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.”
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
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
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.
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
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.”
After finding critical health violations at airport restaurants last year, USA Today reporters are at it again. This time, Gary Stoller has reviewed FDA documents that show violations by the catering companies that prepare the food served on the planes themselves.
According to Stoller, “the inspections were at U.S. facilities of two of the world’s biggest airline caterers, LSG Sky Chefs and Gate Gourmet, and another large caterer, Flying Food Group.” Between them, they provide 100 million meals to U.S. air travelers each year and run 91 separate kitchens.
The FDA reports say many facilities store food at improper temperatures, use unclean equipment and employ workers who practice poor hygiene. At some, there were cockroaches, flies, mice and other signs of inadequate pest control.
“In spite of best efforts by the FDA and industry, the situation with in-flight catered foods is disturbing, getting worse and now poses a real risk of illness and injury to tens of thousands of airline passengers on a daily basis,” says Roy Costa, a consultant and public health sanitarian.
Bagged romaine lettuce, a time-saving option for many shoppers, is suspected in the latest E. coli outbreak that has caused illness in at least 23 people, reports Lyndsey Layton of The Washington Post.
Layton addresses the question of whether pre-cut and bagged produce is more dangerous than whole greens and why they “represent a disproportionate number of recalls.”
An FDA official says it is easier to trace bagged produce than it is whole produce, which might account for the difference. But the article also reveals that some practices involved in the processing of pre-cut and bagged produce could be more likely to contaminate lettuce:
Most processors of fresh-cut produce remove the outer leaves and core the heads of lettuce in the field, where cutting utensils can come into contact with soil and spread contamination from the dirt to the crop, [microbiologist Michael] Doyle said. In farming areas, especially in a region near cattle farms, it is not unusual to find E. coli in the soil.
(Hat tip to Susannah-Fox.
From Covering Health
• Little recent progress on foodborne illnesses
• Schneider: FDA lacks resources to keep food safe
• High cost of foodborne illness broken down by state
• Lifting the shroud: Using multiple-cause-of-death data
• FDA Reform: The Time Has Come (Nancy Donley presentation)
• Why Is It So Difficult to Prevent Foodborne Illnesses? (Michael Doyle)
• Fatal Food: A study of illness outbreaks
• A selection of stories about salmonella
• Center for Infectious Disease Research & Policy
• Outbreak Alert! Database
• Make our Food Safe Coalition