Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Food Modernization Act Passes Senate

The Food Safety Modernization Act took another step forward by passing the Senate.  It must now go to the House where there will be debate on whether to pass as is or to wrangle  some more.  If there is more wrangling on the provisions, it may die.  A few important notes:

·         This does not affect USDA facilities.

·         The House had its own version, but it additional components that would render it less likely to pass, including fees to food companies for registration.

·         There are questions how it would impact small farmers

·         Require all facilities to have a HACCP type system in place.  While this gets little notice by the press, I see this as a major benefit.

·         Provide more record access to FDA during food emergencies

·         Improve import food safety

Senate Passes Overhaul of Food Safety Regulations

Published: November 30, 2010
WASHINGTON — The Senate on Tuesday passed a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s food-safety system, after recalls of tainted eggs, peanut butter and spinach sickened thousands and led major food makers to join consumer advocates in demanding stronger government oversight.
The legislation, which passed by a vote of 73 to 25, would greatly strengthen the Food and Drug Administration, an agency that in recent decades focused more on policing medical products than ensuring the safety of foods. The bill is intended to get the government to crack down on unsafe foods before they harm people rather than after outbreaks occur.
Despite unusual bipartisan support on Capitol Hill and a strong push from the Obama administration, the bill could still die because there might not be enough time for the usual haggling between the Senate and House of Representatives, which passed its own version last year. Top House Democrats said that they would consider simply passing the Senate version to speed approval.
Both versions of the bill would grant the F.D.A. new powers to recall tainted foods, increase inspections, demand accountability from food companies and oversee farming. But neither version would consolidate overlapping functions at the Department of Agriculture and nearly a dozen other federal agencies that oversee various aspects of food safety, making coordination among the agencies a continuing challenge.
While food-safety advocates and many industry groups preferred the House version because it includes more money for inspections and fewer exceptions from the rules it sets out, most said the Senate bill was far better than nothing.
“This is an historic moment,” said Erik Olson, deputy director of the Pew Health Group, an advocacy group. “For the first time in over 70 years, the Senate has approved an overhaul of F.D.A.’s food safety law that will help ensure that the food we put on our kitchen tables will be safer.”
Among the Senate bill’s last major sticking points was how it would affect small farmers and food producers. Some small-farm and organic food advocates warned that the legislation would destroy their industry under a mountain of paperwork, and Senator Jon Tester, a Democrat of Montana, pushed for a recent addition to the bill that exempts producers with less than $500,000 a year in sales who sell most of their food locally.
That provision led the United Fresh Produce Association, a trade group, to announce recently that it would oppose the legislation since small food operations have been the source of some food recalls in recent years.
But Randy Napier of Medina, Ohio, said the Senate bill was better than nothing. Mr. Napier’s 80-year-old mother, Nellie Napier, died in January 2009 after the nursing home in which she lived continued to feed her contaminated peanut butter even after she got sick.
“I am appalled at what I have found out since my mother’s death about how poorly food is regulated and how these companies cut corners to save money,” Mr. Napier said.
The staunch opposition of Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, forced months of delay and eventually required Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada to call a series of time-consuming procedural votes to end debate. Mr. Coburn offered his own version of the legislation eliminating many of its requirements because he said less regulation was needed, not more, but that version failed.
Despite Mr. Coburn’s opposition, the bill is one of the only major pieces of bipartisan legislation to emerge from this Congress. Some Republican and Democratic Senate staff members — who in previous terms would have seen each other routinely — met for the first time during the food negotiations. The group bonded over snacks: specifically, Starburst candies from a staff member of Senator Mike Enzi, a Wyoming Republican, and jelly beans from a staff member of Senator Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat. And in the midst of negotiations, the negotiators — nearly all women — took a field trip to a nearby food market so that a Republican staff member could teach the Democrats how to buy high-quality steaks.
