Guest Contributor – Food Safety Website Breaking news for everyone's consumption Thu, 23 Jul 2020 01:16:49 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Guest Contributor – Food Safety Website 32 32 Consumer Reports: ‘One Health Certified’ label is meaningless, misleading Thu, 23 Jul 2020 04:02:43 +0000 Continue Reading]]> Opinion

By Brian Ronholm and Charlotte Vallaeys 

Upon conducting a review of the “One Health Certified” label for meat and poultry products, Consumer Reports has determined that this label is essentially meaningless and should be ignored by consumers. In addition to being confusing and misleading, the label represents the equivalent of a participation trophy for normal operations.

Labels on food packaging tell a number of stories about a particular product, whether it is identifying particular ingredients, explaining how it was produced, or helping consumers determine whether it is healthy. They also can serve as an important source of information for consumers who have food allergies or want to limit intake of a certain ingredient for health reasons. Unfortunately, some labels have more to do with marketing hype than information consumers can trust when shopping at the grocery store.

In September 2019, Consumer Reports developed a food label ratings system using a methodology based on a review of government regulations, a certifying organizations’ standards and policy manuals, and information from surveys on consumer perceptions of label claims. In addition to determining that the One Health Certified (OHC) label offers no meaningful information, our evaluation of the poultry standards for the label found that it does not require companies to make any significant improvement to their practices.

What is One Health Certified?
According to the One Health Certified web site, OHC is an industry-focused marketing label that producers can use to demonstrate to consumers their commitment to responsible, sustainable, and transparent animal care practices. It is part of a Process Verified Program (PVP) administered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) that offers producers a way to market their products. Companies participating in a PVP are required to develop a process and AMS verifies their adherence to this process through audits.

Not to be confused with One Health
The OHC label is attempting to borrow legitimacy from an existing collaborative, multisectoral, and transdisciplinary approach called One Health. Working at the local, regional, national and international levels, the goal of One Health is to achieve optimal health outcomes recognizing the interconnection between people, animals, plants and their shared environment.

Among its biggest promoters, One Health is often referred to in spiritual terms and represents a harmonic convergence for food policy because it is viewed as an effective way to fight health issues at the human-animal-environment interface. According to the CDC, agencies use this approach by involving experts in human, animal, environmental health, and other sectors in monitoring and controlling public health threats, and to learn about how diseases spread among people, animals, plants, and the environment. There certainly is some validity to this approach given current events.

With the One Health Certified label, the industry is attempting to link itself to this approach by implying that it is concerned with issues such as antibiotic resistance, food safety, animal welfare and environmental contamination. However, a closer examination of the label’s standards shows there is a distinct difference between the public health goals of One Health and the industry-driven marketing goals of OHC.

Meaningless OHC standards
While companies are audited for compliance with the OHC standards, the standards themselves largely reflect normal industry practices and do not require companies to make any significant improvements to animal welfare, drug use practices, and environmental impact.

  • Animal Welfare. “Responsible Animal Care” is featured prominently at the top of the OHC label in bold letters. However, to meet animal welfare standards for OHC, producers are allowed to use minimal trade association guidelines that essentially represent the norm in poultry production. For chickens, the indoor space requirement is less than one square foot per bird, and there is no requirement for access to the outdoors. There also is no requirement to equip indoor living spaces with features that allow chickens to engage in natural behaviors. Even basic allowances such as controlling indoor ammonia levels produced by animal waste is not required.
  • Antibiotic Use. While the OHC label standards place some restrictions on the use of antibiotics, it allows meat from animals treated with antibiotics to be sold with the label. This removes the implied incentive in the label that producers reduce the use of antibiotics and address root causes in a meaningful One Health way. In addition to medically important uses, the OHC standard allows antibiotics to be administered to prevent disease and expedite the animals’ growth. The OHC standard also does not specifically address the use of other types of growth promotion drugs.
  • Environmental Impact. The environmental section of the OHC label standard requires producers to conduct a life cycle assessment that measures their carbon footprint. However, the standard lacks any requirements to take measures to reduce environmental impacts.
  • Other One Health Concepts. A meaningful One Health label that promotes optimal health for animals, people and the environment likely would address critical issues such as working conditions and labor rights at slaughterhouses. It also would incorporate a fair trade concept that ensures farmers have fair and stable contracts with companies that purchase from them. Unfortunately, these concepts and arrangements run counter to the current vertically integrated system that disadvantages farmers. Thus, there are no references to these issues under the OHC label standards.

Food companies should refrain from affixing the One Health Certified label on their products since it largely reflects current industry practices and is misleading. If consumers encounter this label at the store, they should be aware that it only means that a company used their normal operations to process food-producing animals and decided to reward themselves with a sticker.

About the authors

Brian Ronholm is Director of Food Policy for Consumer Reports, an independent, nonprofit member organization that works with consumers for truth, transparency, and fairness in the marketplace. He is former deputy under secretary for food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and prior to that, worked for Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT).

Charlotte Vallaeys is Senior Policy Analyst at Consumer Reports. She leads the organization’s efforts to ensure that food labels are clear, accurate and meaningful as part of their commitment to support a safer, fairer and more sustainable food system. 

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety Website, click here.)

]]> 0
Are added sugars a food safety issue? Mon, 13 Jul 2020 04:04:01 +0000 Continue Reading]]> Opinion

Editor’s note: Each Spring, attorneys Bill Marler and Denis Stearns teach a Food Safety Litigation course in the LL.M. Program in Agricultural and Food Law at the University of Arkansas School of Law. This specialized program for attorneys brings together those who are interested in our food system, from farm to table. As a final assignment, students are asked to write an op-ed or essay on food safety, with the best to be selected for publication in Food Safety Website. The following is one of the essays for 2020.

By Jessica Guarino

Most threats conjured in the mind upon hearing “food safety” encompass the likes of invisible foodborne pathogens that are the cause of multiple outbreaks each year. Less prominent in the minds of many is the safety of their food from a long-term perspective. It is not always the immediate harms that should prompt swift action: even the most insidious pose a threat to food safety and warrant the same amount of attention. One main culprit is added sugar, and industry does consumers a great disservice by normalizing excess consumption of an ingredient so clearly linked to negative health consequences.

Nearly 70% of packaged foods contain added sugars, and it is well documented that added sugars have significant negative implications for both physical and mental health: countless studies link sugars, and especially the consumption of sugar in excess of recommended amounts, to conditions such as depression, Type 2 Diabetes, and heart disease, among others. It is not just diagnosable health conditions that should concern consumers, for even if a consumer never suffers from one of the conditions linked with consumption of excess added sugars. In terms of the psychological detriment, an increasing amount of studies are drawing connections between depression and anxiety and the ways in which sugar exacerbates those conditions. One study claims: “Firstly, low levels of the growth factor brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) have been discussed as facilitating neurogenesis and hippocampal atrophy in depression . . . Secondly, carbohydrate consumption has been associated with increased circulating inflammatory markers, which may depress mood. Thirdly, high sugar diets could induce hypoglycemia through an exaggerated insulin response and thereby influence hormone levels and potentially mood states. Fourthly, addiction-like effects of sugar suggest dopaminergic neurotransmission mechanisms might connect frequent sugar intake with depression.”

Added sugars pose a different danger by the nature of the products they are often found in: packaged, processed foods. Generally speaking, packaged and processed foods tend to result in low satiety but are high in calories and added sugars. Low satiety means overconsumption of other foods, and those other foods are likely also processed and packaged with an exorbitant level of added sugar. And these reasons are, in part, why the FDA initiated regulations for the labeling of added sugars in their latest Nutrition Innovation Strategy. 

But we should be wary to trust that labeling of harmful substances alone will ensure our lifelong health and safety. Government guidance on nutrition often significantly lags behind current research and, even worse, at times actively regulations in contradiction to what any science suggests. For instance, the current dietary guidelines are only updated every 4 years, and FDA regulations too may take years to finalize. The FDA is forced into a game of endless catch-up that does not serve the interests of the consumer and arguably does not further the FDA’s goals. 

Federal regulations, before effective, must pass through a period of public comment, the likes of which can be particularly revealing. In analyzing the comments made to the Added Sugar declaration on food labels, public health, the public interest sector, government, and academic groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Heart Association, the Institute of Medicine, and the World Health organization overwhelmingly supported the proposition. 

