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Food Safety News

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Top Ten Food Safety News Stories of 2009

1.  New York Times reporter Michael Moss introduced readers to Stephanie Smith, a children’s dance instructor from Minnesota who is partially paralyzed from E. coli O157:H7.   In Moss’s Oct. 4 story, it was this paragraph in particular that made readers burn:  “The frozen hamburgers that the Smiths ate, which were made by the food giant Cargill, were labeled ‘American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties.’ Yet confidential grinding logs and other Cargill records show that the hamburgers were made from a mix of hamburger5.jpgslaughterhouse trimmings and a mash-like product derived from scraps that were ground together at a plant in Wisconsin. The ingredients came from slaughterhouses in Nebraska, Texas and Uruguay, and from a South Dakota company that processes fatty trimmings and treats them with ammonia to kill bacteria.”  Stephanie, whose spirit is inspirational, has sued Cargill for at least $100 million.

2.  Nevada resident Linda Rivera was among those most severely injured by Nestlé chocolate-chip cookie dough contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.   Linda’s plight was described on Sept. 1 by the Washington Post, one of many times in 2009 that victims of foodborne illnesses and their families summoned the courage to tell difficult but compelling stories.  In doing so, they caught the attention of lawmakers and helped prompt the U.S. House of Representatives to pass the 2009 Food Safety Act.  However, the Senate has yet to approve S. 510, its version of proposed new federal powers and food-industry reforms.

3.  Peanut Corporation of America caused consumers pain and suffering, the government time and money, and was responsible for the most costly food recall in history – an amazing amount of damage for a small, largely invisible operation.  At least 3,918 separate products made with PCA peanut butter or peanut paste were recalled, costing food companies and the government more than $1 billion. Now in bankruptcy with its entire operation shut down, PCA has yet to provide just compensation for those it sickened with Salmonella Typhimurium.  About 150 claims have been filed with the bankruptcy court for payment from the company’s $12 million product liability policy.   PCA’s distribution of Salmonella-contaminated product led to nine deaths among the 714 confirmed cases of Salmonella in 46 states.

4.  Salmonella contamination was once unheard of in ground beef recalls, but in 2009 there were three.  The strains involved–Salmonella Typhimurium, Salmonella Newport, and Salmonella Typhimurium DT104–are all resistant to commonly prescribed drugs, meaning more victims had to be hospitalized and more treatments failed.  Just two companies were responsible for a total of 1.314 million pounds of beef tainted with this dangerous Salmonella.  Denver-based King Soopers Inc., which recalled 466,236 pounds on July 22, and Fresno-based Beef Packers Inc., which recalled 825,769 pounds on Aug. 6 and another 22,723 pounds on Dec. 4.  Cargill’s repeat performance in the scary Salmonella category is especially troubling because of its involvement up and down the food chain.  For example, Cargill’s canola meal, which it sends to feedlots to fatten cattle, was banned from the United States in October because of Salmonella contamination.

school-lunch-tray-hamburger.jpg5.  If the Obama administration had gotten around to nominating a new under secretary for food safety – an important position that’s been vacant all year — perhaps the new appointee might have had something to say after USA Today reported that Jack in the Box and other fast-food outlets have higher standards than the National School Lunch program.  In a series that examined the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s own hype about the lunch program, USA Today showed that meat provided to school children not only does not “meet or exceed” standards for commercial products, but chains like Jack in the Box, Burger King, McDonald’s and Costco have far more rigorous standards than Uncle Sam.  The big retailers “test the ground beef they buy five to 10 times more often than the USDA tests beef made for schools during a typical production day,” the newspaper reported. “And the limits Jack in the Box and other big retailers set for certain bacteria in their burgers are up to 10 times more stringent than what the USDA sets for school beef.”  Our memories of eating in the school cafeteria are not all that pleasant and, thanks to USA Today, we now know why. USDA says it will work on the problem next year.

6.  To say “mistakes were made” during an outbreak of a Hepatitis A at a McDonald’s restaurant in Milan, IL is putting it mildly.  First and foremost, food workers must be vaccinated for Hepatitis A.  When they’re not, the potential for things to go very wrong, very quickly is enormous and that’s what happened in Milan, a community in the Quad Cities area on the Illinois-Iowa border.  The local hospital testing a McDonald’s worker for Hepatitis A mailed–rather than faxing or phoning–the positive results to the Rock Island County Health Department. Then the letter went unopened for two weeks, apparently because someone was on vacation.  Next, a McDonald’s manager did nothing after a food service worker told the franchise she had contracted Hepatitis A.  It was only when the Rock Island County Health Department figured out a McDonald’s worker had Hepatitis A that the restaurant was closed and cleaned, and the public informed.  Meanwhile, 10,000 people had been exposed.

7. Organic Pastures, the California company that has made raw milk a cause, is under a criminal plea agreement not to sell unpasteurized milk across state lines.  Late in 2009, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration essentially sought to corral Organic Pastures when it went into federal civil court to make the agreement reached in the criminal proceedings permanent.  In response, Organic Pastures says it’s got its hands full trying to supply California outlets and no longer cares about fulfilling any orders it gets from the other 49 states.

8.  Ground beef contaminated with E coli is a story that never seems to end.   In 2009, special notoriety goes to Colorado’s Greeley Beef Plant, now owned by JBS USA, and Fairbank Farms in Asheville, NY.  Each managed to offer at least a half million pounds of E. coli-contaminated ground beef to an unsuspecting public.  The June 24-28 JBS and Halloween Fairbank Farms recall were both associated with outbreaks of dangerous E. coli O157:H7 bacteria.   JBS is responsible for at least 23 confirmed cases in eight states and Fairbank Farms scored 26 confirmed cases in eight states.  Not huge by E. coli outbreak standards, but all too typical.

9.  A Chinese court officially accepted the first lawsuit seeking compensation for that country’s 2008 tainted milk scandal, opening up the possibility of a flood of legal actions. A district court in the northern city of Shijiazhuang will hear the suit filed against the Sanlu Group, the dairy firm linked to the poisoned milk controversy, by an unnamed parent of a child who was sickened.  At least six infants died and nearly 300,000 became ill last year by milk powder contaminated with the industrial chemical melamine, which was added to give the appearance of a higher protein content.

10. The Center for Science in the Public Interest’s release of a report on the 10 riskiest foods regulated by the U.S. Food an
d Drug Administration sp
arked a full-fledged food fight.  Leafy greens, eggs and tuna topped the list, followed by oysters, ice cream, tomatoes and sprouts.  The study, which analyzed 17 years of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other sources, generated significant national media interest, buzz from blogs and local news outlets and drew harsh criticism from the food industry.  Food industry groups – especially those representing foods included in the report – criticized the findings and expressed concern that the publicity would hurt the industries listed.

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