“This legislation means that parents who tell their kids to eat their spinach can be assured that it won’t make them sick,” said Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa who, as chairman of the Senate health committee, shepherded the legislation through months of negotiations.
Health advocates are hoping the legislation will rekindle the progress — now stalled — that the nation once enjoyed in reducing the tens of millions of food contamination illnesses that occur each year. In the case of toxic salmonella, infections may be creeping upward.
Part of the problem is the growing industrialization and globalization of the nation’s food supply. Nearly a fifth of the nation’s food supply and as much as three-quarters of its seafood are imported, but the F.D.A. inspects less than one pound in a million of such imported foods. The bill gives the F.D.A. more control over food imports, including increased inspection of foreign processing plants and the ability to set standards for how fruits and vegetables are grown abroad.
And as food suppliers grow in size, problems at one facility can sicken thousands all over the country. The Peanut Corporation of America’s contaminated paste was included in scores of cookies and snacks made by big and small companies. The legislation would raise standards at such plants by demanding that food companies write plans to manufacture foods safely and conduct routine tests to ensure that the plans are adequate.
The bill would give the F.D.A. the power to demand food recalls. The Bush Administration for years opposed such powers, saying that food manufacturers invariably complied when asked by the government to undertake a recall. But last year, the F.D.A. asked a distributor of pistachios to recall its entire 2008 crop after tests showed salmonella contamination at its processing plant. Days passed before the company complied.
The legislation greatly increases the number of inspections the F.D.A. must conduct of food processing plants, with an emphasis on foods that are considered most high risk — although figuring out which ones are riskiest is an uncertain science. Until recently, peanut butter would not have made the list.
Whether the agency gets the money to conduct such inspections is far from certain. The House version would require food producers to pay a modest annual fee to help fund inspections, but that provision was excluded from the Senate version. The Senate bill also requires grocery stores to post prominently a list of recently recalled foods or alert consumers in other ways, a provision championed by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York.
Neither version of the bill applies to slaughterhouses or most meat and poultry processing plants, which are under the jurisdiction of the agriculture department. Both versions would affect about 80 percent of the food supply, including fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, dairy products and processed foods that do not contain meat.
Industry organizations backed the legislative push because of the high costs for many companies of the food scares of recent years. Egg sales fell nationwide after the massive egg recall this summer, even though only two producers were implicated. Several years ago, contaminated spinach from one small producer led the entire industry’s crop to be destroyed.
Judith McGeary, executive director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, an advocacy group that sees government regulation as a threat to small farms, said she was satisfied with changes made to the bill to reduce paperwork for small farmers and exempt them from some requirements.
“We still have concerns about the scope of the power that F.D.A. has and its tendency to write rules and regulations that favor agribusiness instead of small farmers,” Ms. McGeary said.
Scott Faber, a spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade group that represents most large food processors, said that food sales in the United States and abroad depended on people believing that food is safe.
“Consumer trust is the foundation of everything food companies do, and the industry recognized we needed a stronger partner at F.D.A. if we were going to restore trust in the safety of our food supplies,” Mr. Faber said.
Consumer advocates were jubilant.
“Everyone who eats will benefit,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group. “F.D.A. will have new tools to help ensure that we have a safer food supply that causes fewer outbreaks and illnesses.”