Unsurprisingly, those in opposition were almost exclusively industry groups. Their position was evidently clear that current science does not support a connection between the consumption of added sugars and negative health conditions. They cite the “scant” evidence and “scientific rationale.” General Mills went so far as to say that “There is little to weak conclusive scientific evidence . . . relating the intake of added sugars in the general U.S. population to a chronic disease, condition, or health-related physiological endpoint beyond dental caries.” The Sugar Association urged anyone reading the comments to consider the benefits of sugar, added and otherwise, in the diet. 

In 2015 the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommended limiting added sugars to 10% of an individual’s daily calories (about 6 teaspoons for women and 9 teaspoons for men). At first glance, 10% may not seem like a significant portion of one’s diet, merely 200 calories out of the standard 2000. Yet this recommendation does not discuss consumption of natural sugars, which have no different effect on the body metabolically than added sugars, meaning that overall consumption of sugar may be much higher than just 10% of the daily diet. For perspective, that means if a person followed the DGAC’s suggestion, they consume 1,400 calories in added sugars alone each week. Your daily value of allotted added sugar can easily be wiped away by drinking a Starbucks drink, some of which contain more than 14 teaspoons of sugar.

For years we have heard that sugar is “bad,” but labeling has not empowered consumers to effectively alter their diet to mitigate the risks of high levels of added sugars in the diet. Even the DGAC expressed concern over the effectiveness of labeling added sugars, recommending that amounts be listed in both grams and teaspoons, “since teaspoons are easier to understand for most Americans.”

Curiously, current FDA regulation of added sugar deviates from both of these suggestions from the DGAC. Regulations of added sugars define them as “sugars that are either added during the processing of foods or are packaged as such.” Any terms ending in “ose,” such as fructose, dextrose, and maltose, are all sugars derived from various sources. The FDA calculates the percent Daily Value (% DV) for added sugars on the basis of 50 grams or 12.5 teaspoons of added sugar, nearly double the DGAC’s recommendation for women’s intake and 3.5 teaspoons in excess of the 9 recommended for men. Additionally, the FDA opted to label using only grams instead of teaspoons as a metric. Perhaps the most troubling aspect is the FDA’s acknowledgement that these calculations kept in mind the assumption that Americans are already known to consume added sugars in excess. Despite the slight progress in a healthier direction, reducing added sugars from “a whole lot” to just “a lot” all ends with the same sick populace. 

The deception runs deeper as suppliers make claims about added sugars outside of the ingredient label. Claims such as “healthy,” make no mention of the amounts of sugar, added or otherwise, in assessing a product’s healthiness. Instead, “healthy” foods only consider fat levels and the amounts of beneficial nutrients. Other claims such as “lightly sweetened,” are unregulated, though formulations suggest otherwise. One complaint against Kellog alleged that 40% of the calories in multiple of Kellog’s cereals came from added sugars, yet the terms “nutritious,” “wholesome,” and “lightly sweetened” appeared prominently on the packaging. When labels and claims are so far from the truth, and when the consequences of added sugars are so grave, it is imperative that greater transparency be made available to the consumer. It is one of the FDA’s stated goals to increase transparency in labeling, but all the FDA has done so far for added sugar is potential make the situation more confusing for the average consumer who may not even know the difference between added sugars and those sugars which occur naturally. 

To further food safety goals, it is imperative that the FDA take additional steps to curtail consumption of added sugars. This is especially so given one of the largest group of consumers of added sugars are children, who can develop health problems that will endure alongside them for the rest of their lives. Thomas Robinson, MD, a Stanford pediatric obesity researcher, explained that “The potential implications are even stronger for children than adults. Children are being exposed to that environment for a much longer time. This is particularly a problem in developing countries where their food, supplies, diets and weights are changing so rapidly.” The CDC has predicted that 1 in 3 U.S. children will have diabetes, and that estimate moves to 1 in 2 among African-American and Latina girls. It is hard to imagine that a substance so clearly linked to obesity and known to be present in numerous foods consumed by children, willfully or otherwise, is not even considered when determining what is “healthy.”

Some studies show that the labeling of added sugars will help to curb the economic and personal health costs of the consumption of added sugars. The numbers suggest that more effective, however, would be a combination of labeling declarations and reformulation on the part of industry. One optimistic study cites savings in the billions over the next 20 years of consumption of added sugars is brought down by either or both of those initiatives. The study claims, “Using nationally representative data and a validated microsimulation model, we found that implementation of the Food and Drug Administration added sugar label would prevent 354,400 cardiovascular diseases and 599,300 diabetes mellitus cases over 20 years, gaining 727,000 quality-adjusted life-years.” The researching findings continue, “Potential health gains and cost savings would be twice as large accounting for corresponding industry reformulation.” It is up to industry, says the study, to play their “critical” role “in maximizing the health and economic benefits of the Food and Drug Administration policy.”

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety Website, click here.)

]]> 0
Change in the Time of COVID-19 Mon, 06 Jul 2020 04:03:43 +0000 Continue Reading]]> Opinion

Editor’s note: Each Spring, attorneys Bill Marler and Denis Stearns teach a Food Safety Litigation course in the LL.M. Program in Agricultural and Food Law at the University of Arkansas School of Law. This specialized program for attorneys brings together those who are interested in our food system, from farm to table. As a final assignment, students are asked to write an op-ed or essay on food safety, with the best to be selected for publication in Food Safety Website. The following is one of the essays for 2020.

By Savannah Clay 

“Chicago will be ours!” This is the last line of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which captured the horrific working conditions immigrants working in meat factories experienced. The descriptions of how adulterated and unsafe our food was so disgusting that the book was a catalyst for President Theodore Roosevelt’s call to investigate meat processing plants. These investigations led to the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act. Sinclair later lamented that the public latched onto the unsafe handling of food and overlooked the labor exploitation. But the safe handling of food and labor exploitation are inextricably linked.

The nation has been dealing with a new, unprecedented crisis in COVID-19. It can seem impossible to return to normal. People are scared, confused, concerned, angry, and so many other things. People are worried about the economy, their safety, and has people desiring to “go back to normal.” But in the food industry, is “going back to normal” what we want? This crisis shed a light on the dark, dangerous work environments our food workers are still subjected to. This crisis presents a new moment, much like Sinclair’s The Jungle presented in 1906, to call for and demand change from the meat and farming industry and the food industry more broadly. There are countless stories in the news about how farmers are unable to sell their fruit and vegetable crops; dairy farmers are pouring out milk; piglets and chicks are being exterminated for fear that meat processing facilities will shut down. The news can be scary and overwhelming, especially in this time of uncertainty. But does that mean we will think it is okay to sacrifice the safety of our essential workers in the food supply chain? I certainly hope not. 

John H. Tyson, the chairman of Tyson’s executive board, wrote a full-page editorial earlier this (year) and said, “the food supply chain is breaking.” He said this because several pork, beef, and chicken processing plants have become hotbeds for the spread of COVID-19 and have had to shut down. As of now there are approximately 20 slaughterhouses and processing plants that have had to shut down. This spread accelerated in large part because of the poor working conditions the people in these facilities face. These workers are put in crowded rooms to work on the lines. They do not have 6 feet between each worker on the line, and often these workers are not equipped with PPE. Mr. Tyson argues the work done in these factories is essential, because it is getting meat to the grocery stores for us to consume. It is essential to feed America. I agree. Feeding America is essential. But we should prioritize and protect those essential workers who are putting themselves, and potentially their loved ones, at risk to go to work to get the beef, pork, and chicken products to grocery stores all over the country.

It is difficult to look at Mr. Tyson’s plea with anything less than a skeptical eye. Is this about feeding America or is this about Tyson’s continued ability to turn a profit? If it was truly about feeding America, wouldn’t Tyson and Smithfield’s and JBS work with regulators to provide their essential workers with the appropriate PPE and restructure the working environment to allow 6 ft between each worker. Wouldn’t these big companies look at how their facilities are turning into hotbeds and take this not as an indication that there is a threat to their bottom line, but that there is a threat to their employees? It is not just the employees who are at increased risk in these facilities. Meat inspectors, who are required by law to be in facilities if these facilities want to run, are experiencing higher rates of infection. What do we do if there are not enough inspectors to adequately inspect the products these plants are producing?

