Editor’s note: Today, Food Safety News looks back at the Top 10 most important food safety news events for 2019. We’ve shared our annual rankings with our readers for the past decade. As in the past, our Top 10 list for 2019 is not merely a list of individual stories by individual writers. Multiple writers for multiple news outlets usually help determine the critical food safety stories of the year. And as always, the top food safety stories are chosen solely by the writers and editors of Food Safety News.

1. Federal food safety officials kept an outbreak secret.
Early in 2019, top federal officials promised safer “smarter” food safety with a more digital, traceable footprint. As it turned out, all the”smarter” food safety talk was just that, talk. By Nov 1, Food Safety News smoked out the No. 1 story of the year — FDA kept a romaine-related outbreak secret for more than six weeks. Industry also remained mum.

Lot’s of people inside and outside the federal government knew about the secret outbreak — just not the public or the media.

There’s been no honest explanation as to why the FDA kept the secret. Indeed, the romaine-related outbreaks of E. coli O157: H7 during the previous year were embarrassing for FDA.

The romaine-related outbreak that FDA kept secret for more than six weeks infected 23 people in 12 states. When he finally did come clean, Frank Yiannas, FDA deputy commissioner for food policy and response, said the agency opted to go public “to help ensure full awareness by the public and to highlight the ongoing importance of industry actions to help ensure the safety of leafy greens.”

2. Romaine-related E. coli outbreaks continue for the third year
Romaine lettuce linked to E. coli outbreaks is a story that’s been repeated six times over three years. It is causing plenty of heartburn at the highest levels of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The government and industry are both working on the problem, which in the end is likely to require keeping clean water near and animal agriculture far. In the meantime, the best FDA can do is tell consumers not to eat romaine from a suspect or unknown growing area.

Romaine was responsible for five deaths in 2018, but none during 2019. The stubborn issue remains with these two active outbreaks:

  • 102 illnesses in 23 states with 58 hospitalizations linked to romaine lettuce from California’s Salinas growing region.
  • Eight infected in 3 states with three hospitalizations linked to Fresh Express Sunflower Crisp Chopped Salad kits. Romaine lettuce is one of the ingredients of the salad kit. It may be part of the broader outbreak involving romaine.

A single grower with multiple fields is in the sight of FDA investigators as the year ends. Meanwhile, romaine harvest has begun in the Yuma, AZ, growing area, which was linked to previous outbreaks.

3. South Africa’s work on listeria outbreak hailed
If ever there was a test for public health outside the First World, it was South Africa’s listeriosis outbreak in 2017-2018. The 216 deaths out of 1,060 illnesses marked the world’s worst listeriosis outbreak.

During 2019 the story continued to be among top headlines. World health experts were able to re-trace the steps and make some judgments about the job done by public health officials.

The Foodborne Pathogens and Disease Journal gave high scores for how whole genome sequencing (WGS) and epidemiological data tracked the source of the outbreak to processed meat from Enterprise Foods, which is owned by multi-national Tiger Brands.

“The eight-month timeline was rather remarkable, considering the large number of cases involved and the limited capacity and resources available for foodborne disease outbreak investigations in South Africa,” it said.

The World Health Organization (WHO) earlier congratulated South Africa for its handling of the outbreak, which it said threatened the food safety of many countries in southern Africa.

4. Canada manages a massive beef recall
This much is known: The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) since Oct. 3 has managed a massive beef recall of at least 892 brand name products and then suspended the licenses for or Ryding-Regency Meat Packers, and St. Ann’s Foods.

The CFIA’s inspection activities triggered the action, which was based on fear of E. coli contamination. CFIA disclosed the public list of recalled brands and products in about two dozen separate recall notices.

No illnesses are yet associated with the recalls. Canada has not provided a tonnage figure for the 892 recalled products.

The CFIA has notified the United States, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and China that potentially affected products have entered their markets.

USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service issued a public health alert for the United States regarding the Canadian products on Oct 16.

