Tag Archives: food safety

Experts say new tools, tougher government oversight can reduce foodborne illnesses #ahcj13

Lacey McLaughlin

About Lacey McLaughlin

Lacey McLaughlin is a features writer at The Daytona (Fla.) Beach News-Journal. She is attending Health Journalism 2013 on an AHCJ-Healthier Beat Fellowship, which is supported by the Leona M. & Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust.

Placing food safety above profits, and using new regulatory power and testing techniques could help protect consumers from foodborne illnesses, three experts in food safety said today.

The experts – an executive at America’s largest organic food producer, a food safety attorney and a federal food and safety regulator – discussed the challenges of protecting consumers from illnesses such as E. coli, salmonella and listeria on a panel called, “Why is food still making us sick in the 21st century?” during Health Journalism 2013 in Boston. Continue reading

Project follows the race to make bagged salad safer

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

The latest investigation by California HealthCare Foundation Center for Health Reporting’s Deborah Schoch will make you think twice before ripping into a sack of spring mix, but her work about the myriad food safety challenges posed by bagged salads examines the industry’s struggle to develop technology powerful enough to overcome the existential threat posed by E. coli and friends.

The industry has made great strides since a 2006 outbreak linked to tainted spinach, she writes, but “It’s impossible to stop all pathogens from landing on lettuce and spinach leaves.” And once they’re on the leaves, it seems as if their spread is almost inevitable. They hide in gooey biofilms and resist powerful washes.

Thousands upon thousands of salad leaves are taken to a central plant, washed together, bagged and shipped. Even if only a few leaves are tainted, harmful pathogens can spread in the wash water — the modern salad version of the old adage that one bad apple spoils the whole barrel.

“I would think of it as swimming in a swimming pool in Las Vegas with a thousand people I didn’t know,” said William Marler, a prominent Seattle-based food safety attorney.

Plenty of public and industry money has been aimed at the problem, Schoch writes. “The Center for Produce Safety at UC Davis, founded in response to the spinach outbreak as an industry-public partnership, has pumped more than $9 million into 54 research projects at 18 universities.”

Even the best research can’t reduce the risk of contaminated greens by 100%, scientists said. At Earthbound, Daniels says the ultimate goal is to achieve what scientists call a “5 log reduction,” the equivalent of pasteurizing milk. In short, if an unwashed lettuce contained 100,000 pathogens, the perfect wash system would knock off five “0s” and reduce the pathogen count to 1.

An added bonus? Schoch’s column on whether she (and the experts she talked to) feel like it’s important, or even salutary, to wash their bagged greens.

Reporter finds the story behind food code violations

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

All the time that The Muskegon Chronicle‘s Brian McVicar has been spending with his county health department’s inspection records has paid off with a slew of stories, with the most recent turning the spotlight on the thousands of food code violations area businesses have racked up in recent years.

ozPhoto by bookgrl via Flickr

For this particular story, McVicar crunched the numbers on 22,000 violations, 37 percent of them critical, logged over a four-year period. Among the most salient, he writes, were “Raw chicken and crabmeat sitting out at room temperature, food kept past its expiration date, cockroaches, mice and fruit flies living in kitchens, employees not following proper hand washing procedures.”

In addition to the typical rogue restaurants, McVicar found that a wide range of local businesses were guilty of health code violations, including “Schools, hospitals, and food stands found in places such as Michigan’s Adventure Amusement Park.”

With his broad-based, data-oriented methodology, McVicar provides a model for other local reporters looking to move beyond the typical “cherrypick the cockroach horror stories” approach that is so often found in inspection-record stories.

Stories in the series:

CBC analysis finds resistant bacteria in raw chicken

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Reporters from the CBC’s “Marketplace” program visited supermarkets in Canada’s three largest cities, bought 100 samples of chicken, and sent them off to a lab for analysis. When the analysis came back, they weren’t particularly surprised to find that two-thirds of the samples were contaminated by bacteria – that’s the sort of thing you expect from raw chicken. What they didn’t expect was that every one of the bacteria strains present in those bits of raw chicken, purchased from major supermarkets and labeled with big-name brands, was resistant to at least one antibiotic. Some were resistant to as many as eight.

“This is the most worrisome study I’ve seen of its kind,” said Rick Smith, the head of Environmental Defence, a consumer advocacy group.

The culprits in this case of superbug proliferation will be all too familiar to regular Covering Health readers.

Doctors and scientists told Marketplace co-host Erica Johnson that chicken farmers are overusing antibiotics — routinely giving healthy flocks doses of amoxicillin, tetracycline, erythromycin and ceftiofur to prevent disease and to make the chickens grow bigger, faster.

The full CBC program is available for free online. The reporters have even shared a spreadsheet of their test results.

Food safety law boosts tracking technology sector

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

In The Washington Post, reporter Lyndsey Layton digs into the industry spawned by a requirement in last year’s food safety law that producers and processors be able to track food at every step of its journey from farm to supermarket. It applies to everything but meat, poultry and egg products.

Under the law, each business will need to know where the food came from and where it’s going, creating a chain of provenance that the FDA can use to more rapidly trace outbreaks of food-borne illness.

As the September deadline for the launch of the FDA’s first pilot projects looms, Layton writes, no single tracking technology yet predominates. After the pilots, the FDA will report to congress and issue specific rules by 2013.

According to Layton, some food industry segments (not farms or restaurants) have been required to track this data since 2005, “but according to a 2009 investigation by the Department of Health and Human Services inspector general, most food facilities surveyed did not meet those requirements and 25 percent didn’t even know about the law.”

Layton’s story includes a profile of HarvestMark, a company whose barcode sticker is already catching on in some places (Kroger foods has adopted it for store-brand produce, for example). HarvestMark not only allows end consumers to scan their food with a smartphone and figure out where it came from, it also allows them to deliver their feedback to the farmer who produced it.

GAO evaluates FDA’s overseas inspectors

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

A couple of new GAO reports are seeking to shed some light on the FDA’s overseas regulatory efforts. The first is part overview, part progress report (52-page PDF). It’ll answer your basic questions.

September 18, 2007: An FDA chemist is shown conducting a rapid screening using an automated immunoassay instrument to detect cell surface antigens of Salmonella on food products. Photo by Black Star/Michael Falco for FDA

An FDA chemist tests food for antigens of Salmonella. (Photo: Black Star/Michael Falco for FDA)

In 2008 and 2009, the FDA sent 42 staffers overseas to establish foreign offices. The staff are on two-year overseas rotations, though it’s been difficult to find qualified workers for certain locations, especially since some of them had to take a pay cut. There’s a map of all 11 offices on the 12th page of the PDF.

According to the GAO, what do FDA overseas offices do?

  • Build relationships with foreign regulators and stakeholders, and with other U.S. agencies that are overseas
  • Gather information about regulated products
  • Inspect overseas facilities which are exporting to the U.S. (China and India only)
  • Train foreign stakeholders to better understand FDA regulations and systems

The second report is focused specifically upon inspections of overseas drug manufacturers producing for the U.S. market. The FDA has prioritized a list of such facilities that it would like its inspectors to visit, and the overseas agents managed to check off 11 percent of that list last year. At that rate, it will take about nine years for them to cover everything. For domestic facilities, that turnover rate is about 2.5 years.