 If it is truly about being essential and providing food to Americans, these companies should jump on the opportunity to make their work environments safer. Will the processing speeds be as fast? No, they most likely won’t be. But isn’t that a good thing? Increasing line speeds put workers at greater risk for potential amputation injuries as well as overuse injuries, like arthritis or carpal tunnel syndrome. This is just the focus on the meat processing plants. 

On Tuesday, April 28, 2020, President Trump signed an executive order to keep these processing plants open. He used the Defense Production Act to mandate that these plants continue production. The New York Times reported “the order is designed in part to give companies legal cover with more liability protection in case employees catch the virus as a result of having to go to work.” This notion solidifies the idea that this executive order, and the pleas from Mr. Tyson, are focused more on production and profit than worker health and safety. If the workers are too sick or scared to come to work, the food supply chain will continue to break. This is a half-measured solution to the growing problem. 

“While we share the concern over the food supply, today’s executive order to force meatpacking plants to stay open must put the safety of our country’s meatpacking workers first,” the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union said in a statement.

What about the working conditions of the farmers and farm hands who are harvesting the fruits and vegetables we consume? Working conditions for farm laborers are terrible. Often, workers live on or near the farms they are harvesting because they tend to be migrant workers. The stereotype that all farm laborers are illegal immigrants also reverberates in the minds of many. Regardless of the status of these workers, they are entitled to protection from the coronavirus. These workers also deserve PPE, and safe and sanitary working and living conditions. What happens if too many of these laborers fall ill? Who will harvest the crops for us to consume? If we are truly concerned about the potential collapse of the food supply chain, we need to make the conscious decision to provide these workers with as many protections as possible.  This includes updating their living quarters and adapting their work to the crisis COVID-19 presents. This will not be easy. I understand that. There is not an example in the past to look to and form a new work model. This will take time, cooperation, and money. The action these major farming operations and meat processing operations take may eat into their profits. But they will be doing right by their workers. They will be showing their workers, and the country, that protecting the supply chain is important, but protecting their workers are more important. 

Consumers tend to have long memories when companies make the headlines in negative ways. If our food supply chain is truly breaking, we need to look at all the factors causing it to break, and we need to address them all. Merely keeping the processing plants open will not make the workers feel more comfortable going to work. If the plants are open but there are no workers on the lines and no inspectors ready, then the plant is open for naught. If the plants are open and workers continue to get sick, this will call into question the cleanliness of the facilities. If the facilities are not clean enough to keep their workers safe and protected from COVID-19, is our food safe? How could the outbreak of COVID-19 in these plants bleed into consumer concerns about the relative safety of the food these plants are processing. Will consumers be less likely to purchase Tyson or Smithfield’s or JBS products because of their inability to keep their workers safe? 

Activists can use the actions these companies take now to create and perpetuate the narrative that these big farms and big companies do not care about their workers. They care about their bottom line. And if all they care about is their bottom line, how is the safety of our food being negatively impacted. Worker conditions and food quality are inextricably linked. It’s time to demand better working conditions and more protections for the essential workers risking their health and safety to ensure we have the products we demand available at supermarkets and grocery stores. This time of crisis is unparalleled to anything I’ve witnessed in my lifetime. It has highlighted inequities we don’t want to acknowledge, and it’s forcing us to reevaluate our priorities. These major companies should not be able to carry on as normal. Normal was not good enough before the outbreak. Normal is not good enough during the outbreak. Normal will not be good enough after the outbreak. It is past time to demand more of our food supply chain. Our workers deserve safe working conditions, regardless of pandemic status. They deserve a living wage. And they deserve to be protected. Implementing these changes will lead to better handling of food practices and will hopefully raise our standards of food safety. We must protect our food supply chain, but that includes protecting the workers involved. If we don’t do that we aren’t protecting the supply chain at all. We are just protecting the major companies’ abilities to generate a profit. 

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety Website, click here.)

]]> 0
Senator’s Call for Meat Industry’s Answers Exposes Reach of Money in Politics Sat, 04 Jul 2020 04:00:51 +0000 Continue Reading]]> Opinion

By Brendan Fischer and Maggie Christ


Despite what you might think, America’s broken campaign finance system is about more than expensive ads flooding your screen and glossy mailers clogging your mailbox. The outsized role of money in politics has a real-world impact, with elected officials too often prioritizing the interests of a wealthy donor class and leaving many people behind. 

Take the White House’s treatment of the meat-processing industry during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic. Industry CEOs who wrote big campaign checks had their profits protected. But the front-line workers whose lives are at risk — and who cannot afford thousands of dollars in political contributions – have been largely ignored. 

From North Carolina to South Dakota, from Nebraska to Missouriand from Iowa to Coloradoworkers at meat processing plants—owned by just a few multinational corporations, like Tyson Foods—have become acutely vulnerable to infectionAnd plant outbreaks have rippled through surrounding communities, tooAs the Associated Press reported, “of the 15 U.S. counties with the highest per-capita infection rates between April 28 and May 5, all are homes to meat processing plants or state prisons.” 

Workers in many plants complained that safety measures have been inadequatetheir employers have failed to provide safety gear, slow down line speeds to implement social distancing, or even inform workers when their colleagues tested positive or died. But they faced pressure to keep showing up, particularly since most of these workers don’t have paid sick days. 

It was against this backdrop that President Trump declared in April that “we’re working with Tyson” and pledged to sign an executive order that would “solve any liability problems” for the company.  

Trump’s subsequent order declared meat-processing plants “critical infrastructure” in an effort to keep them open—overriding the authority of state and local governments to close unsafe facilities, and helping to protect the companies from accountability if they negligently fail to keep workers and communities safe. 

It is perhaps no surprise that Tyson Foods Chairman John Tyson has given over $90,000 to Trump’s party since 2017. Other top industry executives have given millions more. Ronnie Cameron, the CEO of poultry processor Mountaire Farms, gave $2 million to a pro-Trump super PAC in 2016, $5 million to super PACs aligned with party leaders in the House and Senate, and $4.5 million to the Koch network super PAC AFP Action, among other contributionsIn April, the White House announced Cameron won a spot on one of Trump’s Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups.

Contributions like those apparently helped buy an audience with the president—and likely helped the industry’s executives get what they wanted.

The White House developed Trump’s order in consultation with industry executives, but line workers have the most at stake. At least 27,000 COVID-19 cases have been tied to outbreaks at meatpacking plants, and at least 90 workers have died, according to one analysis.

Yet it doesn’t appear that the White House consulted with workers—or workplace safety experts—before issuing the order. That might be because workers in the meat processing industry can’t afford big political contributions like industry executives canline workers in the industry are paid, on average, less than $14 per hour

A review of campaign finance records shows that Tyson Foods workers (other than executives or board memberswho have made contributions via ActBlue or WinRed this election cycle gave an average donation of just $14, far less than John Tyson’s tens of thousands. Mountaire Farms’ CEO has personally given more than 1,000 times as much this election cycle as all other non-executive Mountaire workers combined.

And it has been the workers who’ve suffered the most. When meatpacking plants reopened following Trump’s executive order, the number of coronavirus cases at the plants surged.

As it turns out, during the same period that meatpacking executives like Tyson were warning of food shortages and pressing Trump to keep plants open, their companies were quietly exporting record amounts to China. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker are demanding answers from the industry, pointing out in a letter to meatpacking executives that as their companies ramped up foreign exports, they “put thousands of your workers in harm’s way to maintain production, dramatically increased prices for U.S. consumers, and successfully lobbied the President to sign an executive order designating your plants as critical infrastructure that allowed them to continue operating in an unsafe fashion.” 

For years, a smaller and smaller share of very wealthy donors has come to fund a larger and larger share of our elections, and we know that those donors’ policy priorities often bear little to no resemblance to the top issues facing working families. 

The coronavirus crisis has exposed a number of existing inequalities, including the wide and growing gap between those who fund officeholders’ campaigns and those whom officeholders are supposed to represent. When the influential donor base increasingly looks nothing like the constituent base, and when those populations most impacted by government action or inaction can’t have their voices heardserious reform is required. 

