It’s Dec. 24, do you know where your name is?

Here at Food Safety News we’ve been checking the year-end Naughty & Nice Lists and we’re ready to nominate some names. When it comes to candy or coal, one thing is as sure as Santa’s annual review — every year has its share of sugar plums as well as plum pits, and 2019’s been no different in that regard.

Some entries on our lists can be considered as representative of countless others.

For example, legislators on our Nice List are but a small sample of elected officials who are trying to do the right thing. Many government administrators and appointees also stand as cases in point for their counterparts at all levels of our democratic republic.

Industry also has it’s goods and bads, from companies that are repeat offenders to trade association scientists who are willing to stand up and talk about uncomfortable realities.

But first, an entry from
the On the Bubble List:

In 2019, Scott Gottlieb, the now former FDA commissioner, was beginning to show that his span of control was going to treat food safety equally with the drug and medical side of the house. We  were impressed, but then he quit because he decided his job was too far from his wife and daughters, who remained in Connecticut. Nice to them. Naughty to the rest of us.

The Dark Side, aka The Naughty List

Tiger Brands executives
This year we found out that multi-national, mega-player Tiger Brands plans to fight a class action lawsuit about the company’s part in the world’s largest ever documented Listeria outbreak. The 2017-2018 outbreak in South Africa sickened a minimum of 1,065 people. At least 218 people died. A hearing on the class action lawsuit could occur by mid- to late 2020.

The lawsuit was brought against the company by Richard Spoor Attorneys and LHL Attorneys. In April, Thami Malusi of Richard Spoor Attorneys told Food Safety News the company’s move to fight the class action was expected.

The listeriosis outbreak was traced to a ready-to-eat processed meat product called polony that was made at a plant in Polokwane and run by Enterprise Foods, which is owned by Tiger Brands.

The class action was initiated on behalf of those who were sickened by the contaminated polony and for families who lost relatives in the outbreak. The Seattle firm of Marler Clark LLP is a consultant for the South African attorneys.

Almark Foods
The operators of this company could have been on the 2017 and 2018 Naughty Lists for their role in a three-year Listeria outbreak traced to their peeled, hard boiled eggs, but the outbreak was not reported by public health officials until recent days.

As of this past week, the tally stood at seven people in five states confirmed infected with the outbreak strain of Listeria monocytogenes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One of the patients has died and four have had to be admitted to hospitals.

Illnesses began in 2017, the same year the Food and Drug Administration found the outbreak strain of Listeria monocytogenes at the currently implicated egg factory. The company apparently failed to resolve the problem.

Federal inspectors again found the outbreak strain of Listeria monocytogenes at the Georgia plant in February this year. The operation is currently shut down and will remain so until the company can “further investigate the issue.” The company recalled 200,000 eggs on Friday, Dec. 20.

“We adhere to strict food safety practices and seek to constantly improve our products and processes,” according to the Almark website. “Our ‘Hard-Boiled Eggs’ are produced without any artificial colors, flavors or preservatives.”

The recall includes peeled, hard boiled eggs that have expiration dates as far off as Feb. 26, 2020.

Frank Yiannas and the FDA
This past summer a 12-state E. coli outbreak sickened 23 people, with 11 requiring hospitalization. The source was most likely romaine lettuce, according to the Food and Drug Administration, which didn’t bother to reveal the outbreak to the public until Halloween. Industry also remained mum.

Both the FDA and CDC investigated the outbreak of infections from potentially deadly E. coli O157:H7, but the federal agencies “did not identify actionable information for consumers” and therefore did not reveal the outbreak.

Making the coverup even worse was the context set by the top food safety official at FDA earlier this year.

Frank Yiannas, FDA deputy commissioner for food policy and response, 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. The FDA kept the outbreak secret for more than six weeks.

As our editor Dan Flynn said in this year’s roundup of the Top 10 food safety stories of the year, “there’s been no honest explanation as to why the FDA kept the secret.”

When he finally did come clean, Yiannas 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.”

Public Health England
A government agency tasked with part of the responsibility for food safety across The Pond earns a spot on the Naughty List. Public Health England (PHE), or rather the communication by PHE, is lacking. Anyone that works in the sector will know the expertise of PHE staff and the experience, knowledge and technology of the surveillance system ensuring they detect foodborne diseases, likely quicker and more often than some other countries.

But did they communicate about an E. coli O157 outbreak in October, a Salmonella Bredeney outbreak in August, 138 ill from Salmonella Mikawasima as of November, the 45 sick in 2019 from Salmonella after eating British eggs, or 24 Salmonella Enteritidis cases in people on cruise ships visiting the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East? No. At least not until we asked or another agency revealed details.

How many outbreaks were never revealed? What about Cyclospora that sickened nine in June and then we heard nothing? And more illnesses linked to the Salmonella Enteritidis outbreak from eggs from Poland or the new strain of Salmonella Typhimurium in sheep behind almost 300 illnesses and one death in 2017 and 2018?

Plus, the speed and content of the information shared about a Listeria outbreak from chicken sandwiches sold at hospitals was less than timely or transparent.

