Editor’s Note: Each year, the writers and editors of Food Safety News pick the top 10 news stories based on the story’s overall importance within the food safety community. This year, we’ve added a separate listing of the top 10 foodborne illness outbreaks, as compiled by managing editor James Andrews and published on Dec. 27. Some of these outbreaks make a repeat appearance by also making the list of top 10 news stories. Drum roll, please … Here are the top 10 food safety news stories for 2013:
1. U.S. District Attorney for Colorado breaks new legal ground for food safety with successful prosecution of the Jensen brothers on multiple federal misdemeanor counts. Making rare use of a federal criminal statute, whereby convictions can be obtained based on strict liability without any need to prove intent to harm, district attorney John Walsh obtained guilty pleas from the Jensens with an agreement that will see the pair sentenced later this month. The brothers already participated in a precedent-setting meeting with outbreak victims. The case was a severe one, with as many as 43 direct and indirect deaths resulting from the 2011 Listeria outbreak linked to cantaloupes grown by the Jensens, and sets a precedent for similar charges in cases where adulterated food is released into interstate commerce.
2. Cyclosporiasis outbreak sickens 631 in 25 states but leaves investigators with multiple theories. The outbreak of this foodborne parasite also takes the title for most confusing, as it appeared to be two separate Cyclospora outbreaks working in tandem. One set of patients – predominantly from Iowa and Nebraska – clearly appeared to be connected to Olive Garden and Red Lobster outlets (both owned by Darden Restaurants), while, just weeks later, patients in Texas began cropping up with no apparent connection to those restaurants. The Darden illnesses were tentatively traced to lettuce supplier Taylor Farms de Mexico, but no contamination could be found at the farms. Meanwhile, many of the Texas illnesses seemed to implicate fresh cilantro grown in Puebla, Mexico. [CDC outbreak information]
3. Stewart Parnell and three other former Peanut Corporation of America executives charged with 76 federal felonies for conspiracy and fraud in connection with a peanut butter-related outbreak. After a Congressional inquiry in early 2009 alleged that Parnell knowingly shipped peanuts contaminated with Salmonella, an action that killed nine and sickened 700, his victims had to wait four years for investigators to make their case. But the indictments that came down in February 2013 were stunning – a complex criminal conspiracy case with food poisoning at its core. Convictions could carry long jail sentences and heavy fines. The trial is scheduled for later this summer.
4. Foster Farms outbreak (its second of the year) sickens 416 in 23 states with multidrug-resistant Salmonella Heidelberg, leaving consumers to ask, why no recall? While this outbreak appears to be ongoing, hundreds of individuals have fallen ill over the course of the year in connection with raw chicken processed at Foster Farms facilities in California. At least 162 people have been hospitalized after likely undercooking the contaminated raw chicken or handling it in a way that led to accidental cross-contamination. Foster Farms has refused to issue a recall, and cases continue to appear as recently as early December. [CDC outbreak information]
5. Costco, with Townsend Farms Organic Antioxidant Blend frozen juice, sickens 162 in 10 states and sends 71 to hospitals by serving up Turkish pomegranate seeds contaminated with Hepatitis A. [CDC outbreak information]
6. Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, USDA’s Under Secretary for Food Safety, departs, leaving the federal government without its top food safety official. After making her mark on USDA’s food safety record, Hagen departed just before 2013 came to an end. She will be remembered for increasing by six the number of E. coli strains classified as adulterants, updating Salmonella performance standards for poultry, issuing the first-ever standard for Campylobacter, and requiring labeling for mechanically tenderized meat. Her impressive run raises the bar for the president’s next appointment (and for the required U.S. Senate confirmation) to this important office.
7. Horsemeat scandal rocks the European beef market, which is the target of widespread fraud. In December 2012, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland reported that equine DNA was being found in beef products, and, from there, the horsemeat scandal spread across Europe. By February, four subsidiaries of ABP Food Group had been accused of supplying adulterated meat. They were Silvercrest in County Monaghan, Dalepak in North Yorkshire, Freshlink in Glasgow and ABP Nenagh in County Tipperary, Ireland. Burger King, with 500 outlets in the U.K., dropped Silvercrest as its beef supplier. The French government suspended the license of a processing company for knowingly selling horsemeat labeled as beef, which had resulted in frozen products sold by others containing 60-100 percent horsemeat. Substitution of cheaper horsemeat for beef was seen as classic food fraud rather than a food safety crisis; however, it brought stepped-up residual testing for the veterinary drug known as phenylbutazone, or “bute.” While specific testing found “bute” only at low levels posing little risk to human health, there was concern about potentially higher levels in horses from the U.S. slaughtered in Mexico and Canada for export to Europe. Another concern are horses from Romania with equine infectious anemia (EIA). Due to its many aspects, the horsemeat scandal is sure to carry over into 2014.
8. Meat inspectors were kept on the job during the partial federal government shutdown, while some U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspections were slowed. The failure to enact legislation appropriating funds for fiscal year 2014, which began Oct. 1, brought another partial shutdown of the federal government. The shutdown began Oct. 1, with normal operations resuming Oct. 17. This time, however, there were no threats of pulling USDA meat inspectors from their jobs and thereby shutting down the industry. Likewise, FDA inspections were slowed, but not stopped, during the 16-day shutdown.
9. Another year passed without a new Farm Bill as the historic urban/rural coalition falls apart and the connection is broken between food stamps and farm payments. The 2008 Farm Bill was scheduled for renewal in 2012. It did not happen then, nor did it happen in 2013. This means that the legal authority for America’s farm and nutritional policies is wearing thin and will require quick action in 2014.
10. GMO labeling is voted down in Washington state. Just like California a year earlier, Washington state voters, by only a very slim margin, rejected a ballot initiative that called for labeling food and beverages containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Like California’s Proposition 37, Washington’s Initiative 522 started out with a massive lead in the polls that melted away during a heated campaign that saw GMO labeling proponents heavily outspent by major players in the food manufacturing industry.© Food Safety News