— OPINION —
With the New Year comes new challenges, many of which are hanging on from 2022.
A bright spot that appeared in the final days of 2022 that is shining into 2023 was the Senate confirmation of Dr. Jose Emilio Esteban as the nation’s highest food safety officer. He is the USDA’s Under Secretary for Food Safety. Esteban has a list of credentials that make him a natural for the job, having previously worked at the CDC’s food safety operation and the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. His confirmation came on the final day of the Senate’s session.
With that last-minute approval, Esteban’s shining light was dimmed with the New Year by a problem that has been looming over the USDA for decades — what to do about Salmonella in poultry products.
An estimated 1.35 million Americans are sickened by salmonella every year and nearly a quarter of those cases come from chicken or turkey. Salmonella contamination is widespread in chickens in part because of the often crowded and filthy conditions in which they are raised. Everyone at USDA and its Food Safety and Inspection Service know these facts, but the agency has been struggling for decades to bring the numbers down. They have failed.
In an announcement, in Early August 2022, the USDA’s Deputy Undersecretary Sandra Eskin revealed that the agency is taking a first step toward resolving the problem. It has declared that Salmonella is considered an adulterant in frozen, breaded chicken products, meaning they can’t be sold. Considering all of the chicken and turkey sold in the United States every day, it is a small step, but it is a step.
In the fall of 2022, the USDA announced a “framework” it is using to consider whether to consider if Salmonella should be considered an adulterant in other chicken products. The vague nature of the “framework” is a spark of hope, but not the flame or even fire that some consumer advocates hoped would be burning in 2023.
The agreed-upon problem with Salmonella in poultry is that contaminated birds are entering slaughterhouses, which is where USDA authority over them begins. Therefore, steps must be taken by producers to eliminate the pathogen, and slaughterhouses must begin broad testing and refusal of infected flocks.
The industry says reducing Salmonella in poultry will be expensive and those costs will trickle down to consumers who ultimately have the responsibility to cook poultry properly to kill pathogens. Same old, same old some from business — if we have to do our job that consumers should be doing anyway, grocery store prices will go up.
“While the USDA currently requires producers to test poultry for salmonella, a processing facility is allowed to have the bacteria in up to 9.8 percent of all whole birds it tests, 15.4 percent of all parts, and 25 percent of ground chicken. Producers that exceed these amounts are given what amounts to a warning, but not prevented from selling the meat,” according to Consumer Reports.
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack hasn’t weighed in on the poultry problem and seems to have food safety at the very edge of his radar screen for 2023. In a statement for the coming year, Vilsack’s only reference to food safety was a phrase in a sentence about a large piece of legislation: “The bill provides increases for food safety and research, as well as several increases for rural housing programs to fund all expiring rental assistance contracts, for multi-family housing construction and rehabilitation and an expansion of the Tribal Housing Re-lending Demonstration program.” The secretary did not mention the Food Safety and Inspection Service at all in his statement.
Troubles at the FDA — where oh where is the F?
About a year ago Dr. Robert Califf, a cardiologist, was seated as the Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. Well suited to guide the drug side of the agency, observers started wondering immediately whether he has what it takes to oversee the food side of the FDA.
He came to the agency in the midst of an outbreak of Cronobacter, in babies that were linked to a formula produced in a Michigan plant operated by Abbott Nutrition, the maker of Similac and other popular brands of infant formula. The company still denies any responsibility for the situation and two deaths were reported among outbreak patients. Along with the outbreak and subsequent shutdown of the massive production plant came a nationwide shortage of infant formula, leaving parents driving in circles for hours every day just to find food for their babies.
Califf said what he could about disrupted supply chains because of the COVID-19 epidemic and tried to supplement domestic supplies by working with other arms of the federal government to allow foreign suppliers to provide the formula to the U.S. The shortage continues and is expected to do so well into 2023.
Then came a scathing review of his performance and the inner workings of the FDA published in Politico. Following the story Califf found himself in the hot seat of congressional hearings with elected officials asking him why the food side of the FDA is so disorganized that documents about the cronobacter outbreak were “lost” in an internal mail room, missing the desks of important officials for weeks.
