To those who sent such “caring” emails questioning whether or not I had been arrested, kidnapped or bumped off by W.R. Grace, the makers of butter flavoring or OSHA and therefore couldn’t post to the blog for a few of days, the answer is, no such luck.
I was at a food safety conference at the Seattle University Law School listening to some of the sharpest authorities in the very fast-changing world of keeping people from being poisoned by what they eat, drink and touch. The speakers came from as far away as Geneva, Australia and Costco’s headquarters in Kirkland.
I learned a lot and was frightened by even more, especially by how much I didn’t know.
The villains of the two-day drama were E coli 0157, Salmonella, Listeria and other malicious pathogens in food or water. They sicken at least 76 million people a year and kill another 5,000 or more in the United States. However, some of the lecturers said that is only a fraction of the real number of incidents are reported.
Drs. Richard Raymond and David Goldman, the No. 1 and 2 bosses of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, shared the realities and complexities of being the frontline protectors of all meats, poultry and eggs heading for the market.
Raymond explained that he opposed mandatory food recall authority because the accompanying legal niceties would slow his agency’s ability to quickly respond to discovery of dangerous food.
Goldman, who also runs FSIS’s four analytical laboratories, said some of the blame for food illnesses is due consumers who don’t read or misread labels. For example, those consumers who eat undercooked meat because they micro-waved chicken products when the label clearly stated “cook in conventional oven only.”
William Keene, a senior epidemiologist from Oregon’s Public Health Service, surprised some in attendance when he said that the majority of foodborne outbreak investigations are inconclusive, meaning investigators are not able to identify the specific source of the disease.
“It’s like a crime was committed and the criminal that got away,” Keene explained to me.
Even though there is an extensive reporting system set up in most states, the reported number of cases is typically just a small fraction of the people who are sickened, Keene said. This, he said, is due to many reasons, including people just “toughing out” the illness to avoid costly medical bills and physicians not ordering specific diagnostic tests.
He also told me that almost all reptiles, especially pet iguana, carry salmonella and are the cause of many emergency room visits.
If there was any doubt about the importance of what the speakers and all public health workers do, it was pretty much gutted when Barbara Kowaleyk spoke of how her 2 �-year-old son Kevin had died from exposure to E coli.
Dr. Richard Seigler, a pediatric kidney specialist from the University of Utah, added to the painful picture as he detailed the cascade of damage, the multi-organ failure, that these diseases sometime inflicted upon the hundreds of young patients he has treated.
While only 3-percent to 5-percent of those who contract the food or water-borne illnesses die, he said that as many as 50-percent of those who survive can be left with permanent kidney and brain damage, hypertension or diabetes.
Craig Wilson, the VP for Food Safety and Quality Assurance for Costco, lectured on the elaborate methods his chain of warehouses use to ensure the safety of the food they sell.
“Prevention is much easier than any of the alternative,” he explained, while insisting all of the chain’s 140,000 employees “know, understand and practice” the sanitation and food safety protocols known as SSOP. He challenged the attendees to ask any of his people what the SSOP was.
Well, being a political reporter when former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart challenged journalist to catch him fooling around with women, I always take it seriously when someone challenges me to test something. So Sunday, I went to my local Costco and asked a butcher and a worker unloading a cart of produce if they’d ever heard of SSOP. Suffice it to say they both told me what it was, where it was posted and what it meant.
Okay, so I was impressed, but I may be forced to ask the question again when I’m at a Costco on the East Coast or somewhere else not in the shadow of the corporate HQ.
Jorgen Schlundt, director for food safety for the World Health Organization, pulled no punches in explaining that “food is not safe anywhere in the world.”
The U.S. is exporting its failed food safety systems to third-world nations who think America has all the answers “but it doesn’t,” he said. He finds it “incredible that the U.S. and other industrial nations continue to throw enormous amounts of money at testing systems that don’t find the problem.”
“This is not rocket science. Let’s start doing it right,” urged the senior WHO official ,who said that the largest outbreak of E Coli ever reported happened in 1997 when 10,000 Japanese school children were sickened after eating sprouts grown in North America.
Seattle lawyer and national expert in food borne illness litigation, William Marler, hosted and organized the conference. When I asked three of the high-ranking national and international officials why they agreed to speak at a continuing education program for lawyers, they all said that Marler has been a major force in changing food safety policies in the United States and abroad.
I’ve only tried to give you a flavor of the conference and some of the issues facing those who toil in this contaminated arena. There were other speakers who raised serious and important topics and I will be interviewing many of them in the coming months, so watch this space.
Meanwhile, I’m heading back on the road to check out a gator ranch and a bunch of fish farmers.