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Will BPI’s Plant Closures Affect America’s Ground Beef?

For the third consecutive Christmas season, Food Safety News presents its annual Naughty and Nice List. Like all such lists, this one exists to help Santa decide what everybody should get.

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Anyone who’s been naughty about food safety deserves something far worse in their stocking than a lump of coal. The nice should fare better, even if it is just a pat on the back.
Without further delay, here’s my N&N for 2011:
NAUGHTY
Daniel G. Jarcho, the former government attorney assigned to handle the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), now represents Del Monte Fresh Produce.  He’s the one who got an import alert lifted for Guatemalan-grown cantaloupes, months after melons from the same farm were blamed for a 10-state outbreak of Salmonella Panama that sickened 20 people.
The K Street lawyer claimed the FDA could not close the U.S. border to any imported food without a positive genetic test showing contamination, leaving consumers to wonder if the FDA was given proof that conditions that led to the outbreak were cleaned up.
NICE
Dr. Elisabeth A. Hagen, the Under Secretary for Food Safety, made the gutsy decision to declare six more dangerous strains of E. coli as adulterants in meat.
For the first time since 1994, when E. coli O157:H7 became the first pathogenic E. coli to be banned from meat, Hagen acted to add six more serotypes (O26, O103, O45, O111, O121 and O145) to the verboten list.
The six additional toxin-producing E. coli strains are responsible for more than 36,000 illnesses, 1,100 hospitalizations and 30 deaths in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
NAUGHTY
U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-MI, is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and its powerful Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.  With its own investigative resources, this is the arm of Congress most responsible for food safety.
Its bipartisan investigations and hearings birthed the new FDA Food Safety Modernization Act passed by the last Congress. But not even the most deadly outbreak of foodborne illness in the U.S., or the devastating outbreak of a rare E. coli strain in Germany, could get Upton interested in food safety.
Being naughty along with Upton was Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-FL, who chairs the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.
NICE
Mike Taylor, deputy Food and Drug Administration Commissioner for Food, is this administration’s go-to guy for information on the FDA’s implementation of the new Food Safety Modernization Act. The access and insights he has provided in 2011 would be enough alone to put him on the Nice List.
However, it was the release of his oral history and interview with Food Safety News, about his past government service when he was administrator of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service during the Clinton Administration, that won our appreciation. He recalled the events surrounding his decision to first ban O157 from meat in 1994 — which he announced at a meeting of the American Meat Institute. Nice Mike!
NAUGHTY 
U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-MN, is seeking the nomination to be her party’s candidate for President. With the media she visited the Amend Packing Co. in Des Moines, wielded a knife to cut some red meat and verbally slashed the federal government for over-regulating such businesses.
She claimed one of six Amend employees was a meat inspector paid for by the company.  That may be true, Amends is a small family-owned operation apparently under state regulation. What Rep. Bachmann did not acknowledge is that Iowa would probably tip into recession if federal meat inspectors — who are paid by taxpayers, not the meat industry — lost their jobs.   
NICE
Barbara Cassens, director of FDA’s San Francisco district, sometimes has to find a diplomatic way to tell the truth. In a year when the role and performance of the third-party auditing industry was again called into question, this time over the outbreak caused by contaminated cantaloupes from a Colorado farm recently audited, Cassens took questions at a Produce Marketing Association meeting.
Asked if FDA is going to rely on third-party auditors, she responded: “We are leaning in that direction. Working out that program is a matter of understanding what principles apply, and how we audit the auditors. The fundamental question is, does it provide another level of safety? If it doesn’t, it’s not time well spent.”
NAUGHTY
Randy Spronk, president of the National Pork Producers Council, stepped into it February when he opted to respond to “A Manifesto for the Future,” written by Mark Bittman, food columnist for the New York Times. Bittman’s thought-provoking piece covered the waterfront with reform ideas, including his often-stated opposition to so-called concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.
Spronk jumped on that, sending a letter to the editor that included this line:  “Yes, there were a couple of highly publicized manure spills involving hog farms in the mid-1990s.” Until then, probably 99 percent of New York Times readers did not know “concentrated animal feeding operations” are hog farms that spill manure. Now that’s naughty!
NICE
Dr. William Keene is senior state epidemiologist for Oregon. He was one of several state epidemiologists who investigated a Salmonella Panama outbreak traced to Del Monte Fresh Produce cantaloupes from Guatemala.
Later, Del Monte Fresh Produce apparently decided a takedown of the entire science of epidemiology was necessary to get its Guatemalan cantaloupes off the import alert list.
In doing so, it lodged a scurrilous complaint against Dr. Keene. Others, like Dr. Tim Jones, Tennessee state epidemiologist, came to his defense, calling out Del Monte Fresh Produce’s tactics as an attempt to put a “chilling effect” on the work of public health agencies.
Oregon’s ethics board quickly dismissed the complaint against Keene as groundless. The fruit company’s real goal, many thought, was to get a standard set in which the only justification for an import alert is a positive test for product contamination.
NAUGHTY
David E. Gumpert is an author, journalist and raw milk advocate. A Food Safety News contributor, he makes sensible points about the regulation of raw milk, relative to other risky foods.
