Pop quiz: When is food food? When are foodborne pathogens pathogens? When will government act? When will businesses do the right thing?
I’ve no doubt these questions, in some form, will be covered in the majority of news stories and opinion columns Food Safety News will publish in 2019. I’ve also no doubt three of these questions could be answered well before the end of the year, if not by the beginning of spring.
The first question’s the tough one.
It’s a difficult and complicated thing to define food with “lab meat” aka “cell-cultured meat” in the mix. This year we expect to continue to see headlines about the emerging industry’s R&D, government’s reviews of that R&D, and efforts by the existing meat industry to have words such as “meat” banned from use on lab-meat product labels. Consumer advocacy organizations representing pro and con perspectives, as well as animal welfare activists, are also variables in the lab meat equation.
Question No. 4 could be answered immediately if the food industry would clean up its act. Businesses, though, will likely continue to put the pursuit of profit higher on their priority lists than public safety.
Questions 2 and 3 — IMHO — also could be answered immediately, if there wasn’t a partial government shutdown blanketing Washington D.C.
When all hands are back on board at the USDA, the agency could put the pathogen question on a fast track. Despite a mountain of scientific evidence, repeated outbreaks and deaths, Salmonella is still not defined as an “adulterant” and that means the poultry producers, for example, are basically off the hook when Salmonella illnesses are traced to their contaminated products.
An ongoing salmonellosis outbreak traced to raw turkey has sickened 216 people, with illness onsets beginning Nov. 20, 2017, and continuing through Dec. 6, 2018, when the most recent outbreak update was posted. The FDA reports extensive testing by state and federal officials across the country has revealed Salmonella in raw turkey, in live turkeys, at slaughtering facilities and at processing plants. Federal officials also say the pathogen is widespread in the industry and the ongoing outbreak likely involves multiple products from multiple sources.
If Salmonella doesn’t meet the definition of a foodborne pathogen that should be declared an adulterant, I don’t know what does.
Of course, the so-called protein industry could do the right thing and implement practices known to mitigate Salmonella contamination. Then it could police itself in a meaningful way and minimize the need for government involvement. I’d love to write those good news stories and I’m sure you’d like to read them.
More romaine news ahead
Another news story that will continue to come across our screens in 2019 is, of course, the E. coli outbreaks and investigations involving romaine lettuce. The third romaine-related E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in 12 months was announced Nov. 20, 2018. It’s not yet been declared over.
Experts from academia, government and industry agree that illnesses related to romaine and other leafy greens could be greatly reduced if known mitigation practices are adopted. Those practices include the use of better and more frequent testing of irrigation water and intensive attention to cleaning and sanitizing equipment in the supply chain.
Some growers and processors have made some changes, but industry-wide action is needed. If businesses in the food chain step up, we’ll let you know. If they don’t, that means increased government activity is needed. We’ll let you know how it shakes out.
The Usual Suspects & Newcomers
Since coming online in August 2009, Food Safety News has repeatedly reported on certain foods because of their confirmed or suspected links to foodborne illnesses. Some of those seem like no-brainers, but they keep showing up in the news.
Foods well-known for being associated with illnesses from bacteria, viruses and parasites include fresh sprouts; raw or undercooked meat and poultry; bagged salads, fresh produce that is consumed raw, especially pre-cut produce; frozen fruits and vegetables; processed foods such as sausage that are perishable and shelf stable foods such as nut butters.
Dry goods are showing up increasingly in recall and outbreak headlines, and we expect that trend to continue in 2019. Products such as flour, baking mixes, powdered baby formula, and ingredients such as whey and spices have all been found to be contaminated in the past 12 months.
There’s nothing to suggest any of these old timers or newcomers won’t be back in the news this year.
Also Coming to (North) America in 2019
- Traceability — This public safety topic was top of mind beginning in April 2018 when the FDA reported it was facing a virtually impossible task in trying to find out where romaine lettuce was grown and what entities transported or handled before it reached restaurants and retail shelves. The leafy greens industry has been developing and implementing voluntary traceback labeling since the deadly 2006 E. coli outbreak traced to fresh, bagged spinach. The majority of produce companies have not adopted the labeling. Other food business sectors have toyed with traceability solutions this century, but little progress has been made. We hope 2019 is the year this topic turns into a good news story. If industry doesn’t step up, government should step in.