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Safety reminders, advice offered for field dressing, processing deer

University Park, Pa. -- For hunters lucky enough to bag a deer in the upcoming seasons, a food-safety specialist in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences offers some advice to properly field dress and store the carcass, and then process the meat.
"The time from when the deer is downed until it is processed can have the largest impact on the safety and quality of the meat," said Martin Bucknavage, food safety extension associate in the Department of Food Science. He warns that it is important for hunters to follow these guidelines:
1. Eviscerate the animal as soon as possible. This helps the carcass dissipate heat and removes internal organs where spoilage can occur more quickly.
2. Wear a pair of rubber gloves when field dressing the deer. Deer carry pathogenic bacteria, and so precautions are needed to prevent cross contamination. If you get blood on your hands or clothes, be sure to wash thoroughly in soap and water.
3. Be sure to avoid cutting into the internal organs, especially the intestines. There are large numbers of bacteria -- including pathogenic bacteria -- in the intestines. Tie off the anus. This can be done with a string or rubber band.
4. If the outside temperature is greater than 40 F, you can help to chill the carcass by inserting plastic bags of ice or snow into the body cavity. Once out of the field, get the carcass into a cooler or refrigerator as soon as you can. If the temperature is below 40 F, prop open the cavity with sticks to promote cooling. Don't tie the deer to the hood of your car. This will serve only to heat the carcass.
5. Do not age the deer if the temperature is greater than 40 F. While experts don't agree on the need for aging, it is certain that hanging a deer at temperatures greater than 40 F will probably lead to unwanted spoilage. The greater the temperature above 40 F, the quicker spoilage will occur.
6. Remove all visible hair, dirt, feces and bloodshot areas from the internal cavity. Wipe the inside of the body cavity with a dry cloth or paper towel. If you rinse the cavity, be sure to dry thoroughly. Excess moisture will encourage bacterial growth.
7. Clean residues from knives and equipment, and then sanitize with a chlorine bleach solution. It is wise to carry sanitary wipes with you to clean knives in the field.
"Most importantly, if during field dressing, any of the internal organs smell unusually offensive, or if there is a greenish discharge, black blood or blood clots in the muscle, do not consume the meat," Bucknavage warned. "If you kill a deer and question the safety and quality of the meat, immediately contact the Pennsylvania Game Commission. The agency has policies for authorizing an additional kill."
Processing your meat
After field dressing and transporting the carcass, hunters have to decide what to do with the meat. "While some leave the choices to their local butcher, many are finding that they can save money and increase their personal enjoyment by butchering their own deer," Bucknavage said.
"It certainly is easier to turn your trophy deer into a pile of ground meat, but if the hunter is willing to learn proper butchering and cooking techniques, the possibilities for preparing your venison are endless."
Bucknavage urged hunters to keep a few general rules in mind when planning how to butcher their game.
"When it comes to cooking whole cuts of meat, it is important to remember that as we move away from the hooves and horns, the cuts of meat become more tender," he said. "These tender cuts, such as the tenderloin, should be cooked quickly at a higher temperature. For tougher cuts, use low, moist heat to cook the meat more slowly. This helps break down the connective tissue within those cuts."
Because of the possibility of E. coli O157:H7 contamination of the meat, it is important that the venison cuts reach a minimum internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit or higher -- which is a major issue, Bucknavage said, when making the always-popular venison jerky.
"One of the biggest concerns when making jerky is that people don't heat the meat to the proper temperature," he said. "It is important that jerky be heated just until it reaches at least 160 to 165 degrees. This can be accomplished by dipping the slices into a hot marinade for a minute or so before beginning the drying process."
Canning is another option for venison."Preserving venison through canning is a little-used practice that can turn tougher venison cuts into a ready-to-go ingredient for a favorite stew recipe," he said. "It is important to follow standard USDA guidelines to safely preserve your venison."
The USDA guidelines are available online through Penn State's Food Safety website.
Penn State's Department of Food Science offers hunters a wealth of information on the preparation of wild game from the field to the table. The "Field Dressing Deer Pocket Guide" -- a free, 12-panel publication -- explains how to field-dress a deer safely. Extensively illustrated in full color, it explains the process of field dressing and also covers important food-safety information for hunters.
"Proper Field Dressing and Handling of Wild Game and Fish" is for hunters and anglers who handle animals, fish and birds in the field. It details the potential risks involved in contaminating the meat or fish while dressing, handling and transporting it. This free, 12-page, illustrated publication describes the importance of temperature control and gives detailed instructions for safe field dressing and transporting of deer, small animals and game birds.
A companion booklet,"Proper Processing of Wild Game and Fish" is a free, 20-page publication that describes safe processing techniques for wild game and fish. Aging, cutting, curing, smoking, canning, and jerky and sausage making are detailed. The importance of temperature control is discussed, and various types of meat thermometers are identified. A final section includes recipes for game birds, fish and venison.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Grading Policies for Restaurants - Allegheny County

