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The Top 10 Food-Safety News Stories of 2014

The top 10 food-safety news stories for 2014, as chosen for the sixth consecutive year by the editors of Food Safety News, were announced today. According to the Internet news site, here are this year’s most important food-safety stories:

1. The U.S. Department of Justice backs up federal food-safety agencies, including USDA and FDA, with unprecedented criminal prosecutions of food-industry defendants in multiple states.

Beginning in 2014, with the sentencing of two Colorado cantaloupe growers, and continuing with the guilty pleas from the nation’s one-time king of egg production, Austin “Jack” DeCoster, and his son, Peter, and then the historic jury trial of former Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) officers and managers, federal criminal law rarely used before in such circumstances was put to work this year in the name of food safety.

Through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the food industry was getting warnings as far back as 2010 that federal criminal law was going to be used a food-safety enforcement tool. The defense bar picked up on those signals and began warning food-industry executives that they, too, could be charged with “no fault” federal criminal misdemeanors if their businesses shipped adulterated food, even though it was outside the executive’s personal knowledge or consent.

Colorado’s Jensen brothers each did six months of home confinement in 2014 after pleading guilty to six of those “strict liability” federal criminal misdemeanors. No one had to prove that the brothers knew the cantaloupes from their farms were contaminated. They just had to be distributed with the deadly pathogen. Likewise, the DeCosters are awaiting sentencing for “strict liability” misdemeanors because their contaminated eggs became part of interstate commerce.

Taken together, these federal prosecutions represent an entirely new toolbox for food-safety enforcement.

2. Parnell Brothers and Mary Wilkerson found guilty in jury trial.

Peanut butter produced in 2008 at a Blakely, GA, processing plant owned by Peanut Corporation of America did more harm to humans and damage to property than just about any outbreak on record. Tragically, nine of the more than 700 victims of the Salmonella-laced peanut butter died. And PCA peanut butters and paste were so widely used as ingredients in food products manufactured by others that it led to the nation’s largest recall of such products. The recall cost industry an estimated $1 billion.

PCA’s owner, Stewart Parnell, his peanut-broker brother Michael Parnell, and three of the company’s top managers were indicted in February 2013 on multiple federal felony counts. Daniel Kilgore, the operations manager, and Samuel Lightsey, the plant manager, who had both worked at the Blakely plant, pleaded guilty before trial under agreements that saw them testify for the government.

The Parnell brothers and Mary Wilkerson, who was PCA’s quality-assurance manager at Blakely, went to trial in late July and, after a two-month jury trial, were together found guilty on 98 federal felony counts. The case the government successfully presented to the jury was one involving fraud and conspiracy, along with specific food-safety violations.

All five defendants will likely be sentenced sometime in 2015, although a sentencing date has not yet been set.

3. Obama administration puts aside opposition from activists and partisans normally associated with the president to back USDA in adopting the first new poultry-inspection regime since Eisenhower.

For almost 20 years, top Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) managers have wanted to change the way poultry inspection is done, and, for just as long, unions representing inspectors have held off. So it was a bit of a surprise on July 31, when the Obama administration sided with USDA and its FSIS management by announcing it was implementing the new poultry policies.

USDA said it was “a critical step forward in making chicken and turkey products safer for Americans to eat. Poultry companies will have to meet new requirements to control Salmonella and Campylobacter, and up to 5,000 foodborne illnesses will be prevented each year as a result of the New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS), an updated science-based inspection system that positions food safety inspectors throughout poultry facilities in a smarter way.”

Under the NPIS, FSIS now requires that all poultry companies take measures to prevent Salmonella and Campylobacter contamination, rather than addressing contamination after it occurs. Also, for the first time ever, all poultry facilities are required to perform their own microbiological testing at two points in their production process to show that they are controlling Salmonella and Campylobacter. These requirements are in addition to FSIS’ own testing, which the agency will continue to perform.

4. Michael R. Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, moves the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) closer to full implementation with some skillful rule-making.

Taylor’s move came on Sept. 19, when FDA released revisions to four critical draft proposals to implement FSMA. While showing flexibility on his part, the revisions also show FDA is committed to changing from responding after the fact to preventing food-safety problems.

Since FSMA was signed into law in January 2011, FDA has proposed seven rules to implement FSMA. The four updated proposed rules include produce safety, preventive controls for human food, preventive controls for animal food, and the foreign supplier verification program.

FDA has made changes to key provisions of the four proposed rules based on feedback received from the public during meetings and thousands of comments submitted to the agency. Among the changes made as a result of public involvement is FDA’s decision to not apply its produce rules to farms with $25,000 or less in produce sales and easing up on water-quality testing so the source of the water is taken into account.

5. Raw milk takes a beating with a mother’s story, lower demand than thought, being named as the cause of more outbreaks, and gaining no traction in statehouses.

A Food Safety News story on Feb. 18 took on a life of its own on the Internet as our readers passed it on to their friends and it sparked discussion around the horn. The mother of a two-year old, who was infected with E. coil from drinking raw milk, and her dairyman warned of the dangers.

The year ended with the report that the January issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases states that the number of outbreaks associated with raw milk is increasing. Raw milk was involved in 30 outbreaks from 2007 to 2009 and in 51 outbreaks from 2010 to 2012.

In that time, 81 percent of raw milk-related outbreaks occurred in states that allow the legal sale of raw milk. Retail sale of raw milk is legal in 10 states, on-farm sales are legal in another 16, and seven states have legalized herd-share programs, in which a number of people “buy in” to owning dairy cows from which they receive raw milk.

And then there was a survey report early in the year that calls into question how much demand there really is for raw milk. Official “guesstimates” usually come in around 3 percent of the total milk supply. But the Vermont survey found that the amount of raw milk actually produced is far less than that — maybe 1 percent.