- CAFOs — Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, informally known as feedlots, will be in the news in conjunction with leafy greens, and not because salad goes well with steak. Rather, the relationship is based on manure, dust, wind and fresh produce fields adjacent to CAFOs. The practical impact of the lack of adequate buffer zones and other mitigation practices hit the fan during the investigation of the spring 2018 romaine outbreak. The outbreak strain of E. coli strain was found in water from an open irrigation canal that ran past a 100,000-plus cattle feedlot and was used to irrigate lettuce fields. Animal agriculture associations are beginning to talk to fresh produce organizations about the problem. If the industries moved now to put known food safety controls into practice, illnesses would decrease. If industry doesn’t step up, government should step in.
- Hepatitis A — Thousands of people have been confirmed in a series of hepatitis A outbreaks since 2017, most of whom became infected as a result of person-to-person contact. However, up to a third of the patients were not members of any high risk groups. Hepatitis is highly contagious and can easily contaminate food and food contact surfaces. Infected people can spread the virus before symptoms develop. If the restaurant and foodservice industry at large would impose voluntary requirements for vaccinations for employees, a key vector for transmission could be greatly diminished. If industry doesn’t step up, government should step in.
- Retailer lists during recalls — FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said the agency is changing its policy on releasing lists of retailers that sold recalled food so consumers can be better informed when recalls are announced. The problem is that the FDA will release the lists on a consumer-need-to-know basis. Since his announcement in fall 2018, retailer lists have only been posted twice. The FDA has historically said a federal clause protecting “confidential corporate information” has kept it from telling the public about food businesses’ “trading partners.” The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has been routinely releasing retailer lists on foods under its jurisdiction for years.
- FSMA enforcement — Congress approved the Food Safety Modernization Act in 2010 and saw it signed into law in January 2011. Several key aspects of the legislation such as the deadlines for FDA to write and enforce new rules — particularly for fresh produce — have been delayed. Industry pushback is part of the reason for the delayed implementation of the Act. Classic government red tape is also a factor. If FDA doesn’t step it up, Congress should step in.
- GMOs or BEs — A volatile topic for decades, genetically modified organisms, now called biologically engineered, are sure to be in the news in 2019 because of the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law, approved by Congress in July of 2016. In late December 2018, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard. The standard requires food manufacturers, importers and certain retailers to ensure bioengineered foods are appropriately disclosed. The entire record of the rulemaking is available at www.federalregister.gov/documents/2018/12/21/2018-27283/national-bioengineered-food-disclosure-standard.
- Blockchain — Between romaine outbreaks in 2018, Walmart announced it would begin requiring its food suppliers to implement blockchain traceability in 2019. Retailers and foodservice operators are increasingly imposing traceback requirements on suppliers, but the giant step by the world’s giant retailer promises to keep the invisible links in the blockchain in the news this year.
- Irradiation — Long required for certain fresh produce coming from Hawaii or foreign countries, and used by Wegman’s grocery chain and a few other entities in the food chain, irradiation may not be at the top of the news very often in 2019, but it probably should be. It’s been proven to kill pathogens in ground beef and other foods without impacting flavor. It can also extend the shelf life of perishable foods. Unfortunately, public perception that the word “irradiation” means radio active, and the relatively few irradiation facilities in the U.S, mean this remarkable technology isn’t in wide use and probably won’t be for quite a while.
- WGS — Whole genome sequencing has been gaining steam in the food safety arena for a few years now, but its application in terms of helping to detect, contain, and investigate foodborne illness outbreaks is in tipping point territory as we begin 2019. Providing what is often referred to as the DNA fingerprints of pathogens, the sci-fi technology continues to help the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to build a vast and ever increasing database. Pathogens found in samples from sick people and food are compared to the pathogen profiles in the database. Matches help outbreak investigators connect the dots to identify implicated foods. The combination of faster and less expensive testing has sped the growth of the database. That’s partly responsible for a perceived increase in foodborne outbreaks. In reality, experts from government, industry and academia say there were probably more outbreaks in the past, but we didn’t have the means to detect them.
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