Posts Tagged ‘food safety’

Food Safety Issues: America in 2014

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

Having written recently about China’s food problems, I knew there were some remaining in the Untied States, but their scope amazed me. Each year forty-eight million of us suffer from food poisoning. Over 125,000 of that group are ill enough to be hospitalized and 3,000 die.

Having seen those numbers on a government website, I decided to review the modern timeline of food-related illness in America and how our laws help prevent it.

One step in meat processing

One step in meat processing

My initial thought was of Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, The Junglea powerful expose’ of the American meat-packing industry. After its publication, public outcry led President Theodore Roosevelt to appoint a special commission to verify Sinclair’s tale of the horrors of meat production in Chicago and elsewhere, and eventually led to the meat Inspection Act of 1906 and the Pure Food and Drug Act.

For many years a so-called “Poke and Sniff” system prevailed. The 1907 law said federal employees could inspect and approve (or disapprove) any animal carcasses which were to be sold across state lines. The inspectors could physically monitor the slaughter line, touching and smelling the animals and cuts of meat. They could remove any meat that was rotten, damaged or had abrasions or growths. Some felt that provided only minimal protection for the public, but that’s what we had for over eighty years.

I grew up in Wisconsin in the 40s and 50s. My father, in addition to his medical practice, was the local Public Health Officer and I remember going to inspect local area dairy herds with his sanitarian when I was a teenager. I don’t recall major food safety issues surfacing in those decades., although there may have been some isolated cases that I didn’t pay attention to.

I was in medical school from 1962 to 1966. During that time, two women died in Michigan from botulism, a rare but extremely serious paralytic disease caused by a toxin produced by a bacteria. In their case the toxin was in canned tuna fish. There were other botulism outbreaks in 1971, 1977, 1978 and 1983 with 59 people being affected in the largest such episode. All were related to food being improperly canned or prepared.

In 1985 a huge outbreak of another form of food poisoning happened. This one involved at least 16,284 people (and perhaps up to 200,000) in six different states and was caused by bacterial contamination of milk.

Some new laws only applied to a few food items.

Some new laws only applied to a few food items.

The Department of Agriculture’s food safety and inspection timeline appears to skip over a considerable period of time, although a number of laws were passed to strengthen federal regulation of the food chain. The 1957 Poultry Products Inspection Act and the 1970 Egg Products Inspection Act added to the government’s ability to prevent food-related illness in specific areas, but wouldn’t have prevented the major food-related episodes I just mentioned.

Then in late 1992 and early 1993 an E. coli outbreak sickened 623 and killed 4 children in four western states (Washington, Idaho, Nevada and California). It was eventually traced to contamination of under-cooked Jack in the Box hamburgers with that common bowel bacterium. Those affected developed bloody diarrhea and, in a few cases, severe kidney disease from an entity termed hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS). This is a disease which is the most common cause of acute kidney failure in children and usually occurs when an infection in the digestive system produces toxic substances that destroy red blood cells, causing severe kidney injury. The CDC traced the meat back to five slaughter plants in the United States and one in Canada.

In 1998 the USDA introduced a brand-new method for inspecting meat. The “Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system had been pioneered by NASA. That agency had protected our astronauts by adopting a system of critical control points, anywhere a germ, invisible to the naked eye, could find its way into a food meant for a space mission.

Pinging off the NASA approach, the USDA also mandated inspectors could order meat plants to do microbial testing. The meat industry became responsible for establishing and submitting their own HACCP plans. Then USDA would review the plan, approve it if it seemed appropriate and inspectors could monitor the plans’ compliance with their own safety plans. The problem is the age-old one of the fox guarding the hen-house; inspectors no longer had the power to physically examine the meat on the line. The acronym HACCP was often derided as “Have a cup of coffee and pray.”

On January 10th, 2014 two articles were published that changed my mind: the first, in UPI.com’s website simply said, “U.S. food Safety a big issue in 2014.” It mentioned that already in 2014 the U.S. Department of Agriculture had shut down a meat-processing facility in the state of Minnesota.

The other online article was written by Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, the Commissioner of Food and Drugs, i.e., the head of the FDA. It discusses the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), signed by President Obama in early January, 2011. It was a reaction to the figures I mentioned at the start of this article.

This law gave the FDA “a legislative mandate to require comprehensive, science-based preventive controls across the food supply.”

But let’s look at its provisions, some of which make eminent sense and others, in my opinion, ask for the impossible.

On the one hand the FSMA required food facilities to have a written preventive control plan. I agree with that idea, but note it’s a complex process with multiple steps involved. Such a plan includes evaluation of possible hazards, figuring out what one has to do to marked alleviate or totally eliminate them, noting how you will monitor these control measures (and keep appropriate records) and specifying what you will do when issues arise. Oh, and by the way, you had a year and a half to do all that.