But early in 2011 some of his remarks on the stump went over the top. “As far as I can tell, we are at war,” Gumpert told raw milk advocates protesting outside FDA headquarters in Virginia.
Raw milk advocates should be able to make their case in this country’s legislative halls. They will accomplish nothing by going to the guns with inflammatory rhetoric, and Gumpert knows that. To say otherwise is naughty.
NICE
U.S. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-VT, chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.   
From shortly after the 2009 Salmonella outbreak invo
lving peanut butter and peanut paste, which sickened 700 people and killed nine, Leahy has kept pressure on the Justice Department to prosecute those responsible.
He renewed that call on Feb. 22, 2011 in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, writing: “I hope that there has been a thorough criminal investigation into PCA’s conduct at the least, and if appropriate, criminal charges are aggressively pursued.”
Leahy again pointed out that Peanut Corporation of American “knowingly distributed potentially contaminated peants for use in hundreds of different food products even after samples tested positive for salmonella more than a dozen times in the two years before the outbreak.” While it’s unlikely the AG will ever respond, it’s nice of Leahy to keep asking.
NAUGHTY
Minnesota State Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City,  won easy approval of a bill prohibiting civil actions against retail outlets like McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King for weight gain resulting from eating fast food. But more naughty than that — the bill also says companies that manufacture, distribute or sell food or nonalcoholic beverages have civil immunity unless a violation is “knowing and willful.”
Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed the measure. He said he’d be willing to sign legislation that states individuals are responsible for their own dietary choices. However, he said the Urdahl bill went too far with its overly broad exemption from liability.  
NICE
Kathleen Merrigan, deputy Secretary of Agriculture, runs much of the sprawling USDA, which has more people and functions than most of us can image. Just when many feared on-the-farm food safety would be forgotten, Merrigan pulled a new one from her bag of programs.   
The On-Farm Food Safety Program is a nice way for USDA to end the year.  The new online tool is available for farmers to use without charge and is an easy way to learn how to mitigate on-farm safety risks.
NAUGHTY
James Dilorio is the subcontractor working for Primus Labs who conducted the audit of the Jensen Farms packinghouse in Granada, CO on July 25, 2011. The audit, according to the report, took four hours and 20 minutes. Primus gave Jensen Farms a grade of 96 out of a possible 100.
Before the year was out, cantaloupes processed by that facility were said to be responsible for the most deadly outbreak of foodborne illness in 100 years.
NICE
Eldon Roth is founder and chief executive officer of Dakota Dunes, SD-based Beef Products Inc., which in 1998 became the first company in the beef industry to test for E. coli O157:H7 and hold meat until the results were in.
In mid-2011, BPI continued to lead the beef industry by also testing for six non-O157 strains of E. coli known as the Big Six. It did so before the Under Secretary for Food Safety made her decision to ban those strains from ground beef.  
Just as nice is Craig Wilson, food safety director at Costco. He led the retail giant to implement the same testing policy. Because of Roth and Wilson, business acted ahead of government, and the public was safer for it.
NAUGHTY
Beth Sparboe Schnell is owner of Sparboe Farms, one of the nation’s largest shell egg producers and a main supplier to the likes of McDonald’s and Target Stores. With egg farms in Minnesota, Iowa and Colorado, the company touted its “highest quality egg products,” produced where “safety is Number One” following “science-based animal welfare guidelines.”
Then an undercover video from an animal rights group surfaced, along with poor inspection reports. Sparboe lost its big customers, and was left trying to figure.
NICE
Leonard Downie Jr. is the Weil Family Professor of Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Arizona State University.
A former executive editor who spent 44 years at the Washington Post, Downie coordinated this year’s “How Safe Is Your Food?” seminar and project for the Carnegie-Knight News21 program, led by William Marimow and Jody Brannon. Their talented group of students, including many who are experienced journalists, produced some outstanding work as part of the 2011 Food Safety Project that we were honored to publish after the stories ran in the Washington Post and on msnbc.com.
NAUGHTY
Michael Schmidt is a Canadian raw-milk farmer who went on a five-week hunger strike, vowing to “go unto death” until Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty met briefly with him on Nov. 4 to discuss Canada’s ban on the sale of unpasteurized milk. Although a spokesman said McGinty has no plans to change Canada’s raw-milk policy, the premier suggested Schmidt lobby members of Parliament to see if there is support for overturning the ban.
Schmidt says his protest caused him to lose 50 pounds. On Nov. 25, he was convicted on 13 charges related to the sale and distribution of unpasteurized milk and cheese, and operating a plant without a license. He was fined $9,150 and put on probation. Now he is appealing the convictions.
NICE
U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, D-WI, was food safety’s guardian angel in 2011.
At a time when there was lot at stake for food safety, with the need to really bump up the FDA’s budget to effectively implement the Food Safety Modernization Act, as well as to  avoid cuts to USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, Kohl was there.
He has kept funding levels for both FDA and FSIS higher than those offered by the House, and has proved to be an effective advocate just when food safety needed one.
© Food Safety News
  • John Munsell

    Not only is FSIS’ Dr. Elisabeth Hagen NICE, she is also an aggressive, pro-active formulator of new policies which have the capability of rennovating the agency’s less-than-superlative policies. If she can overcome the agency’s historical reluctance to implement meaningful policy changes, public health may indeed be blessed. Only time will tell if Dr. Hagen’s desire to require common sense will override legal concerns at the agency. John Munsell