Editor’s note: Since its inception a decade ago, commentary in the from of guest opinion-editorial, or Op-Ed, content has been an important part of Food Safety News. Hundreds of contributors have found a place in Food Safety News for their voice when they’ve had something important to say about food safety. Through the Publisher’s Platform, Beach Beat, and the Letter from the Editor columns, Bill Marler, Coral Beach, and Dan Flynn have also used this space to share their more opinionated thoughts with our readers. In this way, we’ve served as the town square for the food safety community by having something to say and encouraging others to do the same. Here’s a sampling of excerpts, in no particular order, from the opinion columns we published during 2018.

Eschewing obfuscation on poultry slaughter line speed

Brian Ronholm

By Brian Ronholm Jan. 13, 2018
The key to understanding the complexities in the debate over the line speed issue for poultry production is to recognize that there is a distinct difference between the line speed for slaughter and the line speed for processing in a facility. While slaughter line speed is currently limited to 140 birds per minute (bpm), except for certain facilities, there are no regulations that limit the line speed for processing itself where birds are cut up and turned into various products.

More intuitively, another key point is that the work performed by poultry processing line personnel is incredibly difficult and ensuring the safety of these workers is of paramount importance. It is the intersection of these elements that is vexing the debate over line speed.

Four letters spell out the most significant food safety change in the past 25 years

Richard Raymond

By Dr. Richard Raymond Nov. 21, 2018
To paraphrase Nancy Donley, then executive director of the organization now known as STOP Foodborne Illness, if you look long enough and hard enough when investigating an E. coli outbreak, you will eventually bump into a cow.

In conclusion, PFGE (testing) does not reduce contaminated food being delivered to our retailers and our door steps, but it can reduce the amount available for sale and consumption by much more quickly identifying a source and initiating a recall along with notifying consumers and public health leaders.

The downside is that large numbers of sickened consumers and industry names lead to headlines, while the previously isolated cases of foodborne illnesses with no link to the industry did not.

And I think this bad publicity is contributing to the increased demand from the public for a safer food supply, which led to the Food Safety Modernization Act. Whether that will actually be another major development in food safety remains to be seen, but Congress and FDA feel mighty good about it.

Yesterday’s uninformed habits are tomorrow’s known threats

Phyllis Entis

By Phyllis Entis March 25, 2018
In the 50s and 60s, there was no effective method to detect norovirus. Illnesses that today are attributed to norovirus infections were written off as “stomach flu” instead.

Some of the bacterial pathogens common today, notably, shiga-toxin producing E. coli, including E. coli O157:H7, are relatively recent mutations. The earliest report in the literature of an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak dates from 1983.

Large-scale production requires large-scale distribution networks, including transportation of liquid ingredients in tanker trucks. A Salmonella outbreak resulted from the transportation of pasteurized ice cream mix in a tanker that had previously carried liquid raw egg, and that hadn’t been sanitized between uses.

Climate change also has played a role. For example, shellfish are known to harbor Vibrio parahaemolyticus. However, this pathogen is cold-sensitive and was not a food safety hazard in the waters off the coast off Canada’s west coast in the past. With the rise in water temperatures, Vibrio parahaemolyticus has been found more frequently in shellfish harvested in those waters.

Triple play: ‘Pro-choice nutritionist’ calls out produce guides

Toby Amidor

By Toby Amidor April 10, 2018
As a nutritional professional, I am frequently asked questions regarding purchasing organic or conventional fruits and vegetables. I am also asked about the use of “shoppers’ guides” produced and promoted by consumer and environmental groups that advise on which produce to buy organic due to residue concerns.

My response is that I am a “Pro-Choice” shopping advocate, which is why I am not a fan of produce “shoppers’ guides.”  Whether you purchase organic, conventional, ugly or local, buy your produce at a grocery store, food cooperative, online or a farmer’s market, I support doing whatever works best for you and your family. I just advise consumers to eat more fruits and veggies every day for better health and a longer life because it is my job to promote a nourishing, well balanced diet.