Fortunately, a number of structural reforms have been proposed that would begin to narrow that gap by elevating the voices of small-dollar donors and limiting the influence of money over our political system Many of those are included in H.R. 1, the “For the People Act,” passed by the House last year.

There’s no single, discrete solution, as these problems are the product of years of misguided court decisions, congressional inaction, and regulatory intransigence. But large problems demand large solutions—and the enormity of the problem has never been clearer than it is in the present crisis..

Authors: Brendan Fischer directs the Campaign Legal Center’s federal reform team, Maggie Christ is money-in-politics research at CLC.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety Website, click here.)

]]> 0
Cook your compost to the same temperature as your burgers Mon, 29 Jun 2020 04:05:01 +0000 Continue Reading]]> Opinion

Editor’s note: Each Spring, attorneys Bill Marler and Denis Stearns teach a Food Safety Litigation course in the LL.M. Program in Agricultural and Food Law at the University of Arkansas School of Law. This specialized program for attorneys brings together those who are interested in our food system, from farm to table. As a final assignment, students are asked to write an op-ed or essay on food safety, with the best to be selected for publication in Food Safety Website. The following is one of the essays for 2020.

By Brian Bonner

Does time at home during the coronavirus (COVID-19) quarantine have you contemplating starting a backyard compost pile for your new victory garden? Has passing the time watching vintage episodes from the PBS series The Victory Garden motivated you to try out composting? If so, remember 160° for your backyard compost pile (see here, and here) and your backyard burgers. 

Before taking the backyard composting plunge, put on your face mask and head to your favorite local garden center (if open and safe), or online, and buy a compost thermometer – yes, compost thermometers are a thing. And, if you do not already own one for your backyard grilling, buy a meat thermometer while shopping – yes, meat thermometers are also a thing.

Next, educate yourself on composting’s benefits and risks. Composting can be a beneficial and sustainable past time for backyard gardeners. You are benefiting the Earth with less waste while creating new soil for your garden. Your local public library, and the internet, contain numerous resources to get you started. But maybe the best starting place is your state extension service. State extension agents are experts on getting you started in composting. And extension agents will set you straight on all the local rules, requirements, and best practices. Here is a state extension service locater that I found helpful. Exploring the free information from other states is also worthwhile. If you are up for some fun, formal, academic training, most state extension services also teach an online master gardener program allowing resident and non-resident enrollment. To improve my composting and gardening skills, I am considering the Clemson Cooperative Extension Online Master Gardener Program as a summer quarantine project. Not yet certain you are up for a formal master gardener program? You may enjoy the free Oregon State University Online Intro to Master Gardener Program for informative videos and lessons.            

After you gleefully read the seemingly endless food scrap and everyday item listings that you can, and cannot, compost, please, and I implore please, fully understand and undertake all recommended safety precautions. Composting, while appearing simple, requires proper care and attention.

For instance, I was shocked learning from the earlier blog post What’s in Your Compost? on Food Safety Website that foodborne illness pathogens could be lurking in my backyard compost. Since my nature is inquisitive and questioning, I sought additional verification and information. 

My initial shock found quick confirmation. Both academic resources – Ohio State University Extension, University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, and Washington State University Extension – as well as a back-to-the-land resource – Backwoods Home Magazine – confirmed. The most dangerous foodborne illness pathogens could indeed be lurking in my backyard compost pile and garden: E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella, and Listeria monocytogenes.  I was additionally shocked learning that the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors warns home inspectors on Compost Pile Hazards and possible illness from compost piles: Aspergillosis, Farmer’s lung (pneumonitis), Histoplasmosis, Legionella (Legionnaires disease), Paronychia, and Tetanus. 

Alarmed? Concerned? We all should be.

And complicating and compounding matters, I also learned our feathered and furry friends may leave unwanted additions and adulterants in compost piles and gardens. In Feral in the Fields: Food Safety Risks from Wildlife, another earlier blog post on Food Safety Website, Dr. Michele Jay-Russell at the UC Davis Western Institute for Food Safety & Security, warns that wildlife, particularly deer and feral pigs, are E. coli O157:H7 sources. Per Dr. Jay-Russell, “even a small level of contamination in the field may represent a serious human health risk.” Beyond E. coli O157:H7 from deer and feral pigs, Dr. Jay-Russell further warns in the same blog post that “Salmonella and Campylobacter carriage is more common, especially among wild bird populations including species that live commensally with humans (e.g., gulls, pigeons).”  And so, purchasing that salt lick from the local farm store so the kids can watch the deer in your backyard is not the best idea. Likewise, your backyard bird feeder may be a simulated AFO or CAFO (depending on your birding prowess and budget). And you just planned your compost pile and garden next to, or under it!

If you think commercially prepared, store bought compost for your garden must be the savior – think again. I recommend reading What’s in Commercial Compost from Planet Natural Research Center (a valuable sustainable gardening internet resource), and another earlier blog post Researchers Find Pathogens in Compost on Food Safety Website. Simply put, I was not pleased learning E. coli O157:H7, herbicides, pesticides, heavy metals, and other pathogens and chemicals can lurk in store-bought compost – even “organic” compost. If you must purchase compost, a resource I found helpful, and consumer empowering, is the Organic Materials Review Institute listings for compost – and other products. OMRI provides independent research for products allowed for certified organic farms and operations. Even though my backyard garden is not certified organic, I value all consumer and safety information available. Although not fool-proof, the OMRI information is helpful for consumers looking for organic products, and hopefully provides additional safety incentives for compost manufacturers, and other product manufacturers, seeking OMRI listing. After all, who likes purchasing and adding E. coli O157:H7, herbicides, pesticides, heavy metals, and other pathogens and chemicals to the backyard garden?!  

Want yet another backyard garden shocker? The rain barrel you built for your daughter’s school environmental project is also a risk according to sources ranging from the CDC, the EPA, the University of Connecticut Extension, the University of Illinois Extension, the North Carolina State Cooperative Extension System, to Grist. Per these sources, the untreated water from your rain barrel can contain E. coli and Salmonella, as well as heavy metal risks such as lead, zinc, and copper. Additional risks include Hepatitis A, Giardia, Shigella (Shigellosis), Cryptosporidium, Toxoplasma (Toxoplasmosis), and Norovirus.

Now, my point is not to scare you into inaction. My point is to scare you into action! 

Before giving up your new hobby and thinking all is lost, educate yourself on composting and gardening before starting. Tap the resources and expert agents at your state extension service. Take time learning and maintaining the best and safest practices. Even if you are not new to the composting and gardening game, be willing and able to learn new and safer practices.

Despite my research, I am still composting and gardening. I am continuing my backyard agrobiodiversity efforts. The bird feeders are staying up. The birding binoculars are staying out on the table. We will be continuing our traditional family participation in The Great Backyard Bird Count.  

But we are changing how things operate in our little backyard oasis. 

Here are the more material changes:

  • Over family eye-rolling, the food safety in the backyard compost and garden lectures will continue. In fact, the blog posts Food Safety Tips for Your Home Garden and Plant Food Safety in School and Other Youth Gardens; Don’t Miss Those Important Teaching Moments on Food Safety Website, and UC Davis’ Food Safety Tips for Your Edible Home Garden were required family reading before planting this year. These persuasive sources also allowed rebuffing family quips that I should dress up as Chicken Little for Halloween this year. And so, I am quite sure the family is anxiously awaiting any new information I may acquire from a master gardener online course. That said, feel free sending me any enlightening ideas on making food safety in the garden fun, and not too scary, for aspiring young adult, and young at heart, gardeners.
  • The backyard composting is transitioning fully vegan.
  • Our open compost bins are being replaced with an enclosed, raised, rotating barrel composting system so unwanted wildlife additions and adulterants can be kept at bay.
  • Just like verifying – using our trusty meat thermometer – our backyard burgers cook to 160° per the CDC recommended temperature for consumers to kill foodborne pathogens in ground beef, we will verify – using our trusty compost thermometer – our compost’s internal temperature reaches 160° per composting heat and time recommendations (see here, and here) to kill foodborne pathogens in compost.
  • Our rain barrel is retired. Any irrigation needed beyond naturally occurring rain will be potable water from the house. To conserve water usage, we heavily mulched all gardens and flower beds. Maintaining and replenishing this thick, organic mulch is now the priority over harvesting rainwater.
  • Our bird feeders distantly relocated, but still visible through binoculars, from the vegetable gardens and compost barrel area.
  • Additional vegetable garden enclosures are planned limiting wildlife access.