Other parts of the FSMA involved standards for safely producing and harvesting vegetables and fruits plus another set involving the prevention of “intentional contamination” of food. The latter may be quite difficult. As the law is written, 600 such foreign food facilities must be inspected in its first year with the number doubling for each of five additional years. let’s see, that’s 600, 1,200, 2,400, 4,800, 9,600 and 19,200. Where in the world would the FDA get enough trained inspectors? And that’s assuming that the foreign countries would allow such detailed examinations of their food-producing and exporting businesses.

One of every six Americans becomes ill from food-bourne disease each year. Only a small fraction of  them (approximately 1/4th of 1%) need to be hospitalized and even of those who do only 2.3% die. But another way of looking at those mortality statistics is to say it’s equivalent to almost 10% of the number who die from motor vehicle accidents each year in this country.

 

 

Food Safety Issues–Part one: China

Thursday, January 9th, 2014

Two recent articles in The New York Times caught my attention and highlighted a marked disparity between China, the most populous country in the world, and the United States, third in the global population list, but with a markedly differing approach to many problems.

To begin with, I knew who was in first, second and third place for the greatest number of residents (citizens and others), but was curious to see who followed so I Googled “countries with the largest population” and found the numbers on an unexpected website (I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised). As of July, 2013, the CIA’s listing on their webpage, The World Factbook, says China has a hair under 1.35 billion people, India has 1.22 billion, the entire twenty-eight-country European Union (that number of members is also as of July, 2013)  has just over half a billion and America has 316 million. They are followed by Indonesia at 251 million, Brazil slightly over 200 million and Pakistan at 193 million. The other countries with over 100 million inhabitants are Nigeria (175 million), Bangladesh (163 million), Russia at 143 million, Japan with 127 million, Mexico with 116 million and the Philippines with nearly 106 million.

When it comes to land area, Russia clearly leads the pack with over 6.6 million square miles; Canada is second with 3.8 million square miles and somewhat surprisingly to me the United States is third with 3.7 million, slightly over  China’s size (Alaska with 586 thousand square miles of land is the reason). But China’s population density (365 per square mile) is more than four times that of America’s (84 per square mile).

A significant question is what information is available to people in various countries and what influence do they people on decisions that may affect their health and that of their children. I’m going to stick to China and the United States, but I think I could probably extrapolate to a number of others in the over 100 million population group.

China needs a "Save Our Soil" stamp

China needs a “Save Our Soil” stamp

The NYT article about China, written by Edward Wong, was titled “Pollution Rising, Chinese Fear for Soil and Food” It’s datelined from a village in Hunan Province, the breadbasket of China. Crops raised in the eastern and southern parts of the country include rice, yams, carrots, turnips, cabbage and lotus, while millet, corn and soybeans predominate in northern and northeast areas. Other major crops include sorghum, barley, tea, cotton and peanuts.

The Hunan village mentioned in the story grows rice, sweet potatoes, turnips, carrots and cabbage. The problem is the fields on which these crops are produced are far too close to industrial plants; many factories, smelters and mines surround them and the wastewater from those plants is toxic. In May, 2013, officials in Guangdong Province, in the far south, said they had discovered excessive levels of cadmium in 155 batches of rice collected from markets, restaurants and storehouses. Of those well over half were from Hunan Province.

On December 30, 2013, the Chinese Vice Minister of Land and resources, Wang Shiyuan, said an area about the size of Belgium, (or Maryland, about 12,000 square miles) but comprising only 2% of China’s 135 million hectares (roughly 520,000 square miles) of arable land, was too polluted for growing crops safely. And early in 2013 Wang’s ministry had commented that a five-year, $1 billion soil-pollution survey’s resulted were being held as a “state secret.” This came out in Bloomberg News online along with a comment from Minister Wang, “Farming on the land with medium-to-heavy pollution should be discontinued.”

One-sixth of China’s rice is produced in Hunan Province, but so is much of its cadmium, chromium, lead and non-metal arsenic.

A Chinese official admitted the pollution was due to intense industrial development, but also mentioned three other factors I thought were much less likely to be involved (chemical fertilizers, mechanized farming and household garbage).

Cadmium’s effects have been studied in detail in those exposed to inhalation of the metal: they include lung, kidney, bone and reproductive changes. Ingested cadmium is exceedingly toxic to those same systems of the body.

Although the total arable land in China has increased in the last survey, the per capita figure has shrunk secondary to both population growth and a quickening pace of urbanization. Nearly eleven thousand square miles of previous farmland has been converted into portion of cities since a 1996 survey. China’s per capita arable land, 135.4 million hectares at the end of 2012 , translates into 0.101 hectares per person, far under the world’s average of 0.225. The redline figure for China at its present population is 120 million hectares reserved for agriculture; below that, even at their present population, they would be unable to produce enough food crops for all.

