Editor’s Note:  We try to frame 10 of the most important happenings every year, but it’s not just about the “Top Ten Stories.” That is because what is essential is rarely about just one story — framing what marks an entire year almost always involves more than one writer; when it comes to food safety, we are pretty good at that. In no particular order, let’s look at what stands out about 2021.

  • Dietary Guidelines go mostly unchanged and unheard

Blame went to the pandemic that turned the usually dominant update process into just another bunch of forgettable “zoom” meetings. It was tardy with a 5-year update due in 2020. With some early 2021 statements about too much sugar or too much alcohol not being good for you, the federal government did finally issue updated Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Expect more noise in 2025 when the Dietary Guidelines are next due for an update.

  • America’s top food safety felons look for their release

Stewart and Michael Parnell spent 2021 using all their determination to get out of the federal prisons that hold them. They were not candidates for “compassionate release,” but the Middle District of Georgia actively considered their “Habeas corpus” petitions to vacate their convictions and sentences.

A “compassionate release” permits the Bureau of Prisons to free older, medically-challenged inmates who’ve served a large percentage of their sentence. Habeas corpus allows federal inmates to petition to vacate their convictions and penalties for violations of Constitutional rights.

Stewart, 67, and Michael, 62, were convicted in 2014 of numerous felonies related to the 46-state Salmonella Typhimurium outbreak that sickened 714 and contributed to nine deaths in 2008-09. Both brothers remained wards of the Bureau of Prisons at year ending, with petitions pending.

  • Food safety relationships resume as the world’s top organization re-starts-person meetings.   

Only twice in its long history, 1943 and 2020, has the International Association for Food Protection (IAFP) missed holding its annual in-person meetings. For an organization built on relationships — government and industry, students and professors — virtual meetings weren’t going to cut it for long. IAFP was back in 2021, for meetings in a hot Phonix, AZ, and continuing a tradition that dates back to 1912. 

  • Food Freedom/Food Rights remain popular without really knowing that they mean

This year so-called Food Freedom struck in Montana, and Maine became the first state to enact food as a constitutional right. Just as states like Wyoming and Utah enacted food freedom laws, Montana passed a law designed to permit fresh food purchases by farmers and ranchers, including raw milk.

Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, is a Montana grocer who crafted the bill, which builds on the 2015 Montana Cottage Foods Act. The new Food Freedom law kept the USDA-approved state meat inspection act intact.

Maine voters easily approved a historic state constitutional amendment establishing a constitutional Right to Food.  The added language to the Maine constitution provides that individuals have a “natural, inherent, and inalienable right to food, including the right to save and exchange seeds and the right to grow, raise, harvest, produce, and consume the food of their choosing.”

An individual’s right to food, however, does not permit “trespassing, theft, poaching, or other abuses of private property rights, public lands, or natural resources in the harvesting, production, or acquisition of food.”

Call it The Right to Food or Food Freedom, food safety precautions are not likely to go away.

  • Wait for it — sesame gets allergen status in two years

Sesame will officially become the ninth major food allergen on Jan. 1, 2023. It will take its place alongside peanuts, tree nuts, fish, crustacean shellfish, soy, milk, eggs, and wheat as designated by the 2004 Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA).

That’s what Congress accomplished by passing the Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education and Research (FASTER) Act in 2021.

A ninth major food allergen, almost for sure, will bring about more food recalls, helping warn those with severe reactions about sesame before they occur.

Under the FASTER Act, sesame will be subject to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act with requirements for disclosure on labels and preventive controls for processors, packers, etc.

  • The road to declaring  Salmonella serotypes adulterants in meat will likely go through the courts

For two years, world-renown food safety attorney Bill Marler, also known as the publisher of Food Safety News, has petitioned USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service about “outbreak” Salmonella serotypes.

Marler wants USDA to label those “outbreak” Salmonella serotypes as “adulterants” in meat because they are harmful to humans. E. coli O157:H7 and six other “sister”  E. coli strains are adulterants now banned from meat.

In the final days of 2021, Marler is asking FSIS for a “definitive and prompt response.” to his petition. In other words, he wants a yes or no answer, not more involved in chewing on the issue with FSIS.