Yes, these changes will cause deviations from our prior gardening norms and patterns. Yes, these changes will cost money. But therein lies safe composting’s and gardening’s beauty, and food safety’s beauty. Risks can be reduced by coupling proper and necessary precautions, together with investments in training, education, and safer processes and equipment. Shortcuts, incomprehension, inattention, stubbornness, and risky cost savings – passing on the compost and meat thermometers – can cause tragic outcomes. Because food and water are essential for life, as with demanding and expecting safe and unadulterated food, beverages, and related ingredients and products from commercial manufacturers, the bounty grown and produced from backyard gardening efforts should also be kept safe and adulterant free.  

Please keep yourself, and your family and friends, safe with your composting hobby for your new victory garden. Follow the experts’ recommended safety precautions, as in remembering 160° for your compost pile just like your burgers. And, naturally, buy and use separate thermometers for your burgers and your compost! Be green, but also be smart and safe. 

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety Website, click here.)

]]> 0
FDA’s food additive regulations fail to address toxic chemicals in food Mon, 15 Jun 2020 04:04:20 +0000 Continue Reading]]> Opinion

Editor’s note: Each Spring, attorneys Bill Marler and Denis Stearns teach a Food Safety Litigation course in the LL.M. Program in Agricultural and Food Law at the University of Arkansas School of Law. This specialized program for attorneys brings together those who are interested in our food system, from farm to table. As a final assignment, students are asked to write an op-ed or essay on food safety, with the best to be selected for publication in Food Safety Website. The following is one of the essays for 2020.

By Shirah Dedman

Covid-19 is bringing out the hoarder in all of us. Canned goods, packaged foods, and bottled water are flying off shelves almost as soon as they are stocked. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) waylays concerns that fresh produce may carry the virus. It’s easier for us to consider food safety in terms of pathogen contamination such as Salmonella and E-coli, or in the present case, Covid-19. What often remains unaddressed are the food safety issues presented by toxic chemicals within the very thing we hope is keeping our food safe in the first place: food packaging.

Toxic chemicals found in our foods
Plastic packaging is ubiquitously used in our food supply systems. Found in bottles, cans, and paperboard, plastics keep food fresh, stable, protract shelf life, keep pests out, and prevent bacterial contamination. 

However, chemicals that make up these plastics can migrate into food with which it comes into contact. And these chemicals are cause for concern having been linked to major health issues such as cancer, birth defects, and autism.

While these chemicals are regulated in our water by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the FDA regulates chemicals used in packaging that come into contact with food as indirect food additives.

FDA food additives regulations include a process for determining when migration of a food contact substance to food is “so trivial as not to require regulation of the substance as a food additive.” The FDA exempts a food contact substance with a dietary exposure of less than 0.5 ppb or, if it is already cleared for use as a directive additive, exposure from the food contact use must be less than 1% of the Accepted Daily Intake (ADI). 

This migration standard doesn’t account for bioaccumulation of chemicals found in multiple products within a person’s diet. And many of the health issues associated with food additives typically happen when people are continuously exposed to small amounts over long periods of time.

Regulations governing the safe use of plastic chemicals used as food contact substances focus on what might migrate from the polymer into the food, an not the complex variations in the polymerization process. Thus substances used in accordance with good manufacturing practices are considered part of the basic polymer and are implicitly cleared along with the polymer, requiring no additional testing for its safety.

Rather than a packaging company needing to prove the safety of its product, the burden is placed on the FDA to prove it is unsafe. 

There are currently three classification of chemicals found in food packaging that have gained widespread attention: phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

Phthalates can disrupt hormones and have been linked to genital birth defects in infant boys and learning and behavior problems in older children. And yet these phthalates have been found in cheeseburgers, sandwiches, and Kraft’s macaroni and cheese.

Within our food system, phthalates are used to increase flexibility of plastics. While research shows that they migrate into foods from every point along the supply chain, a study found that dining out was associated with the highest phthalate exposure among Americans, with levels nearly 35 percent higher than people who reported eating food mostly purchased at the grocery store.

Having already found that levels presented are safe, the FDA hasn’t addressed multiple petitions requesting the FDA deem the use of phthalates in food packaging unsafe. This despite the FDA’s prohibition on carcinogenic food contact materials. And yet phthalates, which have found to be linked to cancer, remain in food packaging.

Considered a safe indirect food additive by the FDA, BPA is found in soda and food cans. 

BPA is also a known endocrine disruptor. It can act like estrogen in the body and potentially change the timing of puberty, decrease fertility, increase body fat, and affect the nervous and immune systems. It’s also connected with childhood obesity, and heart disease. 

Dr. David Feldman, a professor at Stanford University who almost 30 years ago discovered the link between polycarbonate containers and BPA migration, said of today’s state of BPA use: “We are still exposed to this molecule in our food supply, it’s in our urine. The question of how bad it is, well, it’s still debated.”

When petitions called for the FDA to amend its food additive regulations to ban BPA, the FDA would not address them. But as a response to consumer pressure, retailers chose not to wait for a regulatory decision and stopped selling reusable plastic water and baby bottles made with BPA in 2008. 

The FDA finally banned BPA in baby bottles, sippy cups, and infant formula packaging. But it was only at the request of the plastics industry after its abandonment of said uses; it had nothing to do with the safety issues they pose.

Known as “forever chemicals,” some PFAS persist in the environment and in our bodies. While people are mostly likely exposed by consuming PFAS-contaminated water or food, exposure also occurs from products that contain PFAS.

Wonder what kind of products contain PFAS? There are PFAS approved for use on paper or cardboard to prevent grease from going through them. These include microwave popcorn bags, pizza boxes, fast food wrappers, and even compostable food containers.

PFAS have been linked to a variety of health issues, including cancers, reproductive problems, lower immunity after tetanus and diptheria vaccination, high cholesterol, thyroid function, and liver injury.

In the Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, CDC scientists measured at least 12 PFAS in the blood serum (the clear portion of blood) of participants aged 12 years and older who have taken part in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) since 1999. The scientists found four PFAS in the serum of nearly all of the people tested, indicating widespread exposure to these PFAS in the U.S. population.

Last year, the FDA released a report analyzing 91 samples of food products for PFAS and found 14 with detectable levels. Among them were ground turkey, tilapia, and chocolate cake. The cake contained 17,640 parts per trillion of PFPeA, one of the many PFAS chemicals. By way of comparison, the EPA set a health advisory level in drinking water of 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS.

PFOA and PFOS are first-generation PFAS that are so toxic that U.S. manufacturers largely phased them out by 2015, though U.S. law doesn’t prohibit companies from importing them. These types of PFAS, the FDA uses the EPA’s toxicity reference value when conducting a safety assessment. The FDA does not currently have toxicity reference values for dietary exposure for PFAS other than PFOA and PFOS.

Chemical companies have replaced first-generation PFAS with other chemicals in the PFAS family. Next generation PFAS act a lot like their predecessors, with early studies demonstrating that they are similarly dangerous.

Current regulations aimed at addressing toxic substances
California’s Proposition 65, officially known as the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, requires businesses to provide warnings to Californians about significant exposures to chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm. BPA, phthalates, and PFOA and PFOS are on this list of chemicals managed by the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA). However, OEHHA has not set maximum allowable dose levels for PFOA or PFOS.

And now California’s Department of Toxic Substances (DTSC) has identified PFAS, BPA and phthalates in food packaging for potential candidates as priority products under its Safer Consumer Products program. If finalized, this would require manufacturers of these chemical-product pairs to conduct an analysis to determine if safer alternatives exist.

Similarly, Washington state enacted a law prohibiting PFAS use in food packaging, providing there is a safer option. 

And Maine passed a law banning the intentional use of phthalates and PFAS in food and beverage packaging upon identification of a viable replacement. 

Bucking the trend of needing a viable alternative, the city of San Francisco has banned the use of single-use food service ware containing PFAS.

