andrew schneider investigates

August 29, 2008

Your food came from where?

Filed under: FDA,Food additives,Food labeling,Food Safety,Random observations,USDA — Andrew Schneider @ 17:59

Do you care where your food came from?

Wouldn’t you like to know if the ground meat you’ve purchased came from a Middle Eastern country where camels out number cattle 500 to 1?

How about those dried banana chips from someplace in the center of Washington state or coffee beans from Canada?

And can anyone really know exactly which farm, in which country, the tomatoes came from?

I’m not sure that even the youngest among us will live long enough to actually see “country of origin labeling” on all food sold at U.S. markets.

Regardless of how much science-supported raving comes from food safety advocates and the few members of Congress who understand the potential for disaster from uninspected food flowing through our porous borders, the lobbyi$ts for the huge grocery chains and enormous food importers will most likely continue to keep meaningful labeling at bay. Thus, the consumer will still get the truth about a food’s origin from honest outlets who care and anything that sells from those firms sleazy who don’t.

But progress in COOL is inching along.

In July, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service issued an interim final rule addressing country of origin labeling that covers most cuts of beef, including veal, lamb, chicken, goat and pork and ground beef, ground lamb, ground chicken, ground goat and ground pork; perishable agricultural commodities such as fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables; peanuts; pecans, ginseng and macadamia nuts.

Food Safety and Inspection says the final rule will become effective on Sept. 30, 2008, to allow time for covered unlabeled commodities that are already in the pipeline to clear the system.

However, there is a very long list of products excluded from mandatory COOL, such as meatloaf, breaded chicken tenders or sausage, and you really don’t even what to guess as to how much meatloaf and how many meatballs we import.

Yea, this is progress. If you want to see how far we have to go, check out this FSIS link
to more than you probably want to know about Country of Origin Labeling.


More tests demanded of ‘super sweetener’

Filed under: Environmental health issues,FDA,Food Safety,GRAS — Andrew Schneider @ 15:39

Apparently, Pepsi and Coca-Cola may be introducing new beverages sweetened with an extract from a Latin American plant that the locals call sugar leaf, but the PhDs say is stevia. Those selling it commercially have named it Rebiana and claim it’s between 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar.

No so fast, cautions the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The nonprofit food safety advocate says a new 26-page report by toxicologists at UCLA states that several laboratory tests show that the sweetener “causes mutations and DNA damage, which raises the prospect that it causes cancer.”

The organization wrote the Food and Drug Administration saying that additional testing is needed.

“A safe, natural, high-potency sweetener would be a welcome addition to the food supply,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. “But the FDA needs to be as sure as possible that rebiana is safe before allowing it into foods that would be consumed by tens of millions of people. It would be tragic if the sweetener turned out to cause cancer or other problems.”

Two companies — Cargill and Merisant — have told the FDA that rebiana should designated as “Generally Regarded as Safe,” or GRAS, which is a classification given less scrutiny by the FDA than ordinary food additives. The Center says a third company, Wisdom Natural Brands, has already declared that its stevia-based sweetener is GRAS and will market it without giving evidence to, or even notifying, the FDA.

Yes, you read it correctly. Corporations can hire anyone or even task their janitorial staff to evaluate the safety of a food additive. There are thousands of products out there that have never been tested by anyone beyond “experts” paid by the company selling the product.

Want an example? How about diacetyl, the butter flavoring that has sickened hundreds of popcorn and flavoring plant workers, and caused the deaths of several.

Diacetyl remains on FDA’s list of products considered Generally Regarded as Safe and concerned scientists and physicians who have tried to get our vacationing lawmakers to demand that FDA and OSHA do something about it, are often turned away by legislative staffers who can’t believe that companies alone can be making these vital public health decisions.

I have a hard believing it myself, but it’s true.

As with so many harmful products, such as asbestos or benzine or hundreds of others, we are left with a vacuum created by legislators refusing to do battle for public health and the void is filled by trial lawyers holding the offending corporations accountable with settlements in hundreds of millions of dollars.

Seems like an odd way to protect the public health. But maybe that’s just me.

