never asked for anything in return.

That said, one point that needs to be perfectly clear is this:  After what I personally experienced watching my son suffer and die, I am very skeptical and cynical about for-profit meat companies and their professed commitment to food safety. Not all companies “walk their talk.” BPI does.

There has been a lot of misinformation swirling around the Internet and on TV about lean beef trim produced by Beef Products, Inc.  As I stated earlier, I have personally visited their plant and the categorization of calling their product “pink slime” is completely false and incendiary.  Consumers need to understand that this product is meat, period, and that the use of ammonia hydroxide in minute amounts during processing improves the safety of the product and is routinely used throughout the food industry. There are many types of interventions including food-grade antimicrobial sprays which are used on all manner of foods.  Some of these things may sound icky and gross, especially when inaccurately portrayed.  These interventions are necessary in ridding meat of deadly pathogens and are required to prove they pose no threats to consumers. Companies would be prohibited by the USDA and FDA to use substances that could be harmful in human consumption.

I am very concerned that mis-categorization campaigns such as this “pink slime” campaign will cause well-intentioned companies such as BPI to cease innovations for developing better food safety technologies and strategies. Why try to do something better only to get set up as a target?  If this does in fact happen, and promising technologies get thwarted, we, the American public, will be the losers.  And tragedies like Alex will continue to go on and on and on.

About the author: Nancy Donley is recognized as a leading proponent of improvement in both government and private food safety efforts since the death of her six-year old son Alex in 1993 from consumption of E. coli O157:H7-contaminated ground beef. Alex was her and her husband Tom’s only child. Nancy works in a volunteer capacity for STOP Foodborne Illness and has served as its president for over 10 years. She has done extensive advocacy work on behalf of the organization and has been featured in numerous magazine articles, newspaper articles and television interviews in efforts to increase awareness about the risks of foodborne illness. Nancy serves on the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection. She has received numerous awards for her advocacy efforts.

Guest Blog: Safe Employees = Safe Food

The following Guest Blog first appeared on Marler Blog, and is reproduced here with the kind permission of its author, Bill Marler.

Safe Employees = Safe Food

When AP reported this week that an owner of Jensen Farms was being fined by the U.S. Department of Labor for failing to provide safe migrant worker housing, I must admit even I was a bit shocked. Could it be that an owner of a business that allowed the deadly fecal bacteria Listeria to coat its product would also treat its employees like crap too?

Well, apparently yes. It seems that Eric Jensen, the Colorado Cantaloupe grower that caused an outbreak that killed 30 (by my count 32) – sickening a total of 146 – people, rented migrant workers unsanitary, overcrowded rooms at a motel he owns. Inspectors said many rooms lacked beds, laundry facilities and smoke detectors. Jensen now faces a whopping $4,250 in civil penalties. As the Department’s Denver director said:

“Profiting at the expense of vulnerable workers is not just inhumane, it’s illegal.”

I would add immoral and really, really stupid – especially when it comes to producing safe food.

Less we forget, the FDA and the staff of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee found a number of safety lapses at Jensen Farms that likely led to the outbreak:

  • Condensation from cooling systems draining directly onto the floor,
  • Poor drainage resulting in water pooling around the food processing equipment,
  • Inappropriate food processing equipment which was difficult to clean (i.e., Listeria found on the felt roller brushes),
  • No antimicrobial solution, such as chlorine, in the water used to wash the cantaloupes,
  • No equipment to remove field heat from the cantaloupes before they were placed into 
cold storage, and
  • FDA officials were highly critical of the processing methods used at Jensen Farms. According to these FDA officials, the probable causes of the melon contamination at Jensen Farms included “serious design flaws” in the processing technique used at Jensen Farms, “poor sanitary design of the facility itself,” and “lack of awareness of food safety standards by Jensen Farms.” In particular, FDA emphasized to Committee staff that the processing equipment and the decision not to chlorinate the water used to wash the cantaloupes were two probable causes of the contamination.

Hmm, does this sound familiar to you? Remember the sickening of 1939 people with Salmonella and the recall of 500,000,000 eggs in 2010 linked to Iowa’s Wright County Egg? Who could forget the FDA inspection report highlights of some of its findings at Wright County:

  • 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 the following locations: Layer 1 – House 1; Layer 3 – Houses 2, 7, 17, and 18. 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 inside Layer 1 – Houses 1-9 and 11-13; Layer 2 – Houses 7 and 11; Layer 3 – Houses 1, 3, 4, 5, and 6; Layer 4 – House 3,
  • Dark liquid which appeared to be manure was observed seeping through the concrete foundation to the outside of the laying houses at the following locations: Layer 1 – Houses 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 11, 12, and 14; and Layer 3 – Houses 1, 8, 13, and 17,
  • 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, and
  • Live and dead flies too numerous to count were observed at the following locations inside the egg laying houses: Layer 1 – Houses 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 11, and 12; Layer 2 – Houses 7 and 11; Layer 3 – Houses 3, 4, 4, 5, 7, 8, 15, 16, 17, and 18. 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, guess what else – the owner of Wright County, Jack DeCoster, cared little for his employees too. A few examples:

  • In 1997, DeCoster Egg Farms agreed to pay $2 million in fines to settle citations brought in 1996 for health and safety violations at DeCoster’s farm in Turner, Maine. Then-Labor Secretary Robert Reich said conditions were:

“As dangerous and oppressive as any sweatshop.”

  • In 2002, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced a more than $1.5 million settlement of an employment discrimination lawsuit against DeCoster Farms on behalf of Mexican women who reported they were subjected to sexual harassment, including rape, abuse and retaliation by some supervisory workers at DeCoster’s Wright County plants.

And, who can forget Stewart Parnell and the Peanut Corporation of America Salmonella outbreak of 2009 that sickened 714 persons in 46 states – killing nine. The FDA reported that the company shipped tainted products under three conditions: (1) without retesting, (2) before the re-test results came back from an outside company, and (3) after a second test showed no bacterial contamination.

As one PCA employee was quoted as saying:

“I never ate the peanut butter, and I wouldn’t allow my kids to eat it.”

My strong suspicion is that Jensen Farm workers were not eating Jensen Farm cantaloupes as they sat in their overcrowded hotel rooms. And, I would be willing to bet that Wright County employees were not taking a dozen eggs home to the family from work.

Perhaps there is a lesson here? Perhaps how you treat your employees, and how the employee feels about the product, says volumes about the quality and safety of the product? If the employees will not eat the product, perhaps that products should simply not be sold.

About the author: Bill Marler is a personal injury and products liability attorney, and an internationally known food safety advocate. He began litigating foodborne illness cases in 1993, when he represented Brianne Kiner, the most seriously injured survivor of the Jack in the Box E. coli O157:H7 outbreak. Bill is a graduate of the Seattle University School of Law, and the Law School’s “Lawyer in Residence.”