And while local and state governments are taking the lead to address PFAS in the food system, Congress’s recently approved annual defense spending bill includes several provisions aimed at PFAS. The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) prohibits the use of PFAS in the assembly and packaging of military ready-to-eat meals starting October 1, 2021.

The NDAA also requires public water systems serving more than 10,000 persons to monitor PFAS under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Wouldn’t address the rural areas where agricultural water may be contaminated.

How businesses are tackling toxic chemicals in food packaging
The plastic packaging market is a multi-billion dollar industry expected to reach $320 billion by 2027. You can imagine that with this much money involved, disruptive changes aren’t exactly welcomed. And without regulators, it’s up to consumers to force retailers to demand alternative packaging from suppliers.

It would be almost impossible to successfully litigate a personal injury claim based on exposure to BPA, phthalates and PFAS  in food packaging. With their prevalent use, a claimant wouldn’t be able to prove their injuries was caused by a single product or line of products, or even know which manufacturer to implicate. 

Whether because it lacks the mandate, budget and political will to modernize our broken chemical safety system, the FDA usually take no action or simply follows industry’s suit. 

So while our regulators and courts fail to provide the arenas in which to address food safety and chemical usage, the court of “public opinion” still provides the best recourse. In response to consumer concerns, businesses take the lead in making necessary changes.

Earlier this year, Taco Bell announced its plan to phase out phthalates, BPA, and PFAS from its food packaging by 2025. The fourth largest food-outlet in the United States, the company stated that it had decided to remove the chemicals from its packaging based on its responsibility to “improve public health” for the 40 million customers served per week, most of whom “care about sustainability.” The company did not give details on how it would implement the plan or say what alternatives would be used.

Now with Covid-19 changing how people eat, it may be possible that a shift away from eating out and towards cooking at home may decrease our exposure to toxic chemicals. However, an increase in the consumption of packaged, bottled, and canned food and beverages may offset any benefits from limiting take-out.

And with consumers less concerned with chemicals leaching into their food than they are with the potential for a virus to get into their food, hopefully businesses like Taco Bell will continue to change practices and eliminate toxic chemicals from food packaging.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety Website, click here.)

]]> 1
Letter To The Editor: Egg association leader weighs in on cage-free question Fri, 12 Jun 2020 04:01:20 +0000 Continue Reading]]> Opinion

Dear Editor,

Food Safety Website is a daily “must read” for me in representing the National Association of Egg Farms in producing eggs in conventional caged systems nationwide. I appreciate the insights into numerous food safety issues. A recent Letter to the Editor has a cage-free egg farmer claiming cage-free egg production improves on the safety of shell eggs sold to the consuming public.

The frustration of this cage-free egg farmer is readily apparent, but it does not allow his generalizations about commercial farmers as the source of Salmonella. The farmer was criticizing the Food Safety Website article on Salmonella coming from backyard poultry flocks. He failed to recognize the source of that information is the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Yet, the farmer criticizing Food Safety Website in his claims that “Large commercial poultry operations that have always used antibiotics inappropriately are the source of salmonella contamination so widespread that the eggs are now laid with the bacteria inside from infected hens. These and other commercial livestock operations that fed low levels of antibiotics because it increased growth rates are also the source of the antibiotic resistant bacteria like MRSA that plague us today. This is the reason the government now requires a warning on egg packages that eggs should be “thoroughly cooked before eating.”

Permit me to set the record straight. Commercial egg farmers with 3,000 or more laying hens whose shell eggs are not processed with a treatment, such as pasteurization, have their farm inspected by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials to ensure they have implemented an egg safety program to prevent Salmonella enteritidis. This regulation (21 CFR Parts 16 and 118) Prevention of Salmonella Enteritidis in Shell Eggs During Production, Storage, and Transportation was issued on July 9, 2009, and remains in force today. The regulation requires preventive measures during the production of eggs in poultry houses and requires subsequent refrigeration during storage and transportation.

As to the farmer’s claim that large commercial farms use antibiotics inappropriately, he should know that antibiotics provided egg-laying chickens are not given routinely, but only when the chickens become sick. Antibiotics are not used for growth promotion. The eggs cannot be sold when a flock is being administered with antibiotics until after a prescribed withdrawal period.

Other issues with cage-free egg production include the report from The U.S. Animal Health Association October 17, 2017, which stated: “Ascarids (round worms) are increasingly being found in cage-free operations with the concern being the possibility of a consumer finding an egg with a roundworm contained inside. Most all cage-free egg producers have had such an occurrence.” Chickens pick up roundworms when they come into contact with infected feces on the ground. The Journal Food Control published a study June 17, 2014, entitled “Microbiological Contamination of Shell Eggs Produced in Conventional and Free-Range Housing Systems.” The conclusions show why cages became the preferred method of producing safer eggs: “Battery caged hens (conventional cages) are standing on wire slats that allow feces to fall to a manure collection system beneath the hens. Conversely, free-range hens (cage-free) laid their eggs in nest boxes on shavings and the eggs remained in contact with hens, shavings and fecal material until they are collected. The longer contact time with free-range hens, shavings and feces would explain the higher enterobacteriaceae counts on free-range eggs as compared to battery caged eggs.”

Penn State researchers in September 2016 published their research findings that eggs from small flocks of chickens are more likely to be contaminated with Salmonella enteritidis as eggs sold in grocery stores, which typically come from larger flocks of caged layers. 

Now consider the benefits of producing eggs from caged layers. Researchers at the Egg Industry Center in Ames, IA, found that today’s hens are living longer due to better health, better nutrition and better living environments. These researchers studied U.S. egg production over a 50-year period, from 1960 to 2010. Today’s egg farmers are producing more eggs in 2010 than 50 years earlier. Using 1960 technology to produce the 2010 egg supply would have required 78 million more hens, 1.3 million more acres of corn and 1.8 million more acres of soybeans.

In comparison to 1960 technology, today’s commercial egg farmers are using conventional cages to be able to feed 72 percent more people.

Thank you.

— Ken Klippen, President
National Association of Egg Farmers

Editor’s note: We want to hear from our readers. Letters to the Editor can be submitted via the Contact Us link on our website.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety Website, click here.)

]]> 0
Give meat a chance Mon, 08 Jun 2020 04:03:14 +0000 Continue Reading]]> Opinion

Editor’s note: Each Spring, attorneys Bill Marler and Denis Stearns teach a Food Safety Litigation course in the LL.M. Program in Agricultural and Food Law at the University of Arkansas School of Law. This specialized program for attorneys brings together those who are interested in our food system, from farm to table. As a final assignment, students are asked to write an op-ed or essay on food safety, with the best to be selected for publication in Food Safety Website. The following is one of the essays for 2020.

By Alexia Kulwiec

As to that delicious steak or pork chop you are about to sink your teeth into, do you know where it came from? Will the grocery refrigerated cooler where you purchased that meat be empty tomorrow? 

In the quest to produce beef and pork free of pathogens that could cause food borne illness, the United States has created a system that leaves the nation’s food supply vulnerable to a health crisis such as the country is now experiencing. At the same time, the U.S. system has decreased the ability of smaller local producers, often involved in humanely raising healthy animals, to provide healthy foods to the consumer. While strong health and safety measures are needed in the local food movement as elsewhere, smaller operations could be a large part of, if not the, solution to the current vulnerability in the U.S. food supply.

The world, but specifically North America, is beginning to experience the drastic impact of the ongoing consolidation of the meat processing industry, with concerns growing over the stability of the food supply. U.S. and local regulations must change to decrease this impact and can do so by supporting local independent growers. In the United States, USDA inspected meat processing plants have temporarily closed in South Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Colorado and Wisconsin. In Canada, a Covid-19 outbreak at a single Cargill plant in Alberta impacted close to one-half of Canada’s beef supply. Closed plants cannot process the beef and pork demanded by consumers. In turn, farmers and ranchers lack a market for their products.  As an alternative and supplemental supply of meat products, consumers can obtain food locally sourced from producers they know and trust. 

Until recently, the position of the USDA, and perhaps of consumers generally, was that to ensure a safe meat supply, meat must be slaughtered in USDA inspected plants. The federal Wholesome Meat Act requires processing of all beef and pork to be slaughtered and processed in USDA inspected facilities or state facilities that follow standards at least as stringent as federal rules.  