6. Foster Farms tries to go from goat to hero by moving during an outbreak to hire blue-chip consultants to work on new protocols.

Livingston, CA-based Foster Farms rarely had anything to say during the dozen or so times the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued updates on the Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak, except when it ended last July 31.

Just two weeks before the outbreak ended, Foster Farms had issued its first recall for an undetermined amount of chicken products produced last March 7-13. Foster Farms had come in for criticism because the company took so long to recall any product during the outbreak, which began on March 1, 2013, before it spread to 29 states and Puerto Rico.

“Food safety is, and always will be, our top priority,” Foster Farmer stated when CDC called the outbreak over. It then used the occasion to say that Salmonella is found on an average of 25 percent of all raw poultry parts, and Foster Farms had “made progress” by reducing that to less than 5 percent for its products. The company also announced that it had committed to a $75-million food-safety program to reduce naturally occurring Salmonella at each stage of the production process.

Top outside experts were said to be involved. Foster Farms clearly wants to be seen as a food-safety leader, not an unwilling participate in an outbreak. Messy little details from that completed outbreak include that most of the illnesses, 77 percent, were among Californians. There were no deaths, but 38 percent of those sickened did require hospitalization.

7. Growing concern about antibiotic resistance puts more pressure on animal agriculture and FDA over whether voluntarily controls are sufficient.

Antibiotic resistance is real, as any number of foodborne illness victims have discovered at the hospital. The issues involved are complex and the potential causes are many. A few days before 2014 dawned, FDA adopted a voluntary plan for animal agriculture to phase out the use of some antibiotics used in food production.

Farmer and ranchers use antibiotics both to treat animals that are ill and also in feed to enhance growth. Antibiotics in feed are provided at “sub-therapeutic” levels. Nobody really knows why, but their use promotes weight gain. FDA has been working to phase out antibiotics in animal feed since 2010.

Perhaps it was that combination, or the timing of events, but 2014 was a year when antibiotics may not have dominated; however, the issue has been steady and consistent. At year-end, the Obama administration set up an Interagency Task Force for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria. It’s likely to become the focus of efforts by those who say FDA’s voluntary approach is not moving fast enough, or that not enough jurisdiction exists over veterinarians..

Meanwhile, there were technical or scientific developments involving antibiotics, including prize money being put up for a quick answer test for determining if antibiotic resistance exists and whether antibodies might replace antibiotics.

8. The U.S. cannot figure a way out of COOL, the country-of-origin labeling scheme. It wants to avoid punitive tariffs, but it also wants to keep the origin labels on meat. It kicks the can down the road with yet another WTO appeal.

Grounds for any successful appeal of a World Trade Organization (WTO) finding are very narrow. It’s not possible to re-open the “facts of the case,” so arguments to the dispute panel are limited to points of international law. So it’s not surprising that nothing is really known about the details of the appeal the U.S. filed with WTO on Nov. 28 over its COOL law.

USDA’s current COOL regulations require that meat processors and retailers keep track of where meat is “born, raised, and slaughtered.” WTO has consistently sided with Canada and Mexico, which argue that COOL is an unfair trade barrier in its application.

The processing of the U.S. appeal is the only thing now preventing Canada and Mexico from imposing billions of dollars in tariffs on U.S. products as punishment. Those tariffs will take the COOL dispute into a whole new arena as Canada and Mexico will be able to harm any number of U.S. industries.

9. After doubling down but again losing with state voters, the GE-labeling dispute moves to Capitol Hill.

Oregon’s Right to Know GMO-labeling campaign did win the right to an automatic recount, but their effort still lost by about the same number of votes as it did in the first count. It means the national campaign to label food containing genetically engineered ingredients is 0 and 4 when it comes to state ballot measures. The GMO right-to-know side has now lost California, Colorado, Oregon and Washington state. It did win a couple of labeling proposals in the Northeast U.S., but only Vermont has voted to require GMO labeling on its own. A federal court now has that under review.

The next stop for this one is Congress. Michael Landa, director of Food Safety and Applied Nutrition for FDA, told an outgoing congressional hearing that nothing has changed. FDA sees no reason for labeling GE food because 20 years of research into 100 types of food shows there is no greater or lesser food-safety risk with or without genetic engineering. He also said FDA requires that food labeling not be false or misleading, and a GE-labeling requirement would be inconsistent with that responsibility. At the same hearing, a food-association executive suggested the best compromise is the “GMO Free” campaign, which currently is a private, market-based approach, not a government mandate.

That hearing may have been a preview to what will play out in 2015 as a Republican-controlled Congress works on the issue with the Obama administration.

10. FSIS regulatory climate mixed as it slowly implements mechanically tenderized beef regulations and tosses CSPI petition on antibiotic-resistant Salmonella, while imposing grinding log regulations.

USDA’s meat and poultry safety unit is involved in a never-ending stream of regulatory issues and public requests.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has been petitioning FSIS to list resistant antibiotics as adulterants in meat and poultry. So far, FSIS has not acted favorably on the CSPI petition.

When FSIS agrees to take a regulatory action, it, like other agencies, must take it up not only to the department level at USDA, but also to the Office of Management and Budget in the White House.

That’s where regulation requiring labels on mechanically tenderized may have gone. A couple months ago, some food-safety advocates met with USDA in hopes of smoking the meat regulations out by year end. It does not appear that happened and means the OMB might hold on to them — until 2018.

When beef is mechanically tenderized, pathogens from the surface can be pushed down into the center. If the cuts are cooked rare or not at a high-enough temperature, the pathogens pushed into the center can sicken the consumer.

© Food Safety News