August 22, 2008

Caveat emptor fish lovers

Filed under: Food - good, bad, weird,Food labeling,Random observations — Andrew Schneider @ 10:57

Two really smart teenagers used DNA testing on fish purchased at New York City restaurants and markets and found that people weren’t getting what they paid for.

The young women – Kate Stoeckle and Louisa Strauss � collected 60 samples of seafood from four restaurants and 10 grocery stores in Manhattan.

Their field technique was simple, Stoeckle said. “We ate a lot of sushi.”

The high-tech sleuths sent their samples, which they’d preserved in alcohol, to Eugene Wong, a graduate student at Ontario’s University of Guelph. Wong, who works on a project called the “Barcode of Life Database, ” which contains the DNA of about 5,500 fish species, agreed to analyze the fish.

“Three hundred dollars’ worth of meals later, the young researchers had their data back from Guelph: 2 of the 4 restaurants and 6 of the 10 grocery stores had sold mislabeled fish,” the New York Times reported.

“A piece of sushi sold as the luxury treat white tuna turned out to be Mozambique tilapia, a much cheaper fish that is often raised by farming. Roe supposedly from flying fish was actually from smelt. Seven of nine samples that were called red snapper were mislabeled, and they turned out to be anything from Atlantic cod to Acadian redfish, an endangered species,” wrote Times reporter John Schwartz.

The two the neophyte food scientists begin as freshmen at Johns Hopkins University this fall and their research is being published in the Seattle-based Pacific Fishing magazine, a publication for commercial fishermen.

I tried to reach editor Don McManman to chat with him about it, but couldn’t contact him.

There is not much to be immediately gained by concerned diners taking their DNA test kits to dinner with them.

Also, before they start attacking their favorite chef or fishmonger, they should remember that the scam to mislabel inexpensive or lower quality fish could happen anywhere along the long food supply line. Although, I’d like to think our food professionals were a bit more attentive to what they serve.

August 21, 2008

The spinach won’t glow, bugs will die.

Filed under: FDA,Food labeling,Food poisoning,Food Safety,Public health legislation — Andrew Schneider @ 17:54

Let’s get one thing straight up front. Just because the government has ruled that spinach and lettuce can now be zapped with radiation to kill E. coli, salmonella and other nasty bugs, it doesn’t mean that the produce will be radioactive, warm to the touch or even pre-cooked.

The decision by the Food and Drug Administration has been long awaited since the Grocery Manufacturers Association petitioned the agency in 2000 to allow producers to irradiate a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and prepared foods.

The equipment is costly, but well worth it to producers because the process also can control insects and parasites, reduce spoilage, and extend shelf-life.

However, Thursday’s action by the federal food protectors limits the use of zoomies only to spinach and iceberg lettuce.

FDA’s symbol for irradiated food

“I wish it could be used on all greens, all types of lettuce, and herbs like basil and parsley and cilantro,” said Dr. Christine Bruhn, a researcher from the University of California, Davis Center for Consumer Research.

Bruhn, who says she has been working on irradiation since the early 1980s, said FDA’s action is a “much needed and important safety step.”

Studies have repeatedly shown that the most careful and thorough washing of produce by the producer and the consumer will remove only 90 percent of anything harmful.

While that sounds quite effective, Bruhn reminded me that just 10 individual organisms of E. coli can put a person in the hospital, so removing 90 percent isn’t enough.

Working at its usual snail’s pace, FDA was still mulling over the grocers’ petition when, in 2007, a major E. coli outbreak was linked to California spinach. The outbreak killed three and sickened scores more.

Relatively small amounts of beef, poultry and other meats have been legally irradiated in this country for years, but it’s being sold in very few markets and is thought to have limited consumer appeal. Bruhn said research in her center shows public acceptance may now be there.

Christine Bruhn

“About 10 percent of the public believes that irradiation is a wonderful idea and they want to buy it at their grocery store now. Another 10 percent wouldn’t touch it with a very long stick. They want the untreated, unprocessed produce as it comes from the field,” Bruhn told me this afternoon. “And about everyone else doesn’t have a strong opinion either way.”