In the abstract, this regulation has some merit – consumers rightfully demand beef and pork products free from pathogens, illness or other contaminants that could cause injury or illness. To date, while safety of meat produced has improved, the meat processing system itself, broadly speaking, is failing to meet the needs of American consumers. The past month in the United States has demonstrated that consolidation has led to a serious vulnerability in U.S. meat production as well as compromised safety and health of the meat processing workforce. 

Also the food system as presently constituted, in part because of USDA regulations, fails to support local independent operations that help address the instability of the market. 

Not healthy for the stability of the U.S. food supply
There has been tremendous consolidation in meat processing industries over the last several decades. The top 4 beef processors control approximately 80% of the U.S. meat supply. The top 4 pork processors account for approximately 63% of the U.S. market. The consolidation into just a few top processors has led to fewer and larger meat slaughter and processing facilities. As we have seen the past few weeks, the closure of one or more of these plants can have a serious impact on the nation’s supply of beef and pork. By one estimate, 10% of all beef production and 25 % of the U.S. pork production has closed after 13 packing and food processing workers died after contracting Covid-19. Because of the consolidation in the meat industry, one plant closing can have an enormous impact on the U.S. supply of fresh beef and pork.  

Not healthy for workers
Workers in the meat and poultry industry on average earn less than $15 an hour and earn 44% less than workers in other manufacturing jobs. Yet this is dangerous work and has been prior to Covid-19. Eight plant workers died between 2013 – 17 from work related injuries, and a good number more lost body parts or were hospitalized for work injuries. Many suffer unreported injury and illness, particularly disabling musculoskeletal illness caused by high lines speeds and difficult repetitive work. Workers report long hours without breaks, lack of adequate access to sanitation facilities, and tremendous pressure to meet high productions quotas.

The regulatory system has supported growth of large-scale slaughterhouses and meat processing plants, where social distancing is impossible, line speeds have put workers’ safety at tremendous risk and conditions have already caused unnecessary injuries. Employees work shoulder to shoulder, processing up to 400 cattle per hour. During the Covid-19 crisis, workers have reported being encouraged to work even if they appeared sick. Many did not receive any PPE, Personal Protective Equipment, and at least 13 workers have died from exposure to the virus. As well as the toll on workers, this has led to the closure of a number of plants. This negatively impacts the nation’s supply of beef and pork.

Not healthy for local and smaller producers and their markets
The consolidation of the U.S. meat processing industry has been particularly difficult on smaller, local operations. Local processing plants that satisfy the USDA or state requirements are in short supply. Massive consolidation in the meat processing industry has led to the processing of most beef and pork in fewer but large processing facilities. As a practical matter, such facilities serve the industry. The often will not accept small quantities for processing, thus making it nearly impossible for smaller meat producers to ensure inspection of products for sale to consumers. At best, small producers are often told that plants cannot process their meat for six months. At worst, they are turned away. In addition, small producers have to transport their animals long distances for processing at these plants, often hundreds of miles. This transportation has an obvious environmental impact and causes unnecessary stress to the animals transported for slaughter. These delay and distance hurdles also create financial disincentives for small producers to raise animals for sale locally.

Meanwhile, reports suggest that consumer demand for local sustainably grown foods is increasing. Consumers want to know how their food is grown and processed, are interested in a shorter supply chain, and wish to support local producers. 

These producers can certainly be part of any solution, yet they lack feasible access to approved processing facilities. In addition, while custom slaughter operations can process meat for an animal owner, these facilities are prohibited from processing meat for sale. This in turn continues to drive the consolidation of the industry that has made the nation’s food supply vulnerable during a crisis. Expanding the ability of these independent facilities, with appropriate safety regulations, to process meat for sale would help expand our nation’s safe meat supply.

Is the 400 an hour cattle processing really the best method to provide safe and healthy food?
So how do we keep this local food supply safe? Modifying regulations that allow for differences for smaller, local plants could increase the number of smaller plants. The current USDA meat processing  regulations are numerous, difficult, and unduly burdensome on a smaller operation. Accounting for the differences in the size of processing plants while maintaining safety standards could go a long way towards decreasing reliance on a number of large plants. This would lessen the vulnerability to our food supply of the closure of one large facility. Allowing for a more diverse production system but with continued stringent safety standards would limit our reliance on the four corporations that control 80% of the American beef market and the few controlling pork production.

Modifying OSHA regulations protecting workers, such as providing for slower lines speeds and perhaps a plant design that allows workers more space, can impact the safety and health of employees as well maintain a healthier workforce. This in turn makes plant closure less likely in the event of a virus or other illness. Such a system can, and should, continue to impose rules to ensure the health of the meat supply. Certainly this may impact price. However, more competition from a more diverse supply chain would also positively impact price, as will transportation savings to independent producers

To this end, one option is the proposed change in federal law called the Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption Act (“the PRIME Act”), H.R. 2859. The Prime Act would repeal the ban on sale of meat processed by “custom slaughterhouses” that meet state regulations and basic federal requirements, but not those needed in larger facilities that are not as relevant in smaller operations. Currently, animal owners can have their own meat processed in these facilities but cannot sell products processed at custom facilities.

Opponents argue against permitting farmers and ranchers to sell to consumers without the benefit of USDA inspection citing health and safety concerns. Yet under the PRIME Act, states are free to develop regulations of the industry to ensure safety while increasing access to wholesome food.

Opponents have also argued that there is a lack of accountability by the smaller producers under this system. Yet, smaller local producers are much more financially impacted by any problem in their food production. One illness is likely to drive them out of business, which in turn drives them to often utilize far greater protections in raising, slaughtering and processing their animals. 

In the alternative to new federal legislation permitting local processing and sales directly to the consumer, the USDA and the states must increase the number of inspectors and provide for an increased number of smaller facilities. A greater number of smaller facilities would ensure that the impact of just one plant closing would not have a great impact on the U.S. food supply. It would also allow for greater physical space between employees, protecting them from contact during a health crisis such as Covid-19. It serves local producers, and the environment, in that they will spend less on transportation and be more likely to be able to profit from selling their meat locally. It helps meet consumer demand for locally grown organic food that meets animal welfare standards. Without more facilities, a local farmer or rancher who raises cattle in pasture without unnecessary antibiotics and houses the animal in clean facilities is often forced to then stress the animal by transporting them hundreds of miles for slaughter and processing, thus defeating many of the benefits of animals raised humanely. 

The current USDA practices and procedures drives out small producers and processors at a critical time when our food supply demands more, not less, producers. This in turn has placed the U.S. market for meat, and consumers, in a vulnerable position. It has placed almost all of our beef and pork production in the hands of just a few giant corporations.  As the Covid -19 virus has made us painfully aware, the corporations placed profit before the safety of our overall meat supply, not to mention their workers whose very lives have been put at risk. In light of the inadequate number of processing facilities and inspectors, regulations need to be modified to protect the industry, health and safety of workers, and the nation’s food supply.  

1. See  Dianne Gallagher, Meat Processing Plants Acorrs the US are Closing Due to the Pandemic. Will Consumers Fell the Impact?, CNN Business (April 27, 2020).  See also  Danielle Kaeding, JBS USA Announces Temporary Closure of Green Bay Meatpacking Plant, Wisconsin Public Radio (April 26, 2020). See also National Farmers Union, April 22, 2020 Media Release: Covid-19 Shuts Down Half of Canada’s Beef Supply, While not the subject of the post, the issue is beginning to surface in poultry as well: workers in Georgia and Alabama have contracted the covid-19 virus, with some plant mangers sending employees home. A Vancouver chicken plant closed after 28 workers tested positive for Covid -19.

2. 21 C.F.R. § 601 et. al.

3. Amelia Lucas, Meatpacking Union says 25% of US Pork Production hit by Coronavirus Closures, CNBC (April 23, 2020). 

4.Taylor Telford and Kimberly Kindy, As they Rushed to Maintain U.S. Meat Supply, Big Processors saw Plants become Covid-19 Hot Spots, Worker Illnesses Spike, Washington Post, April 25, 2020.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety Website, click here.)

