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Beach Beat: FSN à la ‘Night Gallery’ with a side of E. coli

Opinion

Pondering the news from this week’s food safety beat, I found myself perplexed, paranoid and peeved. A terrifying trio of unrelated stories was begging for a beach beating. I was passionate enough to think I would not need to court the muse.

Three hours later, nothing worth reading had crossed my keyboard.

beach-beatThe “Pathogens’ Field of Dreams” concept was the first to be pitched in the general direction of the trashcan icon. When I got to “Triple Crown of Pathogens” and “Trifecta of Infections,” I started to panic.

Enter my new favorite muse, Rod Serling.

From 1970 to 1973, Serling — widely known for his work with “Twilight Zone” — provided the narration and no small part of the content for a weekly television series, “Night Gallery.” His weekly intro about a trio of unrelated pieces of art is the perfect start to this week’s triple threat from the world of food safety:

“Good evening and welcome to a private showing of three paintings, displayed here for the first time. Each is a collector’s item in its own way — not because of any special artistic quality, but because each captures on a canvas, suspended in time and space, a frozen moment of a nightmare.”

Here are three terrible tales from the food safety gallery this week.

The perplexing problem of pathogens and state boundaries
Once again, Organic Pastures Dairy Co., of Fresno, CA, was in the news, this week recalling unpasteurized, raw dairy products for the second time since May 9 because state inspectors found Salmonella contamination.

The May 23 recall was the result of follow-up testing the state was conducting in response to finding Salmonella in the organic dairy’s milk earlier in the month. State officials say the 500-cow dairy, operated by founder and CEO Mark McAfee, will be subject to increased inspections and testing for an unspecified period.

logo-Organic-Pastures-Dairy-CoMcAfee says if his dairy was in Pennsylvania, his milk would have been OK’d for sale. He contends the testing method used by California is too sensitive. He prefers a Dupont BAX brand test kit, which he says is adequate under Pennsylvania law.

“This is an issue regarding conflicts in testing methodology. The state (California) uses BAM ‘Moore Swab’ and our private state-approved third-party lab uses PCR-BAX,” McAfee said. “Our BAX PCR tests are negative and the state returns mostly negative and some positive tests. This level of bacteria is at the far bottom reaches of the detection limits.

“If (Organic Pastures Dairy Co.) was under Pennsylvania state law, we would not be under recall. In Penn State, PCR BAX is one of the approved methods for detection of salmonella.”

Here’s the perplexing part.

Leaving aside the arguments about the safety of consuming unpasteurized raw dairy products and leaving aside the scientific attributes of various testing methods, there is a major problem with this picture.

Does anyone really believe pathogens are aware of state boundaries? States’ rights are crucial to our democratic republic, but seriously, shouldn’t there be one set of rules for things like foodborne pathogen testing?

Consumers should be able to buy food in any state knowing that the same standards — and methods of checking and enforcing those standards — are uniform.

Just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean the sky isn’t falling
CDC-graphic-antibiotic-resistance
Hundreds of news stories — from legitimate news outlets, not just fear mongers and mommy bloggers — have been published since the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) reported this week that health officials had confirmed the first case of a person infected with a super-resistant form of E. coli.

Everyone in public health had been anticipating the finding since November 2015 when Chinese officials announced they had confirmed human as well as swine cases of colistin-resistant mcr-1 E. coli in their country. In fact, HHS and U.S. Department of Agriculture have been looking for the specific pathogen since the news in China broke.

Efforts are detailed in the HHS report “Proactive Efforts by U.S. Federal Agencies Enable Early Detection of New Antibiotic Resistance.”

USDA found the so-called superbug in the intestine of a domestic pig, proving that it is already present in both the human and animal food populations in the U.S. It has also been confirmed in Europe, Canada and other parts of Asia.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria have been an increasingly significant problem for decades, but this one is different, according to the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“It basically shows us that the end of the road isn’t very far away for antibiotics — that we may be in a situation where we have patients in our intensive care units, or patients getting urinary-tract infections for which we do not have antibiotics,” CDC Director Tom Frieden told the Washington Post.

Investigators are trying to determine how the Pennsylvania woman was exposed to the bug, which is proving difficult, especially since she had not traveled in recent months. The possibility of foodborne transmission routes have not been ruled out.

FDA apparently missed the memo about the internet
While the federal government jumped on the colistin-resistant mcr-1 E. coli situation quickly, it has not been so nimble when it comes to thinking outside the brick-and-mortar box regarding food recalls involving online retailers.

I was shocked and disappointed this week when I checked in with the people at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to learn that the agency does not have any procedures or notification requirements in place regarding online retailers and food recalls.

When I queried the agency, I fully expected to be directed to a link where I could find a rundown of who is supposed to do what to make sure that online retailers pull recalled food from their distribution centers. I also expected that some kind of consumer notification guidance — if not a full-blown rule — would have been developed in the more than 20 years since consumers started buying food online.

Garden of Life provided the label sample on the left to the FDA for posting with its recall notice. As the outbreak linked via DNA to its "Organic Raw Meal" powders spread across the country, the company redesigned its labels and changed the word order in the product name to "Raw Organic Meal" as shown on the right.

Garden of Life provided the label sample on the left to FDA for posting with its recall notice. As the outbreak linked via DNA to its “Organic Raw Meal” powders spread across the country, the company redesigned its labels and changed the word order in the product name to “Raw Organic Meal” as shown on the right.

Ha. Why didn’t I know the round of Q&A would end with the consumer side of me peeved?

The whole question came up when public health officials in Wisconsin confirmed a new case of Salmonella Vichrow infection in an outbreak that CDC had declared ended on April 21. The new Wisconsin case and another 33 spread across 23 states were linked via DNA tests to Garden of Life brand Raw Meal supplement shake powders.

“The product, an organic shake and meal replacement, was recalled earlier this year by the company, but consumers have acquired recalled product from internet retailers such as eBay and Amazon,” according to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

“Consumers should not consume this product if it is from the lot codes listed in the previous recall announcements found on the FDA recall website. Contaminated product may still be for sale from eBay, Amazon and other internet retailers.”

Wisconsin officials are to be commended for their diligence. FDA, not so much. Not only has the agency not updated its web posting on the outbreak since April 22, it apparently didn’t even have the topic of recall procedures for online retailers on its radar screen until this week.

“In light of this recent case, we are considering other ways to reach retailers and consumers to make sure they are aware of the recall,” was FDA’s response.

“In determining whether a recall is sufficient, FDA does not have different standards for products sold online versus through traditional ‘brick and mortar’ retailers, though we recognize that the steps needed to ensure that product has been accounted for may differ. We are still working with Garden of Life to determine the effectiveness of their recall.”

Apparently the agency didn’t get the memo about that information superhighway thingy. I hear tell the whole thing’s electronic.

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