At a Seattle conference on food safety earlier this year, irradiation was being hashed over on one of the breaks. One of the participants noted that so much radiation would be needed to kill the dangerous pathogens that it would leave the vegetables so limp that the final safety wash would have to be in Viagra.

Actually, researchers say that it will take different levels of radiation exposure to kill different pathogens. For example, E. coli can be killed with a relatively low dose while the much hardier salmonella would take a far larger jolt.

“There is a tradeoff between the strength of the radiation delivered and the percent of bacteria killed,” said Chuck Benbrook, chief scientist of the Organic Center, which issued a lengthy report on the issue in 2007.

“For the radiation to be a true kill step, which is a 99.99 percent reduction in pathogens, the literature shows there will be a significant loss in produce crispness and quality,” Benbrook told me this afternoon.

“There’s a lot of work yet to develop the most effective treatment that has the least adverse impact on quality.”

The radiation symbol � a magenta propeller on a yellow background � has for decades been an instant rallying point for activists no matter where it’s found. The international symbol for irradiated food – the Radura – is usually a green, broken circle with a stylized plant in its center. FDA has mandated its use since 1986. So far the Radura hasn’t engendered the visceral reaction to the more common purple propeller, but we’ll see what time brings.

There have been no indications in countless studies that irradiation presents any risk to those who eat food processed with the technique. If there is a risk, it would be to those who mishandle the highly radioactive isotopes which produce the gamma radiation used to irradiate the food and those around them. Let’s hope that the FDA has been talking to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission about security issues accompanying the new process.

Nevertheless, some food safety activists weighed in quickly with their criticism of the FDA action.

“Instead of beefing up its capacity to inspect food facilities or test food for contamination, all the FDA has to offer consumers is an impractical, ineffective and very expensive gimmick like irradiation,” said Wenonah Hauter, Food & Water Watch Executive Director, a national food safety group.

She called irradiation “a Band-aid, not a cure.”

“Allowing spinach and lettuce to be irradiated would simply mask unsafe production practices, while supplying lower quality, less nutritious and potentially hazardous food.”

“Treating lettuce or spinach with the equivalent of tens of millions of chest X-rays can ruin its flavor, odor, texture, color, and nutritional value,” she said in a statement.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 76 million Americans get sick and 5,000 die from foodborne hazards each year in the United States.

August 19, 2008

EPA boss to rally the troops in Seattle

Filed under: EPA,Random observations — Andrew Schneider @ 15:35

EPA’s top gun, Steve Johnson, is arriving in Seattle and will address his loyal troops in the morning before inspecting his Navy in the afternoon.

In a note theoretically from the administrator to his gaggle of overworked environmental protectors, Johnson invited the gang from region 10 to his “in-person, informal dialogues” which he is calling “Ask the Administrator.” It doesn’t sound near as warm and cuddly as the chats by Food and Drugs Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach which he calls “Andy’s Take.”

Nevertheless, added that he appreciates “that EPA’s culture encourages frank and open discussions and I have enjoyed the lively exchanges over the years.”

The OSV Bold

Apparently, he doesn’t want the outside world to see how “lively” the exchanges might be because reporters were told were not welcome to quietly observe the session.

“It’s a private event, said Johnson’s sharper-then-most national spokesman.

Johnson’s note urges his people to write down questions
anonymously and place them in a basket. “I will randomly pull questions out of the basket and answer as many as possible in the time available,” wrote the administrator.

I had coffee this morning with a couple of his lieutenants who wondered who would be screening those questions and would their boss actually answer the actual questions as written.

Two of the questions that I’m told will be asked will discuss whether Johnson will do what some congressmen have requested and resign and, why is it that as the first administrator who has come from within EPA’s own the ranks has done so much damage to the agency’s morale.

We’ll see whether they’re asked and answered.

Later in the afternoon, Johnson and an entourage of politicians will tour the EPA research vessel, OSV BOLD. Unofficial reports have it that the Bold, which has been doing research between Oregon and Alaska for several months has made some interesting discoveries on the environmental problems of region’s water, especially in the Puget Sound area.