All Califf could say was that he had commissioned an in-house/out-house review of the FDA to see why its lack of a clear chain of command was impeding its efficiency. That report came out late this fall. Guess what? It said the agency’s lack of a clear chain of command is a problem and that the deputy commissioner for food position should be reinstated. The post was eliminated during the Trump Administration.
Dribbling over into this year, Califf promises to have a resolution of the problems detailed in the Reagan-Udall Foundation report — it is a 501-3c entity funded by the FDA.
“The agency is committed to providing a public update on the new vision at the end of January 2023 and additional public updates by the end of February 2023, including the planned leadership structure and any changes to key internal processes and procedures. … I am forming a group of agency leaders to advise me on how best to implement and operationalize these findings,” Califf said in a story published on Dec. 7 by Food Safety News. He also said, “America’s food supply is safer than it’s ever been. . .”
Following, in no particular order, are more predictions for 2023
Raw milk — The debate about the safety of unpasteurized, raw milk continues. Even though local, state, and federal public health officials have said for decades that the beverage is highly dangerous, especially for children, the sale of it is on the agenda in state houses across the country.
A bill in the U.S. House — HR 4835, Interstate Milk Freedom Act of 2021 — seeks to tame it legal to sell raw milk across state lines, but it is unlikely to get traction. Observers say it will die on the vine within about 20 legislative days.
Often thrown into the basket of so-called food freedom bills, state legislation allowing pathogenic raw milk to be sold within a state’s borders continues to be introduced. They have been popular for less than a decade.
As an example, two states that have raw milk legislation in the works are Missouri and Wyoming.
Raw milk is not pasteurized to kill harmful pathogens including but not limited to E. coli, Listeria and Salmonella. Proponents of raw milk say pasteurization kills bacteria that are good for the body.
Sesame is an allergen — Starting Jan. 1, sesame joined the list of major food allergens defined by law, according to the US Food and Drug Administration.
The change comes as a result of the Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education, and Research Act, or FASTER Act, which was signed into law in April 2021.
The FDA has been reviewing whether to put sesame seeds on the major food allergens list — which also includes milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans — for several years. Adding sesame to the major food allergens list means foods containing sesame will be subject to specific food allergen regulatory requirements, including those regarding labeling and manufacturing.
Social media had several ridiculous food trends in 2022 that is probably dribbling over into 2023, with new stupidity expected to follow.
One of the suggestions was that you could safely cook chicken by running it under hot water. While this practice might make the outer layer of the chicken change color, the inside remains completely raw and unsafe to eat.
Another chicken trend was to cook it in liquid cold medicine such as NyQuil. I’m not sure what the goal here was, but there was no mention of using a meat thermometer and the inside of the cut chicken looked raw.
The third trend on social media suggested by numerous posters was that eating raw meat has health benefits. If you consider E. coli and other pathogens good for your health, this might be for you, But if you want to avoid illnesses that include kidney failure, brain damage, and death, then don’t risk it.
Ghost kitchens and home delivery meal kits — Having become popular at the height of the pandemic, so-called ghost kitchens sprang up. They are generally not related and often operated out of people’s homes. The opportunity for improperly cooking food in filthy conditions abounds, so I’ve stayed away from such operations and suggest you do too. They are still out there because operators can make a quick buck, but I think getting a quick bout or food poisoning makes them one of the things to avoid in 2023.
Another trend that was picking up speed before the pandemic and shot ahead starting in 2020 is the use of home-delivered meal kits. Just this past year an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak was traced to ground beef in Hello Fresh meal kits. The main problem I see with these meal kits is that there is no way to make sure the cold chain was maintained. Even if the ground beef had not been contaminated, it could have spoiled if the cold chain was not maintained. Even if a kit arrives on your front porch with the ice packs completely frozen, there is no way to know if they have melted and been refrozen at another point in the chain.
Traceability — It’s a word consumers have learned while reading about foodborne outbreaks and they want to know more. As they learn the importance of knowing how their food gets from point A to their dining room table, they are as frustrated as government officials.