 5. Food servers caught up in historic Hepatitis A outbreaks
Since 2016, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has tracked local and state outbreaks of hepatitis A. They’ve put up some enormous numbers since then. Through Dec. 13, 2019, the hepatitis A outbreaks have sickened 29,171 people and hospitalized 17,704, or 61 percent. Hepatitis A has also gone on to kill 298.

These  outbreaks are mostly the result of person-to-person transmission by people who are homeless and/or using illegal drugs. But it’s also become routine for public health officials to find restaurant workers pulling shifts while they are suffering from hepatitis A exposure and infections.

Restaurants or public health departments must rally to vaccinate exposed customers. Most people are unaware that hepatitis A can run at epidemic levels in our back streets. Infected restaurant workers is a nasty way to find out about it.

6. Food safety fabric was torn some during the partial government shutdown
The partial shutdown of the federal government early in 2019 was a dangerous disruption for food safety.

It took some time to understand how the partial shutdown played out. USDA meat, poultry, catfish, and egg inspectors continued to provide continuous inspections at more than 6,200 private establishments.

By contrast, only about 60 percent of FDA’s inspection personnel remained on the job. But, the drug side of the FDA, which is supported by user fees, got more attention than food safety during the shutdown.

The USDA had to acknowledge it shut down its phone lines that are dedicated to consumer complaints.

7. Congress begins 7th year without food safety team on the field
Stephen Michael Hahn, formerly the Chief Medical Executive of the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas, was appointed by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate as the 24th FDA Commissioner. However,  the federal government begins the seventh year without fielding its full team of food safety leaders.

Mindy Brashears, twice named by the president to be USDA’s Under Secretary for Food Safety and twice recommended by the Senate Agriculture Committee, remains without confirmation by the U.S. Senate. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue put Brashers to work in the meantime with a “deputy undersecretary for food safety” title.

The USDA’s Under Secretary for Food Safety is the top food safety job in the federal government.  It has been vacant since December 2013 when the last person to hold the office, Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, left the government.

During 2019, major agricultural organizations tried to persuade the Senate to confirm Brashears.  Her appointment is one of about 100 Trump Administration executive appointments that have not made it to a Senate floor vote.

8. GAO keeps fragmented food safety system on the high-risk list
The federal government’s fragmented food safety program did not make it off the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s “High-Risk List” in 2019.

It’s been on the list since 2007, and the next chance to get off the list won’t come until 2021.

Federal food safety is a complex system. It involves 30 federal laws administered by 15 federal agencies. And, according to the GAO, it puts the federal government at risk, along with such areas of concern as the security clearance system, cybersecurity, and VA health services.

The GAO, in the past, has called for the consolidation of federal food safety agencies. More recently, it asked Congress to consider “alternative” organization structures.

Among other shortcomings of the current federal food safety system, the GAO says the agencies are operating without a government-wide performance plan; nor is there monitoring of the effectiveness of food safety programs.

9. Voices of South African Listeria outbreak get to speak out
In February, Food Safety News sent journalist Joe Whitworth from his home in the United Kingdom to Johannesburg, South Africa. During the previous year, the largest listeriosis outbreak in history had dominated news out of South Africa.

By early 2019, the outbreak was over, and the National Institute for Communicable Diseases had recorded 1,060 cases and 216 deaths in the outbreak linked to processed meat produced by Enterprise Foods in Polokwane, South Africa.

But at that point, the voices not heard where the South African victims of listeriosis. Whitworth went to South Africa to listen to those stories and pass them along to the rest of us.

10. Law enforcement seizes tons of fake food in 78-country Interpol, Europol sting
Food safety is the first casualty of any food fraud scheme. So when the international police agencies Interpol and Europol last June seized $117 million of potentially dangerous food and beverages, it was a food safety story.

The 78-country sting known as Operation Opson VIII involved food with tampered expiration dates on cheeses and chickens, controlled medicine added to drinks, and meat stored in unsanitary conditions.

Police, customers, national food authorities, and the private sector took part in the five-month operation. It resulted in the seizure of 18.7 million items and the arrests of 672 people.

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