I wonder if the scientists aboard the Bold have tracked the sewage flowing from Victoria. It would be interesting to know what the gift from Canada is doing to our water.

August 18, 2008

Toxic paranoia: 300 compounds in coffee?

We do a lot of griping and finger-pointing when it comes to pesticides used in food production. It’s obvious that we don’t want to feed our kids anything doused with the best that Monsanto, Dow, Bayer and other corporations in the “better living through chemistry” club crank out. But neither do most of the farmers I know and I’ve talked to many since I begun this blog.

Among the most devoted, cautious parents of ankle-grabbers that I know, few serve a total organic-only menu, and that was even before the towering gas prices jacked up almost all food � organic and otherwise. Imagine red peppers at $3.50 each, and that’s conventional grown.

I have long planned to write about pesticides and the economics of food. Well, Scotland on Sunday beat me to it. Nevertheless, here’s a couple of points that I do want to make.

Toxic paranoia: Scientist says 300 compounds in coffee aroma, including some that cause cancer in animals.

Imported produce � fruits and vegetables � are cheaper than our domestic crops. In part, this is due to far lower labor costs, which is obvious to most. What may not be as evident is that it is cheaper to grow almost anything if you’re free to use any pesticide and as much of it as you’d like.

Remember, our warm and cuddly chemical corporation sell chemicals that have been banned in the U.S. and EU as too toxic to food and too dangerous to farm workers, everyplace else on the globe that their army of high pressure salesmen work. (Yes, I said salesmen, because I’m told that most of them are.)

In an attempt to avert a whole bunch of hostile email, allow me to acknowledge that there are some overseas growers who are as careful and caring as the best U.S. farmer. However, many will dump on any chemical they can on their crops to kill weeds, black spots, nasty bugs and all the other agricultural blights that plague farmers around the globe.


August 15, 2008

I knew Julia Child was a spy

Filed under: Food - good, bad, weird,Good food,Random observations — Andrew Schneider @ 10:00

I wouldn’t want to try to kid anyone and imply that I was a close friend of Julia Child, but I knew she was a spy.

So I wasn’t really surprised at the field day the international media had yesterday when the National Archives unclassified files identifying Child, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg and nearly 24,000 other people as spies fighting the Nazi menace in President Franklin Roosevelt’s newly created Office of Strategic Services.

My first meeting with the chef who changed how millions cooked was in the mid-1970s, when I was working out of the Newsweek office in Boston. I visited her in her century-old Victorian house in Cambridge, Mass. Sitting in the carefully structured havoc of her wonderful kitchen – robin’s-egg blue cabinets, her big Garland stove, copper pots and bowls everywhere – she made me a grilled cheese-and-tomato sandwich and told me it was her favorite dish “that didn’t contain butter or cream.”

While waiting, I took a copy of the bible – “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” – off her bookshelf. I knew that she, and two French women – Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle – had toiled 10 years to complete the 1961 classic, which starts off, “This is a book for the servantless American cook�”

She was kind enough to ask if I’d “used” the book.

Julia Child, in a 1967 photo taken on the set of her popular television classic “The French Chef.”

Showing a complete lack of good graces and common decency, I told her that some of the recipes were too complicated and wondered how many new cooks rushed off in tears stymied by the two pages of detailed instructions for making Coq Au Vin.

“Get over it,” she told me in her wonderful warbling voice. adding that recipes are not a road map, but a guide through a world of flavors, textures, tastes and fun. Those words – and her bluntness – made me a better cook.

That was the only meal she cooked for me, but we shared the same table several other times.

The next time we met was in March 1995 at Antonio Allegra’s annual, week-long Symposium for Professional Food Writers at the historic Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.V.

One evening, when about 30 of the nation’s top cookbook authors and food writers – plus me — were sitting around a towering fireplace, drinking port or something stronger, we chatted about of the nation’s worst-kept secret: the doomsday bunker.

Codenamed Greek Island, it was 64 feet below where we were sitting and its 5-foot-thick walls would protect 1,000 people — all 535 members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives and their top aides, from the A-bomb that the Cold War promised to deliver some day.