But toxic chemicals aren’t the only Chinese food issue. A January 2, 2014 BBC article, “Donkey Meat Recalled in China,” It’s apparently a common snack food there, but the Wall-Mart corporation said that government testing revealed that two of its stores in an eastern area of the country (Shandong province) had sold product contaminated with fox meat.

Wall-Mart plans to reimburse customers who purchased the donkey meat and upgrade its own DNA testing.

Chinese consumer confidence has plummeted since the melamine scandal of 2007-2008. Initially pet food contaminated with an industrial compound and exported to the United caused kidney failure in dogs and cats. Then infant formula, frozen yogurt and one brand of a canned coffee drink in China itself caused six infant deaths and sickened at least 300,000 people. A February 2013 Huffington Post article gave a followup on a theory of why so few died. About 1% of humans have a gut bacteria that metabolizes melamine into a more toxic chemical. So, if that concept is correct, China was very lucky.

Think of the numbers sickened and killed if that microbial species had been present in most of their population.

There is some very good news coming from China as well, however.  The world’s largest genomics corporation, started as the Beijing Genomics Institute in 1999 and now called B.G.I., is carrying on major projects to unravel the genetic structure of thousands of economically and scientifically important animals and plants with one goal being applying the knowledge gained to better treat or even prevent diseases.. A January 6, 2014 article in The New Yorker titled “The Gene Factory” featured B.G.I. and our former Chinese graduate student (now with a Pharmacology PhD from the University of Colorado) spoke highly of the work of one of its leading figures.

Maybe China can move this way.

Maybe China can move this way.

B.G.I. is collaborating with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and major American universities to increase global food production by ten percent. It’s is also sequencing the genes of rice, cucumbers and chickpeas.

So there’s both bad and some good food safety news coming from the world’s most populous country. But the majority of its people are kept in the dark as to the extent of the problems.

There’s hope in sight: in early 2013 the Chinese State Council set a 2015 goal for measuring soil pollution comprehensively and establishing initial programs for treating those injured by unsafe agricultural products.

Hopefully they will let their citizens know the results of the survey.

 

The Five-Second Rule revisited

Friday, October 21st, 2011

don't wind up here, or worse

When I was a kid, we often used the Five-Second Rule, that meant food falling on a relative clean surface could be eaten if it was picked up in less than that amount of time. In recent years I’ve heard jokes about this rule: when parents have their first child, they use five seconds as a safe time, with the second, it’s ten seconds and with later children, it’s wipe off the mud and let them eat whatever dropped.

I received the November issue of the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s Nutrition Action Healthletter several days ago  and noticed this month’s focus was “Safe at Home: How to keep your kitchen from making you sick.” I haven’t had time to read much of the issue, but leafed through it and saw a brief blurb titled “Ignore the five-second rule.”

So today I re-read that section, then went online and found the original article in the Journal of Applied Microbiology and Googled the lead author. Dr. Paul Dawson is a Professor of Food Science at Clemson, got his PhD at North Carolina State University, then did a two-year post-doctoral fellowship. Since joining the Clemson faculty he’s published over 80 research manuscripts.

He was on a CNN TV show in 2010 discussing the 5-second rule, double-dipping (chips into a cheese or salsa dip) and, most recently was working on a project on the bacteriologic safety of blowing out birthday candles (See link below).

I read the online 2006 version of the original article in the Journal of Applied Microbiology, which appeared in paper format in April of 2007. Some of the background data is of interest: over 75,000,000 cases of food-borne illness occur in the United States each year and 5,200 of these result in deaths. Dawson’s experiments were performed using Salmonella bacteria, which is found in a substantial percentage of poultry, roughly 10% in two studies by the USDA.

Every surface is a danger zone

My take on Dawson’s results is 1). bacteria excrete chemicals allowing them to adhere to nearly any kind of surface (e.g., tile, rugs, cutting boards); 2). once they do so they have “biofilms,” microscopic layers that allow them to survive for extended periods of time; 3). they can transfer from those surfaces to a variety of foods (Dawson used bread and bologna) very rapidly; so 4). the five-second rule is invalid and we all need to work on more effectively cleaning “food contact surfaces (counter tops and cutting boards come to mind).

I enjoyed watching the CNN interview with Dr. Dawson and will be intrigued to find out what his birthday candle research will show. In the meantime, I’ll quit picking up food that has fallen on what appear to be clean surfaces; they’re not.

http://newsroom.blogs.cnn.com/2010/08/01/five-second-rule-urban-myth-or-scientific-fact/