I am all for food safety and restaurant inspections, but I am not keen on the application of grade scores to audits.  The goal of an inspection or an audit should be to identify gaps within the establishment’s food safety system and have the establishment correct those gaps.  The auditor or inspector can be somewhat objective in determining which practices are higher risk.  But the degree of risk can be subjective.  And as they apply the score to the entire process, it becomes more subjective.  And then that score is on the books until the next inspection.  Even a clean kitchen can have a momentary food safety lapse by an employee potentially putting a  projected good score in jeopardy and more importantly, affecting that establishment’s ability to do business.

This scoring practice also puts pressure on the inspector.  While the inspector should be working with the owner on how to improve food safety, the scoring component may lead to a more confrontational relationship.  Will the inspector be willing to write an issue down knowing that the establishment’s grade will drop from a B to a C?

Inspections should identify food safety gaps and provide opportunity for the establishment to get them corrected.  While a mandated grading policy might push some operators into proactive improvement, this system can be far too subjective resulting in unfair punishment. 

Controversial Allegheny health grading policy could return
By Adam Brandolph
Monday, November 8, 2010

A controversial health inspection system for restaurants and other food servers could return to Allegheny County in the spring after being scrapped more than 15 years ago.
The county Health Department is drafting food safety guidelines that officials say will include a system to give customers a sense of how clean kitchens are. The rating -- based on "demerit" points accumulated for violations -- could be recorded as a letter grade, a numerical score or both. Restaurants would be required to post their rating for all to see.
"It could be a death blow to a lot of restaurants," said Brian Carey, owner of Cappy's Cafe on Walnut Street in Shadyside. "How do you get your rating changed is a concern. You don't want to have a 'C' rating for a whole year."
The Health Department issued letter grades beginning in the 1970s but changed to a pass/fail system in 1994 because restaurants complained the system was unfair.
"The old system took into account structural deficiencies and didn't measure cleanliness effectively," said Dr. Bruce Dixon, director of the department. "If you had structural issues, you always had a 'B.' One of the better restaurants had a 'B' because they had wooden floors in the kitchen."
The new system would "provide clear and understandable information," said Paul M. King, chairman of the health board. The department's Food Safety Division conducts annual inspections and investigates complaints at about 9,000 food establishments in the county, including street vendors, hospitals and school cafeterias.
The state Department of Agriculture inspects food services and restaurants in counties that don't have local health departments.
The new regulations would be vetted by the department's Food Advisory Committee and open for public comment before they're approved, King said. Last week, an early draft of the rules was sent back to the committee for review. Officials refused to provide that draft to the Tribune-Review.
The revised rules are to be ready in January and could be voted on in March.
Jeff Cohen, owner of the Smallman Street Deli in the Strip District and director of the Western Chapter of the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association, said he'd prefer a system based on points rather than a letter grade.
"The way the new system is proposed, a one-point difference between a score of an 89 and a score of a 90 could be the difference between of an A and a B," said Cohen, who sits on the Health Department's subcommittee charged with revising the restaurant inspection program.
"We're meeting in a few weeks to hash out a correct strategy," Cohen said. "I don't think the current system is broke now. I always find they're very fair. I think the Health Department's goal is to make sure everyone's getting a 90 or above."
Roger Kaplan, manager of a McDonald's restaurant on McKnight Road in Ross, didn't think his customers would pay attention to ratings.
"People come to McDonald's because they know they can get good food fast and cheap," he said. "And I think people will be surprised about how well we score."
Rhett Schlegel, a bartender at Rolands in the Strip District, said he doesn't know whether he'd support a change, but he thinks most restaurants would be against it.
"If it becomes law, they're just going to have to watch their Ps and Qs and keep everything perfect," he said.
Dixon said that's exactly the point.
"If a restaurant can't do things the right way and they have a 'C,' I think people are entitled to know that, aren't they? (Restaurants) should aspire to maintain quality standards so people feel comfortable with where they eat."
Rating systems have received "mixed reviews" nationwide, said Vito Palazzolo, manager of program compliance at the National Restaurant Association, an industry lobbying group.
Under laws that went into effect in August, New York City gives restaurants letter grades based on points accrued for violations. Many restaurants opposed the changes, said Andrew Rigie, director of the New York State Restaurant Association.
"A restaurant is either safe and sanitary enough to serve the public or it's not," Rigie said. "We felt an 'A' or 'F' system should be implemented because of the complexities of the health code and because of the subjectivity of the inspectors."
While critics say grading systems are gimmicky and unfair, Charles Campalong, general manager of Benkovitz Seafoods in the Strip District, said he prefers them because they differentiate especially clean kitchens from those that just pass inspection.
"Why should I bust my (butt) when other places are dirty and everybody gets the same thing?" Campalong said.
Kevin McCullogh, general manager of Church Brew Works in Lawrenceville, said new regulations would "get the restaurants that aren't doing a good job to do better."