I told Child that both my parents had worked at the Greenbrier decades earlier and while they occasionally hinted, neither shared the secret of the bunker.

She smiled and called them “good people,” and said that’s what “we in the intelligence business count on.”

I said that I thought she had worked in the OSS typing pool in Ceylon or Paris. She smiled, sipped some clear liquid that wasn’t white wine, and said that was what everyone was supposed to believe.

What was I to think? Here was this icon of all things culinary, the woman who taught America that there was more to special meals than green bean casseroles topped with cream of mushroom soup and canned fried onions. A spy?

She told me that she wanted to do her part in the war but, at 6-foot-2, she said she was too tall to get into the military, was bored with working at the War Department, so she applied to the OSS. Soon she found herself working in Washington as a researcher in the Intelligence Division for top spy Gen. Bill Donovan. Child claimed she did little more than gather long lists of names.

But then she winked.

The 130-page report on Child that was released yesterday by the Archives said that while working for the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency, she handled several clandestine operations in China and elsewhere where she was “registering, cataloguing and channeling a great volume of highly classified communications.”

She met her husband, Paul Child, who was working for the OSS in the 1940s.

In 1963, long before the Food Network was ever thought of, Child’s unpretentious, no-nonsense approach to cooking was bringing tens of thousands of new viewers to public television, first in Boston, then across the country. She started her TV career at age 50. She won an Emmy and a Peabody and millions of home cooks willing to take a risk. Her 39-part-series “Baking with Julia,” is still being shown on public television in Seattle.

She was a favorite on both the morning and the late night shows.

On the Letterman Show in 1989, Child was going through the steps of a French favorite and, mallet in hand, told Letterman that first one needed to pound the duck. In a retort that became an instant TV classic, the host responded that that was how he spent his homecoming night.

God, did that woman love to eat.

At a conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, I think in San Antonio, six of us went to Morton’s for dinner. Child and I were sharing about two pounds of asparagus. The server offered a silver serving boat filled with hollandaise sauce. “All of it,” she said with the roguish smile of hers, pointing to the veggies. I got three stalks. She got the rest, which slowed her not a bit in handling two pounds of very rare tenderloin. Of course, dessert followed.

Butter and cream are among the best reasons to live a long life. They are the essential food group, I recall her explaining while dipping her bread in the remaining sauce.

At another foodie event in California, I told her about a cartoon I had showing three spy-looking characters standing in front of a wall of filing cabinets labeled with several of the CIA’s more noteworthy blunders. It was signed by President George H. Bush, who was also CIA director. “Who Knows,” he wrote.

I gave her a copy after the steakhouse dinner and she roared.

“The poor CIA,” I remember her saying. “We had it so much better. There weren’t congressional committees looking over our shoulder and politics never entered the picture. We just did what we must to protect our country.”

So I asked flat out, “Were you a spy?”

“What’s a spy?,” she answered. We just collected a bit of information here and there, she said with that electric smile of hers. Flamboyance and grace in a tall package.

On Aug. 13, 2004, three days before her 92nd birthday, Child died in her sleep of kidney failure. Not the cardio-vascular collapse that health experts and proponents of fat-free diets had predicted almost every time she shoveled yet another pound of butter into a pan.

In a farewell editorial, the Boston Globe said: “Child’s goal never seemed to be perfection, only pleasure. She stood fearlessly before calories and rich food armed with her wise strategy of moderation: eating a little bit of everything to avoid missing anything.”

Now the world knows that cooking wasn’t her only fearless act.

Bon appetit, Julia.

Whole Food recalls popcorn

Filed under: FDA,Food labeling,Food Safety,Government & corporate wrong-doing — Andrew Schneider @ 09:54

This is a rough week for Whole Foods Markets because this morning they announced their second product recall.

Earlier, they recalled ground beef possibly tainted with E. coli. Today, the chain is recalling 365 Organic Everyday Value Popcorn, Lightly Salted because it may contain undeclared milk ingredients that aren’t listed in the label.

“People who have an allergy or severe sensitivity to milk ingredients run the risk of serious or life-threatening allergic reaction if they consume these products,” the company said in a statement released by the Food and Drug Administration.

“The popcorn in these packages was incorrectly flavored with a white cheddar seasoning which includes milk ingredients; the seasoning may not be visibly apparent.”

This popcorn was distributed to and sold in Whole Foods Market retail stores in California, Arizona, Nevada, Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington, D.C, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Oregon, New Jersey, New York and Washington.

The product is sold in a blue-and-white 5-ounce bag with a picture of popcorn in a red-and-white container. Consumers who have purchased 365 Organic Popcorn Lightly Salted with a lot code of “Sell By 10/28/08” or “Sell By 10/29/08” are urged to return it to any Whole Foods Market for a full refund. Consumers with questions may contact the company at (512) 542-0656.

No illnesses have been reported to date.

August 14, 2008

It’s summer and White House gets its way

August is a time for many to just get away from it all. It’s almost mandatory for those who live and work in Washington, D.C., where the heat and humidity make the Amazon jungle an enviable travel destination.

As it always does, Congress fled the thermal discomfort of the rumored epicenter of the Free World, which was actually built on a swamp.

The absence of our elected lawmakers creates a vacuum that is often filled with White House mischief, for example, the president, any president, can and has appointed people to senior government positions or judgeships who never would have survived the confirmation process.

This year, as the pro-business Bush administration’s grasp on the White House wanes, the level of tomfoolery soars, especially when it comes to diminishing public health standards, laws and rules which protect workers and the public.

For example, Richard Greene, EPA regional administrator in Dallas, five term mayor of Arlington, Texas, and an old friend of the president, is pushing hard to institute a controversial method of removing asbestos from buildings in what he has called “neglected urban areas.”

For more than five years, many of the nation’s top asbestos experts, including EPA scientists, have tried to block use of the unproven “wet method.” Not because a less costly technique isn’t needed, but rather because the agency has bypassed or ignored almost all the traditional safeguards used to ensure a new technique is safe.

EPA Regional Administrator Richard Greene

Ethicists have repeatedly pointed out that since the proposed testing and implementation will be used in poor, minority communities, it is a potential violation of the agency environmental justice policies. Nevertheless, Greene and others in the agency want this industry-friendly technique blessed before there is a new White House occupant.

Another late summer escapade by the Secretary of Labor to diminish the way the danger of toxic material is assessed is being hustled through by the White House Office of Management and Budget and could present a much more encompassing hazard to worker safety.

As I reported earlier this month, a sharp-eyed public health researcher � Celeste Monforton � spotted a mention on the OMB website that it was considering something called the “Requirements for DOL Agencies’ Assessment of Occupational Health Risks.”

It was immediately obvious to those who read the document that it could consstitute a serious attack on existing worler protection standards.

Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy and California Rep. George Miller wrote Labor Secretary Elaine Chao requesting specifics on why she had used outside consultants to create the unusual plan and why government scientists from any agency hadn’t been given the opportunity to review the document. Not a peek.

On July 30, Miller introduced a bill that would prohibit Chao from issuing the proposed rule, but House members went on vacation before any action could be taken.

Showing a degree of arrogance even a bit extreme for the present administration, Leon Sequeira, DOL’s assistant secretary for policy, wrote back to Miller and Kennedy saying the department “strongly objects to your assertion that there is some sort of attempt underway to secretly implement a rule.

“Disclosure (of the material) threatens to discourage the candor necessary for advice to be provided freely and without inhibition within the executive branch,” Sequeira wrote the senior lawmakers.

Monforton and others who saw the letter called the “brush-off” typical of how the administration values public health.

“We’d like to see the Department of Labor put its resources into some of the many hazards that have already been identified, like construction cranes, silica, and diacetyl,” explained Monforton, on the public health blog The Pump Handle. “Instead, they’re pushing a deeply flawed rule that will make it harder to safeguard the health of US workers in the future.”

Today, she and 79 of the other leading physicians, toxicologists, epidemiologists, researchers and occupational health scientists signed a letter sent to Secretary Chao, urging her to withdraw the proposed rule.

Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, was one of the signers and said the proposed change in risk assessment methods would weaken current approaches and undermine occupational health rules.

“DOL’s proposed rule must be seen as part of a larger thinly-veiled effort by the (OMB) to alter risk assessment methods by stealth across the regulatory agencies . . .and are part of a much broader agenda by the Bush Administration to weaken health protections for workers, the public, and the environment,” she wrote on her blog today.

I left two messages at the agency for comment.

Silence. But it’s summer.

August 12, 2008

Many food recalls, but USDA is happy

Shoppers are living with a repetitive drumbeat of federal government announcements that food being sold by the nation’s largest grocery chains could sicken or kill those who consume it. Many consumers are concerned that the weekly chore of filling the larder has become a game of Russian roulette with E. coli, salmonella and other foodborne diseases going to the loser.

However, the head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture said today that the food safety world is in good shape.

The latest recalls were again on beef processed by Nebraska Beef Ltd. and this time in the Pacific Northwest, only the regional chain Fred Meyer, not the entire Kroger system, had to pull the E. coli-tainted beef from the coolers.

What surprised many high-end shoppers was that the oh-so-special Whole Food markets had to recall ground beef produced from large cuts of prime meat from the same processor. As of yesterday, about a dozen people on the East Coast had become sick after consuming the costly meat from the “natural food” supplier. Here’s a link to Whole Food’s version of the recall.

But don’t worry if you live in the Northwest. The recalls were targeted at Whole Food stores in 23 states and D.C.

Nevertheless, when I chatted with a half-dozen shoppers near the Seattle store this afternoon, five of them said they were actually stunned, something close to that.
“I thought the higher prices they charge for everything was sort of a guarantee of quality throughout the store,” Joan Wysockie, told me.

The guy next to her added: “If these gold-plated stores have problems, what hope is there for the low-end stores?”

The one who said she wasn’t surprised wouldn’t give her names but said she works at Harborview’s emergency department and sees “food poisoning cases coming in around the clock.

“With all that’s going on in the food supply chain, we’re lucky that thousands more aren’t being sickened. Very lucky.”

Perhaps the ER doc is correct. Just check out the recalls from USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service for the last few days. Remember each recall can involve dozens of individual wholesale or retail stores.

Today, Renna’s Meat Market, a Fresno, Calif., firm is recalling approximately 780 pounds of ground beef products that may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.

Yesterday, Palama Holdings LLC, a Kapolei, Hawaii, establishment, said it’s recalling approximately 4,535 pounds of fully cooked pork products because they may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

Aug. 8: Nebraska Beef Ltd., announced that it is recalling approximately 1.2 million pounds of primal cuts, subprimal cuts and boxed beef that may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.

Aug. 7: Dallas City Packing Inc., a Dallas, Texas, establishment, recalled approximately 941,271 pounds of cattle heads with tonsils not completely removed, which is not compliant with regulations that require the removal of tonsils from cattle of all ages.

Aug. 6: S&S Foods LLC., an Azusa, Calif., firm, recalled approximately 153,630 pounds of frozen ground beef products because they may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.

Aug. 6: Tyson Foods Inc. of Vicksburg, Miss., recalled 51,360 pounds of raw frozen chicken breast tenderloin products because they may contain an undeclared allergen, soy, which is not declared on the label.

Aug. 5: DBC Inc., doing business as World Class Canapes of Wilmington, Mass., recalled approximately 285 pounds of ready-to-eat chicken products that may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

And these are just the ones we know about. Remember, with the exception of the cow heads and the soy-tainted chicken, the other recalls were USDA “Class 1,” which means a health hazard situation where there is a reasonable probability that the use of the product will cause serious, adverse health consequences or death.

However, USDA boss Ed Schafer told Reuters today that the number of contaminated products has declined in recent years and things are lookng up.

“I don’t believe that, from a USDA standpoint, we need to increase the number of inspectors or change the testing requirements,” Schafer told Reuters.

He said he like to see the food industry experimenting with new and better equipment and ideas.

“You start mandating things, and that incentive to improve goes away,” he told the wire service.

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