Tag Archives: food safety

GAO evaluates FDA’s overseas inspectors

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.

Conflicts abound for private food inspectors

The Washington Post‘s Lena H. Sun has gathered, in one story, a laundry list of all the shortcomings, loopholes and conflicts of interest plaguing an American food inspection system so flawed that foodborne disease outbreaks are routinely caused by facilities with “superior” safety ratings (See Wright County Egg and the Peanut Corporation of America).

Here, I’ve cherry-picked Sun’s basic points. They echo much of what we’ve heard from previous food-safety investigations, despite the fact that each story always seems to end with the FDA pledging to reform the system. Her first observation is also the most fundamental, and will be familiar to anyone following the role of independent credit rating agencies in the financial crisis.

“… 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.”

Investigating, localizing salmonella outbreak

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

Image courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Health officials then traced it all back to a man outlets love to describe as a sort of rogue Iowa egg magnate and his Wright Country Eggs (satellite view?).

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.

For your own investigation, look at Mining NLM databases: PubMed, Medline and more and the rich set of resources in the sidebar to Hargrove’s story.

If you’re looking for solid numbers and the most up-to-date national context, see Covering Health’s recent post on the CDC’s lates foodborne illness data, as well as our examination of 2009 foodborne illness rates.

Other relevant Covering Health posts include:

Schneider: FDA lacks resources to keep food safe
CDC assembles rogues gallery of food bugs
Private food auditors didn’t stop outbreaks
Lax oversight, complex supply chains aid outbreaks

Stadium concessions rack up health violations

ESPN’s Paula Lavigne examined 2009 health department inspections from the 107 stadiums that host MLB, NBA, NHL and NFL games in the United States and Canada. The resulting report may keep you from indulging in your favorite ballpark food.

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.


Photo by Katie Spence via Flickr

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.

The same information, compiled by Lavigne and Producer Lindsay Rovegno, is also available in a text format broken down by state.

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.

Resources for covering food safety

Tip Sheets



Raw, warm vegetables breed illness in salsa, guac

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.

salsaPhoto by anitasarkeesian via Flickr

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.”