Some in government thought of the introduction of blockchain technology and the strong suggestion that food businesses employ it. That hasn’t happened yet, but there is still hope that 2023 will see more transparency in the food chain so that consumers can make informed purchases and outbreaks can more quickly be identified and stopped in their tracks.
6 things Bill Marler, our publisher, still won’t eat — Bill Marler is the Formosa food safety attorney in the country, getting his start in the field with the deadly Jack in the Box hamburger outbreak 30 years ago and continuing to represent victims and families of victims of foodborne illnesses. Marler has testified before Congress about the need for food safety controls and has sat at the hospital bedsides of children who are dying because of something they ate.
Marler is the publisher of Food Safety News, but the following list is not something he came up with for us. Several years ago a media outlet asked Marler what foods he steers clear of when at the grocery store or at a five-star restaurant. Here is his list, which is still his practice in the New Year.
Raw oysters and other raw shellfish. Marler says that raw shellfish—especially oysters—have been causing more foodborne illnesses lately. He links this to warming waters, which produce more microbial growth. “Oysters are filter feeders, so they pick up everything that’s in the water,” he explains. “If there are bacteria in the water it’ll get into their system, and if you eat it you could have trouble. I’ve seen a lot more of that over the last five years than I saw in the last 20 years. It’s simply not worth the risk.”
Unpasteurized (“raw”) milk and packaged juices. Unpasteurized milk, sometimes called “raw” milk, can be contaminated with bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Between 1998 and 2011, there were 148 food poisoning outbreaks linked to raw milk and raw milk products in the U.S. — and keep in mind that comparatively few people in the country ever consume these products, so 148 outbreaks are nothing to ignore. As for unpasteurized packaged juices, one of Marler’s earliest cases was the 1996 E. coli outbreak from unpasteurized Odwalla apple juice. As a result, he won’t go near raw milk or juice. “There’s no benefit big enough to take away the risk of drinking products that can be made safe by pasteurization,” he says.
Raw sprouts. Uncooked and lightly cooked sprouts have been linked to more than 30 bacterial outbreaks (mostly of salmonella and E. coli) in the U.S. since the mid-1990s. As recently as 2014, salmonella from bean sprouts sent 19 people to the hospital. All types of sprouts — including alfalfa, mung bean, clover, and radish sprouts—can spread infection, which is caused by bacterial contamination of their seeds. “There have been too many outbreaks to not pay attention to the risk of sprout contamination,” Marler says. “Those are products that I just don’t eat at all.” He did add that he does eat them if they’re fully cooked.
Meat that isn’t well done. Marler orders his burgers well done. “The reason ground products are more problematic and need to be cooked more thoroughly is that any bacteria that are on the surface of the meat can be ground inside of it,” Marler says. “If it’s not cooked thoroughly to 160 degrees F throughout, it can cause poisoning by E. coli and salmonella and other bacterial illnesses.” As for steaks, needle tenderizing — a common restaurant practice in which the steak is pierced with needles or sliced with knives to break down the muscle fibers and make it more tender — can also transfer bugs from the surface to the interior of the meat. If a restaurant does this (Marler asks), he orders his steak well done. If the restaurant doesn’t, he’ll opt for medium-well.
Prewashed or precut fruits and vegetables. “I avoid these like the plague,” Marler says. Why? The more food is handled and processed, the more likely it is to become tainted. “We’ve gotten so used to the convenience of mass-produced food—bagged salad and boxed salads and precut this and precut that,” Marler says. “Convenience is great but sometimes I think it isn’t worth the risk.” He buys unwashed, uncut produce in small amounts and eats it within three to four days to reduce the risk for listeria, a deadly bug that grows at refrigerator temps.
Raw or undercooked eggs. You may remember the salmonella epidemic of the 1980s and early ’90s that was linked mainly to eggs. If you swore off raw eggs back then, you might as well stick with it. The most recent salmonella outbreak from eggs, in 2010, caused roughly 2,000 reported cases of illness. “I think the risk of egg contamination is much lower today than it was 20 years ago for salmonella, but I still eat my eggs well-cooked,” Marler says.
(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)