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A Few Questions for the Food Bug Lady

Opinion

Her real title is Phyllis Entis, MSc., SM(NRCM), but she goes by the relatively unattractive name of the “Food Bug Lady.” Her online credo is a lengthy list of things she devoutly believes.  All of it can be summed up this way: “I believe that every individual is entitled to a reliable supply of safe food and safe drinking water.”

She believes in the moral and ethical responsibility for delivering that safe supply of food and water.  She mentions the legal responsibility to do so but that seems self-evident. The federal state and local laws, rules and regulations are thick and omnipresent. Trip up and you’re inviting uncomfortable visits from a variety of officials and legal types like Food Safety News publisher Bill Marler.

Her blog is called eFoodAlert and it’s usually among the first to publish a recall.  The names on her guest blog list include some of the heavyweights like Kansas State University professor Dr. James Marsden, STOP’s Nancy Donley, Dr. Catherine Donnelley and Albert Amgar.  It’s a list that shows the respect she has in the food safety community and for the work she’s done.

But there is more to do. Despite his plea to put him out of business, Bill Marler still has an incredibly distressing work load.  How about Entis end her challenging credo?

“Sadly, I also believe that we have a long way to go – both in the USA and elsewhere around the world – before my personal food safety credo becomes a reality.”

Q, Food Safety News‘ own Helena Bottemiller interviewed you in March, 2010. You questioned the effectiveness of the FDA and USDA. Since that time, there have been several key management changes within those two organizations and certainly quite a few new rules and regs. How would you rate their effectiveness today? Has management gotten tighter? Are the new rules and regs appropriate?

A. Food safety enforcement is – and will always remain – a work in progress. We’ve seen the impact of the Egg Safety Rule – table egg producers are now being inspected and some nasty problems detected and investigated. But it took a major outbreak to finally kick that shovel-ready rule off the regulatory shelf. We now have the classification of six non-O157 STEC serotypes as adulterants in raw beef trim. It’s too soon to tell how much effect that will have. We have yet to feel the impact of much of the Food Safety Modernization Act.

Philosophically, I still am of the opinion that we would benefit from a properly crafted unified food enforcement agency that would eliminated overlapping responsibilities and gaps in coverage. Practically, though, I don’t believe it will happen.

Q. Let’s talk about some recent hot topics – Lean, finely textured beef – ‘Pink slime” – and Transglutaminase – “meat glue.” Are they the health hazards the press made them out to be? How did the Feds handle the controversy?

A. In fairness to ABC News, they never stated flatly that LFTB was a health hazard. At one point, if I remember correctly, Diane Sawyer framed the story as a quality and labeling issue. To the best of my knowledge and experience, LFTB is NOT a health hazard. There is nothing in the information I have read that suggests it is in any way hazardous to consumers. The stories played up the “Yuck” factor (which makes good entertainment but bad science reporting), and the lack of label disclosure. As for “meat glue,” I chose to tune out that story and have not looked into its background, history, safety profile, etc.

Labeling and disclosure are tough issues to deal with. We have ingredient lists, nutritional labeling, allergen labeling, and so forth. We have cautionary labeling on how to handle/cook raw meats and how to store table eggs. As soon as something like LFTB hits the public in the face, the reflex reaction is “it should have been disclosed on the label.” If it had been disclosed all along, I wonder how many people would have noticed or cared that “may contain lean, finely texture beef” was on the label?

Q. Another hot topic is HIMP (HACCP Based Inspection Models Project). It’s created some serious discussion with the poultry industry solidly behind it and most food safety watch dog groups ‘viewing with alarm.’ Government research says it can reduce contamination. What do you say?

A. I haven’t looked at this yet, although I’m aware of the controversy. With modern line speeds, though, I think that the current individual inspection of each poultry carcass scenario is a fantasy. But I have not read through the details the pilot program results or what has been proposed by USDA.

Q. Since the 1993 Jack-in-the-Box E. coli outbreak which is considered to be the seminal wake up call to the food industry, there have been a lot of people working in and around food safety. Who are the heroes and who are the villains? (If you’d rather not name villains, I understand).

A. The heroes, in my opinion, are the anonymous and unsung public servants at the federal, state and local levels who take so much abuse in the media and are so often excoriated by the public. Having worked in the public sector for seven years, and having had the opportunity to get to know some of the scientists who work behind the scenes, I must tell you that the great majority of them are just as committed to food safety as the food safety advocates who work “on the outside.” I would choose as examples Dr. Wallace H. Andrews of FDA (now retired), and Dr. Anthony Hitchins, also of FDA.

As for the villains, I won’t name names; however, anyone who knowingly ships a contaminated food or pet food is a major villain in my book. (Editor’s note: I can name more than a few who belong on this list)

Q. One of the phrases I hear often when people talk or write about food safety is, “In America, we have the safest and most abundant food supply in the world.” When challenged, most people admit they have no proof of that statement so let’s examine just the safety part of it.  Just how safe is our food supply and is there any way to compare it with other countries?

A. There is no way to compare directly the safety of the US food supply with that of other countries. The disease reporting systems are different. The regulatory agencies are organized differently. The recall notification systems are different. There are significant differences even between the USA and Canada.

The USA, Canada, the EU and some other jurisdictions (Australia, for example) do a relatively good job of disease surveillance. Less developed countries, where the fundamental problems are more severe, have neither the infrastructure nor the resources to track food-borne diseases.

Q. You’ve spent a long time watching this business. How are we doing (compared to when you first started)?

A. How does one evaluate the safety of the US food supply? The number of recalls is not a good indicator, as the basis for recalls keeps expanding. For example, the number of allergen related recalls and product withdraws has risen over the years, probably in proportion to the awareness of this problem. As pathogen tests and tests for chemical contaminants have become more sensitive, recalls for those issues have increased. Conversely, as tests become more rapid, a greater number of companies are able to adopt a “test and hold” policy that prevents (at least some of) the contaminated product from ever reaching the consumer.

The number of illnesses or illness outbreaks also is not a good indicator over time. New pathogens emerge. New detection methods emerge. Awareness increases reporting. PFGE has changed the nature of outbreak definition. And, of course, most people who become ill still remain unreported and unrecorded.

Overall, that we’ve made a lot of progress on the technical side. Our lab methodology is far superior to what was available when I started working in food safety 40 years ago. Our surveillance systems (eg. PulseNet and FoodNet) allow faster realization that a possible outbreak is under way. Our PFGE capability permits more precise definition of case-patients and better correlation back to the offending food (when we’re lucky enough to find the contaminant in a food sample). The Internet enables rapid dissemination of information (and, unfortunately, sometimes misinformation) about food safety issues.

The bottom line is that no one part of this business, as you refer to it, can – or should – shoulder the entire burden of food safety. Food safety is a farm-to-table responsibility, whether the table is in a family’s kitchen, a seniors’ residence dining hall, a school cafeteria or a five-star restaurant.

© Food Safety News