If it is “yes,” he’ll celebrate with his plaintiff group consisting of Rick Schiller, Steve Romes, the Porter family, along with Food and WaterWatch, Consumer Federation of America, and Consumer Reports. 

If it is “no,” Marler will appeal the FSIS ruling to the federal courts where, during his career, the Seattle attorney has earned billions for victims of foodborne illnesses. An appeal under the federal Administrative Procedures Act becomes the basis for challenging the FSIS decisions.

  •  Trial for retired Blue Bell President Paul Kruse begins March 14

A federal Grand Jury indictment of Paul Kruse, the retired president of Blue Bell Creameries, came down in late 2020. Some pre-trial business occurred during 2021. The trial, however, was delayed to 2022 because the defense attorneys had schedule conflicts.

The trial is set to begin on March 14 with jury selection in Austin’s Western District Federal Court. The conspiracy and fraud charges, a 7-count indictment brought against Kruse, stems from a 2015 listeriosis outbreak.

There were 10 confirmed cases in that four-state outbreak. The outbreak implicated Blue Bell ice cream, consumed by three who died. Blue Bell had to recall its production, close down its production plants, and lay off its employees.

Blue Bell ice cream remains one of the most popular products in Texas. The company agreed to pay criminal penalties totaling $17.5 million and $2,1 million to resolve False Claims Act allegations regarding ice cream products manufactured under “insanitary” conditions and sold to federal facilities, including the military.

The total $19.35 million in fines, forfeiture, and civil settlement payments was the second-largest amount ever paid in the resolution of a food safety matter.  Kruse, 66, was the company’s long-time president, credited by some Texans with saving the company.

  • Those outbreaks before 2020, where E.coli O157:H7 contaminated romaine crops, are not forgotten by FDA

The Food and Drug Administration hopes to make changes to water requirements under the Produce Safety Rule, partly to keep feedlot dust from carrying E. coli into nearby leafy green fields and other fields used for growing produce.

The agency in December announced it is revising Subpart E of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety Rule to change the pre-harvest agricultural water requirements for applicable produce (other than sprouts).

If finalized, the proposed rule would replace the pre-harvest microbial quality criteria and testing requirements in the Produce Safety Rule with a systems-based, pre-harvest approach for agricultural water assessments and testing.

The proposed rule would define assessments as actions to identify conditions that are reasonably likely to introduce known or foreseeable hazards into or onto produce or food contact surfaces and determine whether corrective or mitigation measures are needed to minimize the risks associated with pre-harvest agricultural water.

These requirements would address concerns about the complexity and practical implementation of certain pre-harvest agricultural water requirements in the Produce Safety Rule while protecting public health, according to the FDA. The requirements should also be adaptable to future agricultural water quality science advancements.

Harvest and post-harvest uses of agricultural water or the agricultural water requirements for sprouts won’t change. Sprouts are subject to specific pre-harvest water requirements, and the compliance dates for those sprouts requirements have passed.

  • How long will it take the U.S. Senate to confirm Dr. Jose Emilio Esteban?

First-year presidential administrations often do not name someone as USDA’s Under Secretary for Food Safety. That’s a contributing factor to why the top food safety job in the federal government has gone vacant almost as often as not.

Give credit to the new Biden Administration for the Nov. 12 nomination of Dr. Jose Emilio Esteban as USDA’s Under Secretary for Food Safety. The job went vacant Jan. 20 , 2021, when Mindy Brashears returned to her top research post at Texas Tech University.

Esteban, chief scientist for USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), cannot take over as Under Secretary until the U.S. Senate confirms him. He needs a hearing and recommendation by the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry and a majority vote by the full U.S. Senate for his confirmation.

USDA’s most recent Senate confirmation was Rostin Behnam to Chair the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. The president nominated him on Sept. 20 and it took the Senate three months to confirm him.

How long will the Senate make Esteban wait? That’s a question for 2022.

  • Keep reading Food Safety News for 2021’s top outbreaks and 2022 predictions.  

We like get everyone into the act for these year-end stories. We’ll keep providing our readers with new content through the end of this year and continuing into 2022.     Maybe our look back and forecast will include something you missed during the year that you can watch for next year.

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