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The Year’s Top Ten Food Safety Stories

Here are the Top Ten  food safety stories  for 2015 as compiled by Food Safety News.



No. 1—The massacre on Dec. 2, 2015  of 14 people in San Bernardino County, CA mostly involved those responsible for local food safety and related county health inspections and the homicides were  carried out by Islamic extremists, including a county restaurant inspector.

Another 22 were injured in the unprovoked and cowardly  attack on a staff meeting and holiday luncheon being held at the Inland Regional Center.

The unarmed public servants who were cut down by the killers included: Shannon Johnson, 45, Los Angeles; Bennetta Bet-Badal, 46, Rialto; Aurora Godoy, 26, San Jacinto; Isaac Amanios, 60, Fontana; Larry Kaufman, 42, Rialto; Harry Bowman, 46, Upland; Yvette Velasco, 27, Fontana; Sierra Clayborn, 27, Moreno Valley; Robert Adams, 40, Yucaipa;Nicholas Thalasinos, 52, Colton; Tin Nguyen, 31, Santa Ana; Juan Espinoza, 50, Highland; Damian Meins, 58, Riverside and Michael Wetzel, 37, Lake Arrowhead.

Most of those killed and injured were environmental health specialists for San Bernardino County. Others held department administrative and management jobs. One exception was Larry Kaufman who ran the coffee shop at the Inland Regional Center.

Syed Rishwan Farook, a county environmental health specialist with five years on the job, and his Pakistani wife Tashfeen Malik, who he picked up in Saudi Arabia, were both killed in a shootout with police.  A third suspect, Enrique Marquez was arrested Dec. 17.   An Islamic convert,  he purchased guns for the jihadists and helped them build bombs.

No. 2—The sentencing of Peanut Corporation of America’s top former managers and peanut broker to a total of 62 years in federal prison for  the most severe punishment for food safety violations in U.S. history.

jail_406x250U.S. District Judge W. Louis Sands sentenced former PCA chief executive officer Stewart Parnell to 28 years in prison and his peanut broker brother, Michael Parnell, to 20 years.  Daniel Kilgore, Mary Wilkerson, and Samuel Lightsey, respectfully received sentences of 6, 5, and 3 years. They were managers in PCA’s Blakely, GA peanut processing plant, which was the source of a Salmonella Typhimurium  outbreak in 2008-09 that sickened thousands and resulted in nine deaths.

The Parnell brothers and Wilkerson were convicted in a 2014 jury trial, while Kilgore and Lightsey avoided trial by entering into plea agreements with the government. The Parnells and Wilkerson have appealed their convictions and sentences to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

No. 3—The meltdown of Chipotle Mexican Grill, which experienced six outbreaks in the last half of 2015 of food borne illness being associated with the Denver-based burrito chain.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced the sixth outbreak on Dec. 21 as “another, more recent outbreak of a different, rare DNA fingerprint of Shiga toxin producing E. coli O26 (STEC O26) linked to Chipotle Mexican Grill.”

Since July, Chipotle restaurants have been associated with a E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in Washington State, a Salmonella Newport outbreak in Minnesota, norovirus outbreaks in Simi Valley, CA and Boston, and the larger 9-state E. coli O26 outbreak that has not yet been declared over by CDC.

The meltdown is being experienced in a sharp decline in Chipotle stock, enough customer loss to cause a reduction in 4th quarter earnings per share by the company, and an erosion in customer confidence in a chain that advertises its “food with integrity.”

For its part Chipotle has announced its intentions to put food safety first, a promise that might see it purchasing less from local producers and making use of a central or “factory kitchen” approach for delivering pathogen-free food to its locations.

In the last half of 2015, it has sickened 514 customers in the six outbreaks. Some have required hospital stays, but none are known to have died.

No. 4—The recall of the iconic Bell Blue ice cream brand because of an outbreak caused by Listeria contamination along with plant closures after the product was associated with ten illnesses and three deaths made 2015 a low point in the company’s 108-year old history.

And on Dec. 29, CBS News reported Blue Bell is now also the target of an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Blue Bell banana pudding pintTexas-based Blue Bell, which once flew high on Air Force One and was also served in the White House under the presidential terms of both Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, was producing ice cream again by year’s end.

The problem Blue Blue confronted in 2015 was Listeria monocytogenes, which the company found in multiple plant locations after doing enhanced sampling once it became aware of the problem. Production halts required about 37 percent of its 4,000 employees to be placed on furlough or lay offs.

Blue Bell returned its products to shelves in Texas and Alabama on Dec. 14 and to Louisiana and Miss Lippi on Dec. 21. Limited flavors were being made available. When its fully back, Blue Blue has 60 flavors on a seasonal or regular basis.

No.5—The Fall reports of a multistate outbreak of Salmonella Poona infections linked to imported cucumbers are too little and too late to help thousands of  Americans sickened over the summer.

