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Top Ten Most Important Food Safety Stories of 2012

Editor’s Note: We continue today with our look back at what happened in 2012 with the Top Ten Most Important Stories of 2012 as selected by the writers and editors of Food Safety News.

Like yesterday’s Reader’s Choices, the stories that drove Food Safety News’ readership to new heights, the Top Ten is a way of reviewing all that’s occurred during the past year. What we think is important and what you, the reader, want to read in large numbers is not always going to be the same. We are pleased this year to see some common items on both lists.

So, without further delay, here’s the Most Important list for 2012:

1. Produce Roulette

The most important food safety story of 2012 is the termination of USDA’s 11-year-old Microbiological Data Program (MDP), which did 80 percent of federal testing for foodborne pathogens of fresh fruit and vegetables.

The program’s demise likely means there will be more illnesses and deaths in 2013 from foodborne pathogens associated with fresh fruits and vegetables.

MDP was killed because the produce lobby wanted it killed. The Obama Administration went along by not asking Congress to renew MDP’s funding of about $5 million a year, and lawmakers were content to let it expire.

Operationally, MDP was a joint venture between USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS) and about a dozen state agricultural labs around the country that did the actual testing.

After its money ran out Oct. 1, USDA allowed the produce testing to continue for a while. By all accounts, the state labs and the tiny MDP office at USDA were doing effective work right up until the end.

For example, after Listeria-contaminated cantaloupes caused the most deadly foodborne illness outbreak in 100 years, MDP stepped up testing for Listeria on melons. Its New York Department of Agriculture member lab is credited with taking a cantaloupe sample that tested positive for Listeria and causing a North Carolina grower to recall its entire 2012 melon crop.

There was no second season of Listeria deaths from cantaloupes this year. (Salmonella was another story.)

At year’s end, there is no sign that either USDA or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are doing anything to replace MDP. In the meantime, it’s produce roulette.

2. FSMA – “It’s Alive!”

Like one of those seemingly dead movie monsters that suddenly sits up and sticks its arms out, the long dormant Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) came alive on Nov. 26 when FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg used the new law to pull the food facility registration from a troubled New Mexico peanut butter plant.

Hamburg’s surprise use of a new FSMA power clearly caught the food industry’s attention, and has now become the second most important food safety story of 2012.

In the two years since FSMA was signed by President Obama after passing Congress with bipartisan majorities and broad based consumer and industry support, it’s been hard to know what’s going on with the new law because it’s all been happening back stage.

That’s left consumer advocates nervous and the food industry bored while everybody waits.

For the most part, all that has occurred is a long regulatory dance involving FDA and the White House’s Executive Office of Management and Budget and its Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA).

While Hamburg, in some instances, can recsind a food facility’s registration with the stroke of her pen, most of the important parts of the FSMA require writing regulations and rules on fruits and vegetables, mandatory recalls, imports, outbreak prevention and the like.

All the regulations require public review before they are implemented, and the longer this all takes, the more FDA misses deadlines that are contained in the new law.

But now we know the FSMA is alive and will be two years old next week.

3. Trust Without Much Verification

USDA, under the Obama Administration, has dramatically reduced the number of times each year that it sends inspection teams to foreign counties for an eyes-on-the ground review of how meat is checked for safety in countries that export meat to the U.S. Further, USDA is less transparent about what they are doing when it comes to verifying foreign meat.

USDA’s new “trust without much verification” policy for foreign meat is the 3rd most important food safety story of 2012.

At a time when Americans are consuming more foreign meat than ever, policy changes implemented by the Obama Administration are troubling to many stakeholders, if for no other reason than they were initiated and carried out without any public involvement or review.

In an exclusive investigation, Food Safety News found that these changes amount to a 60 percent cutback in the number of foreign site visits by USDA. When an E. coli crisis was traced to the XL Foods Inc. plant in Brooks, Alberta, news broke that USDA had not done a verification visit to Canada since 2009.

4. “Big Six” Kicks Off

Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, under secretary for food safety, in 2011 committed USDA to testing for six more Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) strains that would for hereafter be banned from American beef.

Implementing the ban on the “Big Six,” including E. coli O26, O45, O103, O111, O121 and O145, was the fourth most important food safety story of 2012. It marked the first time since 1994 that USDA targeted pathogens as a method of making the U.S. beef supply safer.

The six strains together were responsible for 40,000 illnesses, 1,100 hospitalizations and 30 deaths when banned from USDA-inspected beef, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

With O157:H7 banned almost 20 years ago, USDA now considers seven E. coli stains as adulterants not allowed in U.S. beef. The ban on O157:H7 came after the historic Jack-in-the-Box outbreak.

And expanded Non-O157 E. coli testing got underway in 2012 for ground beef trim. That testing is likely to be expanded to other beef products in 2013. Exactly what products remain to be chosen and a cost-benefit analysis will be required before it can get underway.

5. The “Pink Slime” Storm

Virtually all the issues about the use of finely textured lean beef, a.k.a. “pink slime,” that blew up in 2012 were known for years by most everyone involved. Eldon Roth, the entrepreneur and inventor of the beef product, had even opened his Beef Products Inc. up to the industry-critical documentary makers who produced “Food Inc.” back in 2008.

His heated centrifuge process for separating lean beef from fatty boneless trimmings, along with the ammonium hydroxide gas treatment, made a BPI plant look like one of those industrial sets Madonna likes. The fact that BPI’s lean finely textured lean beef is a part of the mix for ground beef patties was highlighted in a 2009 New York Times report that won the Pulitzer Prize.

Nevertheless in 2012, a media storm blew up and knocked BPI down. This new reaction to mostly old facts is the fifth most important food safety story of 2012.