These “shoppers’ guides” are a disservice to consumers and confusing because they are not based upon sound science and are often in direct conflict. A quick review shows one guide advises consumers to buy only organic of a certain produce item due to supposed safety concerns, while another guide recommends making the exact opposite purchasing decision.  What is a consumer to do? 

‘Lettuce’ count the ways the feds have failed at food safety

Richard Raymond

By Dr. Richard Raymond April 24, 2018
Yes, let us count the ways the federal government has failed to keep us safe from a foodborne illness.

First is the current, growing E. coli O157:H7 outbreak linked to precut romaine lettuce. As of April 19, 53 persons have been reported ill from this bug, involving 16 states, with 31 hospitalized.

That is a 60 percent hospitalization rate, almost twice the normal, so this bacterium is an especially virulent strain. Maybe it could be called a super bug?

And what have the Food and Drug Administration and Center for Disease Control and Prevention to assure our safety? They have advised throwing out any romaine lettuce grown in Arizona.

That is a pretty big safety net. Why not name the brand and the stores it was sold in?

Oh, right, proprietary, confidential corporate information (CCI). Protect the companies, not the public.

Egg farmers not defined by bad actors; industry is safe, clean

Guest Opinion by Ken Klippen, National Association of Egg Farmers president, May 30, 2018
Today’s opinion article (posted May 26, 2018) by Roy Costa RS, MS, entitled “Rose Acres Farms: Another Bad Actor, or a Deeper Problem” deserves a rebuttal from the nation’s egg farmers.

Costa served as an expert witness for Marler Clark LLP when the 2010 Quality Egg Salmonella enteritidis outbreak occurred. Egg farmers today are providing a safe, wholesome egg for consumers while caring for the chicken and environment, so the title of his article suggesting a “deeper problem” is being challenged in this rebuttal.

Unfinished business: Keeping the focus on food safety

Michael Taylor

By Michael Taylor on July 9, 2018
In just the past few months, outbreaks involving romaine lettuce, pre-cut melons and Honey Smacks cereal have reminded us that the work to more effectively prevent foodborne illness is far from complete. People are still getting sick and dying, and markets are still being disrupted. Make no mistake, the commitment and effort are there among food safety professionals who work every day on farms, in factories and in retail settings to provide consumers safe food. And people at FDA and in state governments are working hard to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). 

Beach Beat: Why wasn’t canal water tested months ago?
By Coral Beach June 29, 2018
If you’ve walked the Beach Beat with me you know how I feel about government workers: They make the world go ’round. …

What I don’t understand is why the canal water samples were not collected for testing until June 4-8. Yep. June 4-8.

Back on April 13, both FDA and CDC reported that romaine from the Yuma growing region was implicated in the outbreak.

“Epidemiologic evidence collected to date indicates that chopped romaine lettuce is the likely source of this outbreak. Twenty-six (93%) of 28 people interviewed reported consuming romaine lettuce in the week before their illness started,” CDC reported and FDA referenced in their April 13 updates. “At this time, no common grower, supplier, distributor, or brand has been identified. However, preliminary information indicates that the chopped romaine lettuce was from the Yuma, AZ, growing region.” 

Maybe it’s just my calendar, but there were seven weeks of opportunity to test canal water — the most common source of irrigation water in the area — before the FDA collected samples. I doubt the rank and file investigators suggested that delay. Considering the fact that CDC scientists couldn’t start testing the canal water until they received it, their turnaround time for confirmed test results seems pretty darn quick.

But the question lingers. Why wasn’t the canal water tested sooner by government investigators?

FDA should choose public safety over corporate confidentiality

Sharon Natanblut

By Sharon Natanblut July 17, 2018
The FDA has an opportunity now to update its recall disclosure policy to provide consumers critical information they need and want to protect themselves during an outbreak. The agency can, and should, begin routinely identifying which retailers and individual store locations sold recalled food. This information will motivate consumers who have shopped in these stores to check their homes for recalled food and discard the food before anyone becomes ill.

That is the message that consumer groups, members of Congress, and others have been delivering to the FDA. Just last week, food safety lawyer Bill Marler wrote in his blog that “the time has come for the FDA to reassess what are considered “trade secrets” or “confidential corporate information” so that consumers can know which retailers have sold recalled foods.” He pointed out that the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) has been routinely doing this for the past decade, “and the sky did not fall.”

