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‘Current Controversies’ in Food Safety Produces Lively Debate

Truth be told, the lecture format of most of the symposia at the International Association for Food Protection annual meeting can get a little sleepy.

The meeting, which ended Wednesday, is not known for sharp sticks in the eye or put down quips. The one exception was the “current controversies” section that used a sort of modified college debate format to go through three food safety issues quickly with no apologies for any hard feelings.

There was one caveat. Not only were the views expressed by the debaters not necessarily representative of their organizations, they were not necessarily their own. Like good college debaters everywhere, they might have just ended up with that side or the argument.

The debaters, however, tried their best, since they wanted to sway the audience, which was polled electronically before and after both sides had their say and took questions.

The first topic was whether the pasteurization of all ground beef and ground poultry should be mandated. Speaking in favor was Kroger Company’s W. Payton Pruett; opposed was the American Meat Institute Foundation’s Betsy Booren.

Before the debate began, the audience split 71.4 opposed to the proposal, 28.6 in favor.

Pruett started by saying that Kroger stores have been on the receiving end of about half of all the 68 recent recalls of ground meat products, and the time has come to just accept that sampling and testing cannot substitute for good kill step.

Just as we reached a point where it was appropriate for milk, juice, and eggs to go through pasteurization, Pruett said that time has now arrived for ground meat. He said pasteurization would cut down on recalls and reduce illnesses.

Booren said the $4.8 billion local food movement, small and very small meat businesses and anyone who values choice in a country with an abundance of food would be ill served by a pasteurization mandate.

In rebuttal, Pruett said his company’s stores have already removed choice from their customers by not selling raw milk.

“What we sell in our stores is pasteurized milk,” he said.  “We’ve taken away that customer choice. This is a case of where we have to take control.”

That left an opening for Booren to question whether Pruett’s company is motivated by its concern for public health or its fear of possibilities litigation over the sale of raw milk with its potential for contamination.

In raising her concerns about how pasteurization might change the taste and texture of ground meat products, Booren brought up some of the early tests on radiated meat coming out with a “wet dog” smell.

In the end, the House remained unmoved with only about 2 percent moving to the pro-pasteurization side.

In just over 15 minutes, it was all over and two more debaters had stepped up to argue about whether Clostridium difficile colitis is a foodborne illness. C. diff is a species of gram-positive bacteria, most associated with diarrheal disease picked up in hospital settings.

Going at it over this one was Glenn Songer from Iowa State University at Ames and Brandi Limbago from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Songer has found C. diff in about a quarter of the uncooked meat and ready-to-eat meat samples he’s tested in his labs. In a dueling data debate, Limbago said a CDC study failed to find any C. diff and a review of literature showed the bug is found about 6.3 percent of the time.

In making the case against C. diff being foodborne diseases, the CDC officials pointed out that 95 percent of the outbreaks have some relationship to hospitals or hospital settings.

After it was over, the audience remained fairly evenly split with a shift of only about 5 percent to the side that C. diff is a foodborne diseases.

The third debate was over whether Listeria should be defined as an adulterant in low moisture foods. It pitted David Acheson, the former deputy FDA commissioner now with Leavitt Partners, against Jens Kirk Andersen from the Technical University of Denmark.

Acheson, who started out with the audience on his side by a 54.6 to 45.4 percent margin, made his case by telling the story of a Minnesota family affected by a Listeria-contaminated chocolate chip cookie.  Only a good investigation was able to prove that the cookies had been placed in a cooler with Listeria contamination spread by condensation.

The end result, he said, was that a grandfather died and his pregnant daughter lost her baby — a powerful story about Listeria being a “mist of killing.”

Anderson tried to sway the audience by talking about dose. “My point is Listeria does not matter if it does not grow,” he said.

Andersen said that in most cases Listeria is not a problem for low moisture foods.

In the end, however, it was Acheson who swayed the audience.

And, when it was over, Acheson admitted that he’d made it all up. The Minnesota family was only a well-told figment of his imagination.

Oh, and the one question upon which there was 100 percent agreement by the audience?   Doing the debate format again next year when IAFP gathers in Charlotte, NC.

© Food Safety News
  • husna aijaz

    A very interesting read!
    Adopting a hurdle technology can be an effective remediation measure for decontaminating meat products. The beef industry already uses steam pasteurization to decontaminate the meat carcasses, so adopting pasteurization for ground beef would not be a bad idea!
    The following article is a great review that further explains the interventional technologies adopted by the food industry: