andrew schneider investigates

January 28, 2009

Prison for peanut execs who knew salmonella was present?

Filed under: FDA,Food poisoning,Food Safety,Risks to children — Andrew Schneider @ 16:53
The Chinese kill their food poisoners. What about the U.S. peanut butter execs who know salmonella was present 12 times.

Accidents happen, but the FDA has determined that the producer of the peanut butter that has sickened more than 500 people, hospitalized 127 and killed eight has a history of knowingly selling food contaminated with salmonella.

The FDA has identified approximately12 instances in the past two years when Peanut Corporation of America, in its own internal testing, identified some type of salmonella in the food and eventually released peanut butter for sale, said Michael Rogers, who heads FDA’s Division of Field Investigations in the Office of Regulatory Affairs.

Several of you have already reminded me that just last week, a Chinese court ordered the death of two men and a life sentence for a dairy executive for their roles in knowingly producing and selling milk poisoned with melamine. The tainted milk has killed at least six children and made almost 300,000 sick. The presence of the melamine, a chemical used in plastics, forced a world-wide recall of dairy and other products.

Fortunately, the numbers of unfortunates sickened in the U.S. was far, far lower, but, according to FDA’s Robert Tauxe, half of those brought down by the bad peanut butter are children.

Nevertheless, I can’t see the government demanding the death penalty for the gang at the Georgia peanut plant, but if they really knew it had salmonella and still sold it, that sounds criminal to me.

Dr. Stephen Sundlof, director of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition in Washington, says that if further investigation show the action of the peanut executives violated the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act …then that is technically a 
violation of the law.

FDA’s regulations have “the force of law,” Sundlof says. “Whether or not there was any criminal activity involved is a different issue. We’re looking.”

Meanwhile, the American Peanut Council tossed its Georgia member to the wolves, saying the trade group was shocked and dismayed at the findings that the company “knowingly released a product with potential salmonella contamination into the food supply.”

“The findings of the FDA report can only be seen as a clear and unconscionable action of one irresponsible manufacturer…,” Patrick Archer, peanut council present, said in a statement.

January 27, 2009

A 1,600 calorie dessert? Have two

Filed under: Food - good, bad, weird,Food Safety,Risks to children — Andrew Schneider @ 14:02

<![CDATA[Sometimes frivolous topics can be serious.

Let’s talk about the “Food Porn Alert” issued today which either warns us off or entices us toward a Chocolate Chip Paradise Pie offered by Chili’s restaurant chain.

The “pie” is made from chocolate chips, walnuts and coconut with vanilla ice cream, hot fudge and caramel toppings piled on top.

The alert was issued today by Nutrition Action, a newsletter put out by the nonprofit nutrition watchdog, the Center for Science in the Public Interest

That dessert provides 1,590 calories, 37 grams of saturated fat (almost two days’ worth), and 910 milligrams of sodium, about half of what you should have in a day.

The health group says the dessert is equivalent to 1 full racks of Chili’s Original Baby Back Ribs.

CSPI’s senior nutritionist Jayne Hurley say this kind of food porn helps explain America’s epidemic of obesity, heart disease and diabetes. It also makes a compelling case why calorie counts belong right on the menus, not just buried on corporate web sites.”

Other recent “Food Porn” stars recognized by the group include Starbucks’ Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate, Sara Lee Cheesecake Bites, and DiGiorno’s Ultimate Focaccia Pizza.

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January 26, 2009

Widespread concealment of tainted imported honey

Filed under: Food - good, bad, weird,Food poisoning,Food Safety,Risks to children — Andrew Schneider @ 16:40

<![CDATA[Yes, I wrote yet another story on honey laundering.

Given the multiple crises we face, the fact that money-grubbing business people here and in China are shipping and importing honey that’s erroneously labeled and may contain illegal antibiotics probably isn’t at the top of your must-do list for our new president.

I agree.

The banned drugs that the Chinese added to kill the epidemic that was decimating millions of their bee hives will only harm a very small number of the people who eat it. But many of the phone calls and e-mail I received today in reaction to the story, said it’s important if your child or loved one is among that small number who are sensitive to the animal medication.

In today’s story, I wrote about the National Honey Board and Sue Bee Associates, the nation’s largest honey seller, having knowledge of the presence of tainted honey and not seeing the need or value of telling federal health inspectors about it. In the case of the quasi-governmental honey board, its CEO was told about contaminated honey on grocery shelves and he said he didn’t notify health authorities because it wasn’t his job.

After today’s phone calls, I can add three companies who allegedly shipped bad honey back to their supplier with the knowledge that the loads would be resold to other U.S. honey packers.

Two of the people who supplied this information say that they felt that nothing would happen unless and until some really bad honey made it though our porous borders and lots of people either got sick or died.

I guess that’s why I write about honey and other potential hazards that are low on the government’s crisis list.

And to the gaggle of you who ask if I don’t have more important public health investigations to chase before the owners close this newspaper down in 40-something days, the answer is yes.

I crank out what I can, and I’ll keep doing it until they toss us all out.

For those who care, here’s a link to all the honey stories.

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January 23, 2009

Pigs have MRSA but feds can’t say if pork is safe.

Filed under: FDA,Food Safety,Government & corporate wrong-doing,MRSA,USDA — Andrew Schneider @ 17:47

<![CDATA[It’s official now. Many of the pigs and the farmers who raise them in Iowa and Illinois have MRSA.

It was just about six months ago that I reported on preliminary research done by Dr. Tara Smith, a significantly dedicated epidemiologist who found that pigs at several different Midwest farms had MRSA, as did many of the farmers raising them.

The reaction to her study and my earlier blog item which broke the news – was enormous. She was swamped with calls and I got hundreds of email from here and abroad. Many came from public health workers mostly government praising the efforts of her’ and her team at the University of Iowa’s Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Many of those health professionals, especially several connected with FDA, USDA and CDC, were passionate in their anger that the government was not taking the presence of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus in our food supply anywhere near seriously enough.


Little porker about to be swabbed for MRSA. Photo T. Smith

Some members of Congress expressed outrage and demanded that the federal health agencies determine whether Smith’s findings in pigs also meant that pork in our grocery and butcher shop coolers also carried the sometimes lethal bacteria.

So today, Smith’s final study was published on PLoS ONE, an online journal for peer-reviewed scientific and medical research.
It said that Smith and her five students tested 446 pigs and 29 workers from pig farms in Iowa and Illinois and found MRSA in 45 percent of the animals and in 45 percent of the humans caring for them.

So I called some disease detectives and food safety specialists in agencies responsible for ensuring that our food supply is safe. You could almost hear them cringe over the phone. And, no, to the best of their knowledge, neither the FDA, USDA nor CDC had launched systematic testing of the U.S. meat supply for MRSA. One physician said that a study was being done on the MRSA strain (ST398) that Smith had found on the pigs but added, “I don’t think it has anything to do with meat.”

They did mention that some testing but far from enough – was being done by the academic community and gave me the names of researchers at Louisiana State University and the University of Minnesota. I’ll try to chase them down over the weekend.

Next I called staff members of some of the same congressional committees that were so upset and promised action last June when Smith’s initial results were released. Two senior people said almost the identical thing “We’ll get to it when we get the economy under control.” A lawyer on the third committee said she was embarrassed that nothing had happen, but would “contact Dr. Smith soon.”

OK. We’ll see.

Smith said her group has a number of ongoing projects examining MRSA in food and in rural communities, including examining the presence of MRSA on both conventional and organic farms.

The feds have a large role to play, she says.

“The studies should be expanded nationwide to examine hundreds of farms in Iowa and other swine-farming states and see how common MRSA is on a national level.”

But she agrees with many others that a national survey of meat products should be conducted and other animals like beef, poultry, lamb and goat should also be checked out for MRSA.

Smith added that her study just reinforces the importance of vigilance in food handling and cooking procedures.

“It’s likely that cooking will kill any MRSA present on the surface of meats, but anyone handling raw meats should be careful about cross-contamination of cooking areas or other food products, and should make sure hands are washed before touching one’s face, nose, lips, etc.,” the scientists said.

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January 20, 2009

W.R. Grace given another chance to show asbestos is safe

Filed under: Asbestos,Environmental health issues,Worker Safety — Andrew Schneider @ 21:21

January 19, 2009

New recalls as angry mom sues peanut butter maker

Update: Safeway and Kroger add to long list of recalled products that possibly contain salmonella-contaminated peanut butter, paste or cream. Here is a link to FDA’s latest list of recalls.

Christopher Meunier is still a sick child even though it has been seven weeks since he first became deathly ill.

His mom, Gabrielle, joined a suit filed today against the Peanut Corporation of America in the US District Court, Middle District of Georgia. The company is believed to be the source of Salmonella Typhimurium which has poisoned people throughout the country.

Yesterday, Christopher’s mother told me that it was the day before Thanksgiving when her 7-year-old began showing all the debilitating and degrading intestinal symptoms that accompany severe food poisoning.

Eventually, Christopher was identified as the first case of Salmonella Typhirium documented in Vermont and one of the earliest of the almost 500 people, from infant to age 98, sickened in the U.S. and Canada from eating salmonella-contaminated peanut butter.

Chris, before salmonella

The child was hospitalized for six long days.

Now, some of Gabrielle’s pain has morphed into anger at the lethargy of the government’s efforts to identify the contaminated food.

“The wheels of the investigation are turning way too slowly and inefficiently,” she told me in an email this morning.

She says it was just last week that she learned that peanut butter-containing crackers, cookies, candy and snacks could also carry the disease. But, she charges, the government knew it and didn’t effectively pass the word to consumers.

Initially the Food and Drug Administration had maintained that the potentially lethal peanut butter made by Georgia-based Peanut Corporation of American was only a danger to institutions that purchased the company’s five-pound jugs.

Gabrielle and others only learned that the company also supplied peanut butter and peanut cream to companies that produced scores of products filling store shelves and bakeries when some of the manufacturers announced they were voluntarily recalling their products.

To date, the FDA has ordered no recalls, even after national food safety experts, including Seattle lawyer and internet star Bill Marler, told the FDA that immediate action was needed.

Back in Vermont, Gabrielle says a box of Keebler “Cheese & Peanut Butter Sandwich Crackers” is sitting on her kitchen counter  the same “crackers that my son had eaten before he got sick.”

“My son could have eaten these crackers again and potentially died. I have another son already weakened with a missing kidney and spleen. He could have died by eating these crackers,” said the frustrated mother.

She questions how the government can justify not screaming the warnings of the specific food products that could be dangerous in every newspaper, radio and television station.

She says she contacted the CDC, the FDA and Keebler about her partially eaten box of crackers.

“So here I sit with the crackers in my hot little hands and no one has stepped forward to test them,” Gabrielle says. “What a broken system.”

The Centers for Disease Control says that six people have died after eating the tainted peanut butter in one product or another. The federal health detectives say that they are investigating two deaths from Minnesota, two from Virginia, one from Idaho and one from North Carolina. And, they say, they are examining others that may or may not be related.

Obviously, there is more that the government could have and perhaps should have done. But tracking the culprits in nationwide food poisoning cases is rarely easy.

For example, The number of people sickened is expected to increase, if for no other reason then there is an inherent two to three week delay between the date that the salmonella illness starts, and the date that the case is reported to public health authorities.

What this means is that someone who consumed the tainted peanut butter today and becomes ill or dies, may not be identified as a victim for three more weeks.

Here is a link to more information from CDC.

January 18, 2009

Don’t eat peanut butter unless you make it yourself.

Seattle lawyer Bill Marler, the guru of the nation’s food safety investigators, is spitting mad about the way the Food and Drug Administration failed to take any definitive action when the first case of peanut-butter spawned salmonella surfaced in Minnesota in September.

“What in the hell are they thinking?” Marler told me today. “The FDA knew there was a problem on Labor Day and they wait for inaugural day to do anything.”

Marler says he just returned from Minnesota where the nationwide outbreak of 500 or so cases of illness and at least six deaths were first reported by Minnesota’s top notch health detectives.

I get real-time alerts and bulletins from the FDA and USDA whenever some food product is recognized as being dangerous or recalled. If you look at my Blackberry tonight, the streaming messages make it appear like a war has been declared by the federal food safety forces.

But, please don’t think for a moment that the FDA has actually ordered a recall of all products made from this peanut butter. Or anything else that might actually prevent new poisonings. Not so.

But voluntary recalls are streaming in from coast-to-coast.

Ralcorp Frozen Bakery Products Inc. announced it’s recalling all Wal-Mart Bakery brands of PEANUT BUTTER COOKIES, PEANUT BUTTER NO-BAKE COOKIES and PEANUT BUTTER FUDGE NO-BAKE COOKIES.

Food Lion cookie removed its Bake Shop peanut butter cookies from the shelves.

McKee Foods Corporation recalled two varieties of Little Debbie peanut butter sandwich crackers, which are sold in grocery and convenience stores throughout the country.

Perry’s Ice Cream Company recalled about 20 of its Select Peanut Butter Ice Cream products sold under the Perry’s, Surfine and Wegman’s brands.

Hy-Vee Inc. recalled almost a dozen products made in its bakery departments, including cookies containing Reese’s Pieces

What has angered Marler and others concerned about food safety is that the FDA knew weeks ago that Peanut Corp. of America in Blakely, Ga., � one of the nation’s largest producers of peanut butter and peanut cream � was the source of salmonella found in five-pound jars. FDA said the product was sold only to institutional clients � mass feeders like the military, nursing homes, jails and the like.

When I questioned an FDA investigator last week about why his agency wasn’t forcing the manufacturer to identify all its clients, he said the FDA prefers to use voluntary recalls and that’s just the way it is.

Later in the week, I told an FDA spokesperson that I had learned that the Georgia plant was shipping out peanut products in huge quantities, sometimes tanker-car loads. I asked if that wasn’t an indication that the potentially tainted peanut butter was likely to be used in other products being manufactured for sale.

The spokesperson said “Gee. I just don’t know.”

Perhaps that’s why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges people to throw away recalled items in a manner that prevents others from eating them, and, of equal importance, not to eat other peanut-butter containing products such as cookies, crackers, cereal, candy and ice cream until “more is know about the scope of the contamination.”

The FDA said tonight that the investigation is “very active and dynamic.”

And, no, I don’t know what that means, but I do know that CDC says the number of cases of salmonella in Washington State is now 13.

January 15, 2009

Did poisoned U.S. dog food kill Chinese dogs?

Filed under: FDA,Food - good, bad, weird,Food labeling,Food poisoning — Andrew Schneider @ 11:01

First, the Chinese poisoned our dogs and cats with contaminated pet food. Now Chinese authorities say a real or counterfeit brand of U.S.-made food � Optima – has killed or sickened dozens of dogs in several Chinese cities.

Ryan McLaughlin, a Canadian who lives in Suzhou, China, says he spent Christmas and New Year’s Day painfully watching Addie, his year-old golden retriever, die as her liver shut down after being poisoned by contaminants in the Optima dog food he says the pup was fed.


Addie from Ryan McLaughlin

He writes in his blog of the ordeal of trying to keep Addie alive and of how outraged he was that representatives of the Chinese company that imported the dog food came to the vet where Addie was being treated and said that they would cover all medical costs and, in the event of her death, they would come up with compensation of some sort.

“How exactly do they calculate that?” McLaughlin wrote. “Pro-rated from time of birth with a bonus for a good temperament and numbers of hours trained?

He said he understands that the company was doing damage control, but “they very likely killed my dog and actually had the audacity (to say) they’ll reimburse us based on book value for the breed plus a bit for pain and suffering.”

Addie and the other dogs were apparently sicken by a lethal aflatoxins contaminating the grain used in the food. The fungi is poisonous by-products that can be found on all grains and peanuts. It causes aflatoxicosis, which attacks the liver of animals and humans, and exposure to high levels can lead to acute liver failure or death within days.

Chinese press reports say the Ministry of Agriculture has ordered that sales of Optima be halted as they attempt to track the source of the tainted dog food.

While Optima is the name of an American dog food brand, it was unclear if the food sold in China came from the United States.

In the U.S., Optima products are sold by Mars Inc., which markets several popular brands of dog food.


Optima Dog Food

I asked Mars what they knew about the poisonings. Debra Fair, Mars’ public relations manager, said they were investigating the “situation.”

“Mars is aware of recent reports that dogs in the People’s Republic of China have died as a result of consuming what appeared to be Optima brand pet food. However, Mars does not sell Optima branded products in China,” Fair wrote me in an e-mail.

“Our initial findings suggest that the affected pet food was not manufactured by, nor under the authority of, Mars or any of its affiliated companies.”

She told me that Mars only sells that dog food in Taiwan.

But that statement does nothing to clarify the source of the poisoned food because Chinese officials said the Optima that sickened the dogs was imported to China through a Taiwan company, Natural Pet.

Fair said Mars will continue its investigation into this matter, “including working closely with FDA and other regulatory authorities who are investigating this situation.”

I’ve contacted the Taiwan exporter and the FDA for more information, but haven’t heard back yet.

Over the past four years, FDA has recalled hundreds of U.S. brands of pet food containing tainted wheat gluten and the chemical melamine. In 2007, that was the case with more than 150 brands of cat and dog food, after some pets became ill or died from kidney failure after eating food from China.

Last year, Mars Petcare US announced a recall of dry cat and dog food products manufactured at its Allentown, Penn., facility because of potential contamination with salmonella.

Vitamins + water + sugar + hype = Coke lawsuit

Filed under: FDA,Food - good, bad, weird,Food labeling,Risks to children — Andrew Schneider @ 09:46

A class-action suit was filed this morning against the Coca-Cola Co. alleging deceptive and unsubstantiated claims on its VitaminWater line of beverages.

The suit was filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest which claims that Coke markets VitaminWater as a healthful alternative to soda by labeling its several flavors with such health buzz words as “defense,” “rescue,” “energy,” and “endurance.”

The company makes a wide range of dramatic claims, including that its drinks variously reduce the risk of chronic disease, reduce the risk of eye disease, promote healthy joints, and support optimal immune function, said the Washington, D.C. based nonprofit health advocacy group.

However, the group’s nutritionists says that the 33 grams of sugar in each bottle of VitaminWater do more to promote obesity, diabetes, and other health problems than the vitamins in the drinks do to perform the advertised benefits listed on the bottles.

“Coke fears, probably correctly, that they’ll sell less soda as Americans become increasingly concerned with obesity, diabetes, and other conditions linked to diets too high in sugar,” said CSPI litigation director Steve Gardner.

“VitaminWater is Coke’s attempt to dress up soda in a physician’s white coat. Underneath, it’s still sugar water, albeit sugar water that costs about ten bucks a gallon.”

For the other side of the story, here is a link to VitaminWater’s website.

January 14, 2009

Watch those labels

Filed under: Food - good, bad, weird,Food labeling — Andrew Schneider @ 15:47

The bees may be in their winter sleep period but their beekeepers are meeting in Reno and the honey packers association was evaluating its piece of the sweet industry in Fresno last week. New leadership and new ideas buzzing all over the place.

Meanwhile, back here in Seattle, I’’m still receiving dozens of e-mails and phone calls about the series of stories on imported Chinese honey that we ran last month, but I thought this one from Gordon Mitchell was worth sharing.

He said that after reading the articles he has a different view of supermarket honey.

“”It changed even more Saturday night,” he said, “when some friends came over. They brought a small honey gift, and as we sat down to eat we decided to try it. One of our friends tried the gift on some bread. He got a funny look on his face and said, “This tastes like soap.”

“Well, it was soap,” Mitchell said. Reading the fine print on the label, they discovered that they were sampling “The Savannah Bee Company, Orange Blossom Honey, Hand Soap.”

“It was in the food section of the store,” said the Woodinville shopper.

Be careful out there.

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