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

USDA's Updated Trichinella Fact Sheet

USDA recently updated its webpage on Trichinella, and this provides a nice reference on the topic.  I thought it would be good to post this as well as an op-ed column in the NY Times on Trichinella in free range pigs (2009). In the 1930s, there were hundreds of cases per year that were reported (although it was not a reportable illness in many states).  An estimate made from autopsies indicated that the level in the US population may have been as high as 12% (ref below).  In the past decade, there have only been a handful of cases, mostly related to wild game, specifically bear.  Much of this is due to industry practices and veterinary inspections. While there are some that refuted the NY Times piece based upon the lack of Trichinella cases related to free range pigs, in theory, it seems that if pigs are allowed to free range, there is potentially a higher risk of these pigs encountering this parasite (through the eating on infected rats or the feces of infected animals.)

While the mortality rate is low, symptoms of trichinosis can range from mild to severe.
Nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, fatigue, fever, and abdominal discomfort are the first symptoms of trichinosis. Headaches, fevers, chills, cough, eye swelling, aching joints and muscle pains, itchy skin, diarrhea, or constipation follow the first symptoms. If the infection is heavy, patients may experience difficulty coordinating movements, and have heart and breathing problems. In severe cases, death can occur.  The acute phase occurs after the mature warm lays eggs in the small intestine and these eggs hatch into larvae which enter the bloodstream and travel to muscle tissue within the body, such as the diaphragm.  There they become encysted.

USDA’s review of Trichinella
A Focus on Trichinella -- Updated Version

A primer on trichinosis from CDC

A 1938 survey of trichinosis in the US

2009 NY Times Op-Ed on free range pigs and Trichinella

Friday, November 5, 2010

Food Safety and Small Companies

by Martin Bucknavage

Three recent food safety issues have been noted in the press (links to related articles below each).

·         FDA, CDC, and Costco warn consumers to avoid Bravo Farms Dutch Style Gouda cheese

FDA, CDC, and Costco warn consumers to avoid Bravo Farms Dutch Style Gouda cheese

·         Baugher's apple cider recalled over potential E. coli

DHMH Issues Consumer Alert Regarding Recall of Baugher's Apple Cider

·         Texas produce supplier, Sanger, and listeriosis


The first is an aged raw milk cheese made by a small company and distributed by Costco linked to E.coli.  The second is a small cider mill making unpasteurized cider linked to E. coli, and lastly, last month’s case of Listeria related illness linked to chopped celery.

What is interesting in these cases is that they are all small, regional companies who have experienced issues, and were then written-up by the press. Two of the companies have nice websites that give you a positive impression of the company. (Bravo Farms http://www.bravofarms.com/, Baugher’s http://www.baughers.com/farm.html).  The third was shut down.