Setting the record straight: USDA says your meat and poultry are safe to eat

Carmen Rottenburg

By Carmen Rottenberg on August 29, 2018
You may have seen a Consumer Reports story claiming that the poultry and meat you purchase in the grocery store and feed your families could contain harmful drug residues. That is not true. This story is sensational and fear-based infotainment aimed at confusing shoppers with pseudoscience and scare tactics. Consumer Reports admits in their closing paragraph that the real agenda behind this piece is to convince Americans to eat less meat. Shame on Consumer Reports for attempting to advance a rhetoric that lacks scientific support or data, at the expense of American producers and the 9,000 food safety professionals who ensure the safety of meat and poultry in this country every day.

USDA has been ensuring the safety of meat and poultry since 1906, with inspectors, scientists, and experts making food safety determinations daily. FSIS has a rigorous drug residue testing program and has been conducting drug residue testing since 1958. When FSIS tests for residues, USDA inspectors collect meat and poultry samples at multiple points in the process, including in the final packages, before they are shipped to grocery stores. The samples are sent to FSIS labs, where we test for more than 200 veterinary drug and chemical residues as well as numerous harmful pathogens.

Our intensive testing process includes a preliminary test, or screening test, followed, when positive, by confirmatory testing. The screening instrument very often produces a response, which is why the agency completes the screening process, using controls and other evidence, to determine if the responses are confirmed and reproducible. The results of this initial screen, without the further testing layers, are the data that was released in error. FSIS scientists spoke with Consumer Reports multiple times to explain this information, but Consumer Reports scientists failed to evaluate all the scientific results and methods objectively.

Will the foodservice industry ever knock down it’s brick wall of denial?

Francine Shaw

By Francine L. Shaw on October 5, 2018
Day after day, I watch the list of foodborne illness casualties accumulate. As a food safety expert, I receive a ridiculous number of recall alerts and foodborne illness outbreak notices daily. And I watch in amazement as the food service industry continues to be in denial about our country’s serious, ongoing food safety problem. Things won’t get better until the industry admits there is a problem, and takes measureable steps to improve their food safety protocols.

In 2017, there were a total of 438 recalls, with the leading cause being the presence of undeclared allergens and mislabeled products. Nearly half the recalls contained known food allergens (i.e., wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, etc.) that were not listed on the product label – a serious (potentially deadly) issue for food-allergic individuals. Some misbranded products had serious errors on their labels. For example, the Food Industry Counsel reported one raw pork product was labeled as ready-to-eat (RTE) when it wasn’t cooked at all.

The second leading cause of recalls in 2017 was due to the possible presence of dangerous pathogens in RTE foods. Listeria monocytogenes was the number one pathogen found in recalled products, including hummus, protein bars, nuts, soup and waffles.

Romaine outbreak: Where should we go from here? Forward together

Editor’s note: Michael Taylor and Lauren Bush, co-chairs of the STOP Foodborne Illness board, combined efforts to write this column. Nov. 16
On Nov. 1, FDA issued its assessment of factors contributing to this year’s deadly outbreak of illness caused by contaminated romaine lettuce produced in the Yuma, Arizona growing region. This was the largest outbreak of E. coli O157: H7 infections in the United States since the spinach outbreak of 2006. Ninety-six people were hospitalized and five died.  

In an accompanying letter to the leafy greens industry and state officials in Arizona and California, the Food and Drug Administration also issued a strong call to action, saying: “Bold action is needed to prevent future outbreaks, especially ones of this magnitude, and to restore consumer confidence in the safety of leafy greens available on the market.”

We emphatically agree. The question is what action and by whom. The key players are FDA, the states, the leafy green industry and food retailers – the businesses that directly link food producers with consumers. They all have roles to play. The cattle feeding industry must also be part of the conversation. Typically, multiple factors contribute to major outbreaks, but just as run-off from cattle grazing was implicated in the 2006 spinach outbreak, a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) is implicated in the romaine outbreak due to the CAFO’s close proximity to irrigation canals and growing fields. 

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