Beginning Sept. 4, the federal Center of Disease Control and Prevention reports on illnesses that reach 838 in 38 states, including 165 hospitalizations and four deaths, due to Salmonella Poona from imported Mexican cucumbers. But CDC also reports the onset of most the illnesses occurred earlier in the summer, especially during July and August.

CDC’s own mathematical models also suggest that with 838 confirmed illnesses, it likely means thousands of Americans were sickened by Salmonella Poona from Mexico. Andrew and Williamson Fresh Produce announced a recall of “American” or “slicer” cucumbers on Sept.4, for production going back to Aug. 1.

A second recall from Custom Produce Sales for its “Fat Boy(R) label going back to Aug. 1 was announced Sept. 8.

No. 6—The FDA decision favoring genetically engineered (GE) Atlantic salmon.

After what it called “exhaustive and rigorous scientific review, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Nov. 19, 2015 ruled that AquAdvantage salmon is as safe to eat as any non-genetically engineered (GE) Atlantic salmon, and also as nutritious.

“The data demonstrated that the inserted genes remained stable over several generations of fish, that food from the GE salmon is safe to eat by humans and animals, that the genetic engineering is safe for the fish, and the salmon meets the sponsor’s claim about faster growth,” FDA’s announcement said.

In addition, FDA assessed the environmental impacts of approving this application and found that the approval would not have a significant impact on the environment of the United States. That’s because the multiple containment measures the company will use in the land-based facilities in Panama and Canada make it extremely unlikely that the fish could escape and establish themselves in the wild.

FDA will also leave it up to the manufacturers as to whether genetically engineered products must indicate that information on the label. It labeling guidance is available for public comment until late January.

No. 7—The final rule from USDA for catfish inspections, which will begin in March 2016.

catfishpond_406x250Catfish inspections were called for in the 2008 Farm Bill, but the it’s taken until now to work out all the details with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and respond to Congressional concerns about duplication of efforts between USDA and FDA.

The final rule applies to both domestically raised and imported catfish known as “imported Siluriformes fish.”

Domestic catfish farmers, located almost exclusively in five U.S. gulf states, pressed for USDA catfish inspection to give their products an advantage over cheaper Asian varieties of catfish that often flood the U.S.market and depress prices.  FDA has jurisdiction over imports, but only physically inspects 1 to 2 percent of fish imports.

The final catfish rule says there will be an 18-month transition period for phasing it in.

No. 8—The ground-break final rules to move toward full implementation of the historic Food Safety Modernization Act, which were released by the U.S Food and Drug Administration in mid-November and become fully effective on Jan. 16, 2016.

The rules are directed a produce farmers and food importers to prevent food safety problems before they occur. FDA has also released the Final Environmental Impact Statement that address the content of the rules.

The final rules address produce safety, foreign supplier verification programs, and accredited third-party certification

Third-party certification addresses auditors who conduct food safety audits and issue certifications on the fitness of foreign facilities and the foods they produce for humans and animals. “These requirements will help ensure the competence and independence of the accreditation bodies and third-party certification bodies participating in the program,” according to FDA.

No. 9—The Congressional adoption of the Omnibus bill containing a poison pill for Country of Origin Labeling.

2015The House of Representatives had already voted to repeal Country of Origin Labeling or COOL in June, but the Senate was doing some foot dragging. The World Trade Organization (WTO) again ruled against the United States on May 18, sticking to its decision that COOl unfairly discriminates against meat imports and provides domestic meat with unfair trade protection.

The only shoe left to drop was the amount WTO would allow Canada and Mexico to impose on the U.S. in retaliatory tariffs. They sought up to $3.6 billion and would get approval for over $1 billion.

That number was too high, even for the Senate. COOL, which began with the 2002 Farm Bill, went into the Omnibus bill where its death was quick and certain. And USDA said it would immediately cease enforcement.

COOL’s demise has been fairly certain ever since USDA economists found it really did not have any value.

No. 10—The years-long vacancies for food safety leadership’s top jobs.

Dr. Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stepped down in February and Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, under secretary for food safety at USDA, left government two years ago.

President Obama has nominated Dr. Robert Califf, 64 to succeed Hamburg to FDA commissioner.  However, the one-time cardiologist at Duke University, has not yet won confirmation from the U.S. Senate. The highly regarded cardiologist has come in for criticism for allegedly being too close to the medical device and pharmaceutical industries.

As deputy commissioner for medical products and tobacco at FDA for the past year, Califf is just a step away from the FDA commissioner’s office now. The next commissioner will be under pressure to speed up drug and medical device approvals.

Meanwhile at USDA, both the President and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack are satisfied with their current leadership line-up. USDA is operating with two Deputy Under Secretaries for Food Safety, Al Almanza and Brian Ronholm. Almanza is also acting FSIS administrator of the 10,000 person agency.

Obama goes into his final year without an under secretary for food safety, and without one even being in the pipeline.

© Food Safety News