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
“… auditors are typically paid by the companies they are inspecting, creating a conflict of interest for inspectors who might fear they will lose business if they don’t give high ratings.”
“Food companies often choose the cheapest auditors to minimize the added expense of inspections, which range from about $1,000 to more than $25,000.”
“… foodmakers can prepare for audits because they often know when inspectors will show up.”
“… auditors have a range of experience and qualifications, from recent college graduates to retired food industry veterans. They sometimes walk through a plant, ticking off a checklist to produce a score, Samadpour said. Basic inspections do not typically include microbial sampling for bacteria.”
“The FDA has the authority but not the resources to routinely inspect the estimated 150,000 food-processing plants in the United States or the 250,000 facilities abroad that supply U.S. consumers.”
As some of you may have noticed, there’s an egg recall going on. It all began when the CDC’s PulseNet monitoring program noticed a fourfold jump in the number of salmonella cases being reported, which spurred investigations around the country. This jump is evident in the graph below. Don’t be fooled by the dropoff at the end, it has more to do with the reporting process than with an actual decrease in the number of salmonella cases (which clearly isn’t happening).
Image courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
As we stand now, the tainted eggs could have been distributed through any number of channels, but constitute a tiny fraction of the national egg supply.
For reporters digging into this national recall story, or looking to localize it to their coverage area, AHCJ has a strong archive of foodborne illness resources.
Start with a classic, the AHCJ article “Fatal Food: A study of illness outbreaks ,” in which Thomas Hargrove details SHNS’ massive investigation into the nation’s food safety monitoring system. Not only is Hargrove’s how-to instructive, his actual findings are useful examinations of state and local food safety systems around the country.
Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates AHCJ's social media efforts and edits and manages production of association guides, programs and newsletters.
At 30 of the venues (28 percent), more than half of the concession stands or restaurants had been cited for at least one “critical” or “major” health violation. Such violations pose a risk for foodborne illnesses that can make someone sick, or, in extreme cases, become fatal.
An interactive map lets you see the venues based on the number of violations there; rolling your mouse over the location tells you the percentage of vendors found in violation and gives some information about the kinds of violations that were found.
Many of the excerpts cite instances in which food was not being kept at appropriate temperatures and a few are related to pests, but there are a few more unusual examples:
At the Jobing.com Arena, where the Phoenix Coyotes play, “inspectors spotted an employee scooping ice with his bare hands instead of using scoops.”
At Dodger Stadium, there was mold growing inside an ice machine.
At Invesco Field at Mile High Stadium and at the Pepsi Center in Denver, inspectors found flies in bottles of liquor.
At Ford Field, home of the Detroit Lions, inspectors found an employee’s half-eaten hamburger in a warming unit.
Another interesting note: Food inspectors aren’t always visiting unannounced nor are they always visiting when concessions are open. In Chicago, inspections are done when the stadiums are empty and no workers are preparing or serving food. At Cincinnati’s Paul Brown Stadium, inspectors must “submit a list of employees’ names and make an appointment a few days in advance.”
Reporters who have a major sports venue in their community might want to see how it stacks up against others, what kinds of violations have been found and do some further reporting.
New research implicates guacamole or salsa in 3.9 percent of restaurant-related outbreaks of foodborne illness between 1998 and 2008, more than double the rates of previous measurement periods. Both sauces often combine raw ingredients – tomatoes, peppers and cilantro – that have each been blamed for past outbreaks, the CDC release said.
Improper storage and temperature were blamed for 30 percent of the outbreaks, and another 20 percent were caused by worker-related contamination. The outbreaks are common enough that the government even gives them their own acronym (SGA!), an honor that’s admittedly not particularly rare in the world of federal bureaucracy.
CDC began conducting surveillance for foodborne disease outbreaks began in 1973, yet no salsa- or guacamole-associated (SGA) outbreaks were reported before 1984. Restaurants and delis were the settings for 84 percent of the 136 SGA outbreaks. SGA outbreaks accounted for 1.5 percent of all food establishment outbreaks from 1984 to 1997. This figure more than doubled to 3.9 percent during the ten-year period from 1998 to 2008.
According to the release, the primary weapon against such outbreaks is simply the awareness that vegetables are a threat.
“Possible reasons salsa and guacamole can pose a risk for foodborne illness is that they may not be refrigerated appropriately and are often made in large batches so even a small amount of contamination can affect many customers,” (Magdalena Kendall, Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education researcher) says. “Awareness that salsa and guacamole can transmit foodborne illness, particularly in restaurants, is key to preventing future outbreaks.”