The Force, aka The Nice List
Rosa DeLauro and the Congressional Food Safety Caucus
A U.S. representative, Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, D-CT, has been a food safety champion for years. She heads the Congressional Food Safety caucus, which works to keep foodborne illnesses on the radar in Washington D.C. where the trillion-dollar chunks of the federal budget get the most attention.

A consensus builder, DeLauro has worked with Republicans and Democrats to raise awareness, hold government agencies feet to the fire, and introduce legislation to strengthen protections for the American public.

Among her efforts, and those of her colleagues on Capitol Hill, this year were:

  • December GAO report — The GAO is the audit, evaluation, and investigative arm of Congress. It studied seafood imports at the request of Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro and four U.S. Senators: Richard Blumenthal, Dianne Feinstein, Patty Murray, and Elizabeth Warren. The GAO said the members of Congress asked for a review of the FDA’s efforts to use import alerts to ensure the safety of imported seafood.
  • Beef plants — Although a single supplier had not been identified, federal officials knew a number of specific beef plants were contaminated with a strain of Salmonella behind a deadly outbreak. But, the USDA wouldn’t name those companies. Seeking to force the U.S. Department of Agriculture to reveal the information, two members of Congress wrote to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. The legislators played a business card in addition to citing public safety concerns. “By disclosing this data, USDA will foster market-based incentives for safer meat and poultry,” wrote DeLauro and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY.
  • Cavi papayas in August — DeLauro demanded that the FDA use its mandatory authority to force Agroson’s LLC to recall Cavi brand whole, fresh papayas. The papayas were likely responsible for a multistate outbreak of Salmonella Uganda illnesses in the United States, according to both FDA and CDC. Agroson’s LLC is the brand’s exclusive distributor and it’s owners flatly refused to initiate a recall.
  • Consolidating food safety — Citing fragmented food safety oversight, which is split up between 15 federal agencies, DeLauro and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-IL, sought to scrap the current system and the ineffective laws that regulate it. The Safe Food Act could weave the patchwork system “where no single voice guides industry, retailers and consumers” into a seamless force for safer food in the United States according to Durbin and DeLauro. “We need a common-sense, 21st century way of ensuring food safety — and a single food safety agency is it,” DeLauro said.

Folkhälsomyndigheten and Statens Serum Institut
On the nice list are Folkhälsomyndigheten (Public Health Agency of Sweden) and Statens Serum Institut in Denmark. Throughout 2019 and for the past several years both of these agencies have been contacted on numerous occasions with often short deadlines to meet our online and daily publishing schedule.

Most of their food safety announcements are in Swedish or Danish but they are willing to take the time to speak English and ensure questions are answered and any translations correct. Other agencies are not always as helpful on these public health issues, even when contacted in their native language.

In the quest of Food Safety News to cover international news it would certainly help if other agencies took this approach. So, to Folkhälsomyndigheten and Statens Serum Institut, we say Tack and Tak, respectively.

Trevor Suslow of the Produce Marketing Association
Trevor Suslow, currently vice president for Produce Safety at the Produce Marketing Association, was formerly affiliated with the University of California-Davis. During decades with the university’s Extension Service he did volumes of research with post-harvest produce and freshcut produce. In November he wrote a letter to members of the fresh produce industry amidst yet another romaine outbreak.

Suslow, respected by industry, academia and government, had some choice words for federal agencies, but he also said what industry never wants to hear. Efforts to contain the romaine situation had failed.

“Early on over this past weekend, it was relatively easy to find retail product on shelves with the consumer-facing stickers identifying Grown In information which should have resulted in removal for sale,” Suslow wrote to the industry that pays his salary.

Also, he has had an eye on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), also known as feedlots, for years in terms of their proximity to fields used to grow produce intended to be eaten raw. Suslow is among those who investigated links between a feedlot near growing fields in Yuma, AZ, that were implicated in a deadly E. coli outbreak.

“. . . the (intent of the) Expanded Food Safety Inspection Act by U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of NY. . . is to explicitly give FDA the authority to conduct environmental investigative sampling at any locations it deems necessary to pursue a source of contamination,” Suslow wrote in his letter to the produce industry.

“The focus would include animal feeding operations, compost facilities, and other non-target and off-farm locations deemed relevant. FDA does not currently have full authority to conduct this type of sampling. . .”

Wouldn’t it be nice if all industry advocates were also public safety advocates?

The victims
We don’t know whether all of the foodborne illness victims of 2019 — and their loved ones — were actually nice people. We do know no one deserves to be the victim of food poisoning. No one deserves to lose a relative or friend to food poisoning.

We also know personal stories about real people are among the strongest tools there are to raise awareness about the otherwise faceless legions of those sickened by bacteria, parasites and viruses in foods and beverages.

That’s why we brought our readers interviews with victims of the South African Listeria outbreak.

That’s why we described the horrific consequences of E. coli infections faced by children in an outbreak associated with unpasteurized, raw milk in Tennessee.

That’s why you can count on us being back in December 2020 with another installment of our Naughty & Nice Lists.

Note: Editor Dan Flynn contributed to this column.

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