Some say it was essentially over in just ten days.

It began on March 5, 2012 when “The Daily,” an online publication, published a story around facts provided by two former USDA scientists, Gerald Zirnstein and Carl Custer. It was Zirnstein who in 2002 came up with the “pink slime” moniker for BPI’s product.

Part of The Daily’s report said USDA planned to purchase 7 million pounds of “pink slime” for the National School Lunch Program this year. The next day, an online petition appeared, demanding that USDA stop purchasing “pink slime.” The petition quickly gathered more than 250,000 signatures.

ABC World News with Diane Sawyer was next to pick up on the story, adding that 70 percent of the ground beef sold by supermarkets includes “pink slime,” and it is still legally labeled “100% ground beef.” Zirnstein and Custer do on-camera interviews.

On March 15, USDA put up the white flag, saying it would give local school districts a “pink slime” or “no pink slime” option in fulfilling their school lunch needs. At that point, things were essentially over for BPI, as retailers and restaurants vowed not to use BPI’s product in their hamburger.

For about two more weeks, the debate continued in other media. In vain, BPI mounted a counterattack with paid national advertising and press conferences with governors from the states where its plants were and USDA officials. Shortly, however, it had to suspend operations it would later close permanently.

BPI is suing ABC News and the former USDA scientists for defamation.

6.  XL Foods Melts Down

Random testing by USDA at the international border with Canada on Sept. 4 discovered E. coli O157:H7 contamination in beef produced by XL Foods Inc. in Brooks, Alberta.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency(CFIA)  confirmed the finding a few hours later and began an investigation that would continue with intensity for the next couple of months.

Before it was all over, the XL meltdown would include an outbreak, the largest beef recall in Canada’s history, the shutdown of the Brooks plant – putting 2,200 out of work – and finally the company’s take-over by JBS, USA under management contract.

This was the sixth most important food safety story of 2012.

The outbreak was concentrated in Canada’s western provinces, where 18 people were sickened. The recall included more than 2,000 beef products produced by XL in Canada and 2.5 million pounds of beef exported to the U.S.

CFIA suspended XL’s licenses to operate the Brooks plant on Sept. 27. The plant would reopen almost a month later under JBS, USA management. A purchase option that gives the Greeley, CO-based company the option of purchasing the Brooks plant and four other XL facilities in the U.S. and Canada after a trial period.

At the time of the recall, USDA said 30 U.S. states were getting imported beef from the Brooks plant. No illnesses in the U.S. were a genetic match to those in Canada.

7. Peanut Butter Hits the Fan (Again)

When Trader Joe’s announced a recall of its brand of organic Valencia peanut butter, the severity of was occurring was not initially understood.

Sunland Inc. of Portales, NM, which also made peanut butter under other brands, including its own, manufactured the brand. For the first 48 hours, it appeared that only the Trader Joe’s brand was associated with the Salmonella Bredeney outbreak, which eventually sickened 42 people in 20 states.

Then the peanut butter hit the fan. Sunland’s recalls would eventually go back two years and involve all products produced by the nation’s largest organic peanut butter processing facility.

The company would become the first food facility in the U.S. to have its registration suspended by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner under the new Food Safety Modernization Act. (FSMA).

8. Pet Food Sickens Humans

Just as it’s news when a man bites a dog, it is serious food safety news when dog food is causing human illnesses.

The eighth most important story of 2012 is the strange and disturbing instances of pet owners becoming sick from feeding their dogs.

That’s exactly what was happening in 2012 when multiple brands of Diamond Pet Foods sickened at least 20 Americans and two Canadians with Salmonella Infantis, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

CDC said it was possible to estimate the number of dogs that took ill from the pet food.

9. Chicken Jerky Dog Treats

Chinese-made chicken jerky dog treats were subjected to laboratory testing by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for five and a half years, but the agency was unable to discover why the product results in so many sickened and dead dogs.

In an unprecedented release of data, FDA acknowledged to Food Safety News that it conducted 285 lab tests on jerky samples without being able to determine what they contain that might be harmful to dogs.

Thousands of dog owners have complained to FDA about the dog treats. The problem appears to have spiked in both 2007 and late 2011. Dog owners brought political pressure on FDA, especially through Ohio’s Sen. Sherrod Brown and Rep. Dennis Kucinich, both Democrats.

In addition to its research, FDA sent teams to China to inspect a number of chicken jerky facilities.

10. Kroger Drops Sprouts

The nation’s largest grocery store chain finally reached the end of its rope with that favorite of recalls—sprouts. It was the tenth most important food safety story of 2012.

Payton Pruett, vice president of food safety for the 2,500-store chain based in Cincinnati said it was dropping the sale of fresh sprouts until the day when future technologies and practices allow sprouts to grow without risk of internalizing pathogens.

The company’s decision, Pruett said, was based on a science-based review. “Testing and sanitizing by growers and safe food handling by the consumer are the critical steps to protect against food-borne illness,” he said. “Sprouts present a unique challenge because pathogens may reside inside of the seeds where they cannot be reached by the currently available processing interventions.”

Sprouts have caused at least 54 foodborne illness outbreaks worldwide since 1990, including the 2011 E. coli outbreak in Germany that sickened 4,000 and killed 53 people.

Walmart ceased selling fresh sprouts in October 2010, and the Jimmy John’s sandwich franchise chain dropped sprouts for at least several months of 2012.

With the two top grocery retailers not selling their product, sprout growers, seed suppliers and others involved in the industry reacted by forming a new organization to work on their many problems: the Sprout Alliance for Safety and Science. Whether the new organization can succeed where others attempts have failed remains to be seen.

© Food Safety News