Here are some items to note:

1)     There is much attention  on outbreaks related to large companies, but even small companies can, and will, have issues. (as in the insurance commercial – mayhem can happen – as a result from the smallest distraction or oversight).  Further, small companies no longer fly under the radar of the investigations, or the press.  With enhanced capabilities, local and state health agencies in conjunction with the CDC can track event the smallest outbreaks to the source.  Therefore, companies of all sizes must have necessary food safety policies and procedures in place, records to show they are being completed, and verification procedures, such as testing, to show their success.

2)     Retailers looking to find small niche products must know their potential suppliers capabilities before they begin selling these products.  There is a trend for retailers, looking to enhance their offerings, to find small companies making unique products, similar to Costco selling Bravo Farm products.  Diligence must be taken to ensure these smaller suppliers have robust quality and food safety systems.

3)     Consumers should not assume that local product is free of risk just because it is local.  If a consumer buys unpasteurized apple juice, there is an increased risk over pasteurized product.

4)     There is help available through associations, government agencies (USDA’s Small and Very Small Plant Outreach), and the Universities (Cooperative Extension and PennTAP) to assist with training and development.

Norovirus outbreak at central PA school

A central Pennsylvania school was shut down due to viral gastroenteritis and norovirus is expected.  Norovirus is highly contagious and thus has resulted in large outbreaks in confined populations such as on cruise ships, summer camps, nursing homes, etc.  The school was shut down in order to perform a thorough sanitation.

A few facts about norovirus:

-       Low infectious dose, approximately 10 to 100 viral particles are sufficient to cause disease.  It also has a high attack rate of 50 to 70%.  These, combined with environmental stability, lead to large outbreaks.

-       Resistant to drying, thus can remain on a surface for weeks.  In one case, virus remaining in carpeting caused illness 12 days later.  Also resistant to refrigeration and freezing.

-       Resistant to 3  to 6 mg chlorine/ L (as used in drinking water), but inactivated at 10 mg chlorine/L

-       Symptoms of projectile vomiting, diarrhea, and nausea will appear as soon as 12 hours after exposure and then last 12 to 60 hours.  Dehydration is a always a concern.

-       “Projectile vomiting is a characteristic symptom that can contribute to secondary spread through droplet infection, where droplets containing virus may contaminate surfaces or be swallowed”.

-       People with illness shed large numbers of virus in their feces and continue to shed virus for up to 2 weeks following illness.

-       Because of genetic variability, people can get norovirus infections many times in their lifetime.

-       Ready-to-eat food is a common vector for norovirus, when an infected foodservice employee contaminated the food during handling.  Thus the regulation for gloves when working with RTE foods.  So glove usage, handwashing and good sanitation are keys in control of norovirus.  It is also important that employees with symptoms of illness (vomiting or diarrhea) or who have been diagnosed with the illness, be excluded from food operations.

-       (source Viruses in Foods, 2006)

P-O Junior High to be closed Friday due to student illnesses

By Lauren Boyer Centre Daily Times

November 4, 2010 7:09pm EDT

More than 100 student absences and complaints of upset stomachs Thursday prompted district officials to cancel school Friday at Philipsburg-Osceola Junior High.
At 1 p.m. Thursday, students were dismissed from the building, normally attended by about 300 seventh and eighth graders, said district spokeswoman Dena Cipriano.
The district is communicating with state Department of Health about best practices and symptoms experiences by students. Cipriano said those symptoms correlate with symptoms that are typical of novoviruses.
Highly contagious, noroviruses cause the “stomach flu,” or gastroenteritis, which leads to symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and some stomach cramping, according to a state Department of Health fact sheet. The district provided a link to the fact sheet on its website, as part of the announcement of the closing of the junior high.
The Department of Health did not recommend closing the building. That was a precaution taken by the district, Cipriano said.
Before classes resume Monday, the custodial staff will “sanitize the building top to bottom” and replace products like toilet paper and paper towels, Cipriano said.
All other buildings in the district will remain open today, and the MoValley YMCA Youth Theatre Production will still be held today and Saturday at the Junior High School.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Welcome to the Penn State Food Safety Blog

The mission of the Penn State Food Safety Blog is to provide news and commentary on food safety issues affecting the food supply, from farm to table.