]]> 3
Blue Bell’s CEO took a long road to criminal charges Thu, 04 Jun 2020 04:03:59 +0000 Continue Reading]]> Opinion

Blue Bell Creameries pleaded guilty on Monday to charges that they distributed adulterated ice cream products and will pay a criminal fine and forfeiture amount totaling $17.25 million. According to the Department of Justice (DOJ) Press Release, Blue Bell also agreed to pay an additional $2.1 million to resolve civil False Claims Act allegations regarding ice cream products manufactured under insanitary conditions and sold to federal facilities. The total $19.35 million in fine, forfeiture, and civil settlement payments constitutes the second largest-ever amount paid in resolution of a food-safety matter.

Today I want to consider the criminal charges against former President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the company, Paul Kruse, as laid out in the Information filed against him.

Blue Bell prided itself and indeed sold itself to the outside world as a family owned, family operated business that was a part of every community in which it had offices, a plant, facility or customer. Reading the Information, you see just how far the company strayed from that propaganda, why they ended up shutting down all production, laid off nearly 50% of the work force and essentially sold themselves at very steep discount to the only bidder.

As a food service company, the highest risk is that your food causes your customers to get sick and die. That is not simply the basis for US food safety regulation but the basis for the relationship between food producer and customer. You rarely, if ever, see a corporate CEO violate that relationship. However, if the allegations against Kruse are even close to correct, he did so in one of the worst cases in US food safety history.

As far back as 2010, Blue Bell executives and specifically Kruse “knew that appropriate practices to ensure sanitary conditions were not being followed or achieved at the Blue Bell manufacturing facilities.” These were recurring problems but Kruse refused to have them remedied. In early 2011, a Blue Bell quality control representative created a program to test for listeria, which found the presence of the deadly pathogen. In April of that year, Kruse personally met with the employee and ordered him to stop his testing program. He then ordered another employee to destroy hard copy and electronic records of the positive tests yet continued to ship the product which had been tested positive for listeria.

But it really hit the fan for Kruse in February 2015 when three times over the month, Kruse was personally notified by Texas state health officials that the company products had tested positive for listeria in three separate facilities. In March 2015, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also notified Kruse of the positive tests for listeria in Blue Bell facilities and then twice more in April.

What was Kruse response? He lied, lied and then lied some more. First, he attested to the FDA that Blue Bell was recalling the tainted products “as quickly as possible”. The reality was Kruse did not order a product recall but only instructed Blue Bell employees to remove the tainted products from customer shelves without telling them about the listeria outbreaks. He further instructed company employees not to tell the general ice cream consuming public about the deadly contamination. Blue Bell products were removed from hospitals, obviously with consumers at high risk as well as elementary schools with the same risks.

Apparently, there were Blue Bell employees who wanted to be frank about the situation and meet their legal obligations. However, he rejected “open and honest” communications with customers to continue to lie and hide the truth about the listeria outbreak in Blue Bell facilities. One customer even noted the unethical conduct of Blue Bell (not knowing at the time just how bad it was). The Information cited to the following example, “Specifically, on or about February 20, 2015, a school district official sent an email to PAUL KRUSE and other Blue Bell executives that stated, “the decision made not to inform the school district] of this potential health risk and to try and quietly just pick-up the products gives the impression of deception and lack of integrity. These actions are contrary to our past experiences with Blue Bell Creameries. With open and honest communication, we would have eliminated all potential risks with our guests (our children) and secured the product.””

Yet Kruse could not even pull off his campaign of lying, cheating and stealing. Although he ordered Blue Bell employees to surreptitiously remove the tainted products, “multiple customers reported to Blue Bell that some products purported to have been removed remained in their stores or freezers on or after the date of Blue Bell’s statement.” Yet in another example, “Blue Bell employees determined that approximately 1,050 pints of the affected lot were already in customers’ stores in Texas. After receiving direction from PAUL KRUSE and other Blue Bell executives, Blue Bell sales employees were instructed “do not pick anything up in the stores unless we notify you to do so.””

The height of Kruse’s fraud on the public was after the announcement of the listeria related deaths by three patients in Kansas, Blue Bell announced it was closing the facility where the ice cream was produced but blatantly lied when “a Blue Bell sales executive wrote that “to date, we have not been made aware by the FDA of any other items that have tested positive for listeria at any of our plants.””

You really have to wonder what kind of executive would knowingly and intentionally put the food consuming public at risk. Unfortunately for the public it was Blue Bell.

About the author: Thomas Fox has practiced law in Houston for 30 years. He is now an independent consultant, assisting companies with anti-corruption and anti-bribery compliance. He was most recently the general counsel at Drilling Controls Inc., a worldwide oilfield manufacturing and service company. He was previously division counsel with Halliburton Energy Services Inc. where he supported Halliburton’s software division and its downhole division. Fox is the author of the award-winning FCPA Compliance and Ethics Blog and the international best-selling book “Lessons Learned on Compliance and Ethics.” His second book, “Best Practices Under the FCPA and Bribery Act,” was released in April, 2013. His latest work is an eBook entitled, “GSK in China: A Game Changer for Compliance.” He writes and lectures across the globe on anti-corruption and anti-bribery compliance programs.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety Website, click here.)

]]> 1
Grubbing bugs: Can we get over the ‘ick’ factor? Mon, 01 Jun 2020 04:03:20 +0000 Continue Reading]]> Opinion

Editor’s note: Each Spring, attorneys Bill Marler and Denis Stearns teach a Food Safety Litigation course in the LL.M. Program in Agricultural and Food Law at the University of Arkansas School of Law. This specialized program for attorneys brings together those who are interested in our food system, from farm to table. As a final assignment, students are asked to write an op-ed or essay on food safety, with the best to be selected for publication in Food Safety Website. The following is one of the essays for 2020.

By Nnenna Owoeye

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the world, “normal life” and “thinking” as we know it has been severely disrupted/impacted and every sector has taken a massive hit. The Agricultural and Food sector has not been immune to this hit at all and, this has evoked some critical thinking on the future of food. With a rising population predicted to hit 9 billion by 2050 and a threatening global food crisis, “edible insects” could be a key ingredient to avoiding or navigating through a global food crisis by creating alternative food sources.

Eating insects, also known as “Entomophagy” is not exactly mainstream, but is part of numerous traditional diets found in over 113 countries, including those in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, and consumed by approximately 2 billion people. For many, eating insects is not as a result of scarcity, or lack of access to other protein options, in fact in some parts of the world insects are more expensive protein options because they are traditional and beloved foods. Human relationship with insects varies widely from country to country. For some, it is a cultural staple as they acknowledge and appreciate their unique flavors-countries like Brazil eat queen ants, Ghanaians eat termites, (did I hear you think aloud, “same termites best known for destroying homes”)-yes, same, or perhaps the most renowned insect drink Mezcal, a Mexican liquor (sometimes confused with tequila), it is often served with a worm ready for swallowing. Do I sense the ick/yuck factor for some non-mainstream eaters?

Why eat bugs though?

Eating insects is as old as mankind with several cultures throughout the world consuming them, it could be eaten whole (fried, dried or roasted) or as an ingredient in processed food products such as burger patties, pasta, snacks or even the now popular North America cricket powder, which can be used like protein powder. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), “more than 1,900 species of insects are edible and are a rich source of fat, protein, vitamins, fiber, and minerals comparable to commonly eaten livestock”. In the last decade, the global meat industry has been questioned for being responsible for at least 20 percent of manmade greenhouse gas emissions and overall, is an unsustainable practice. The inescapable conclusion is that these protein options are one of the least environmentally friendly ways to nurture our bodies.

Consumers globally are, therefore, looking with increasing delight for food and beverages featuring alternative, affordable, and sustainable protein sources. They are increasingly choosing and exploring alternatives to meat and dairy products- out of conviction or for health reasons, and particularly to benefit the environment and to be able to feed the world’s population responsibly in 2050 and beyond. The potential of edible insects cannot be understated as they are not only a possible ameliorant for the looming global food crisis, they are also accessible, eco-friendly, cheap, and very high in protein. A 2013 report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization describes edible insects as a “good source of protein that could help sustain life”. The rich nutritional content of bugs, which even though it varies from species to species, can have up to twice the amount of protein as beef and 1.5 times the amount of protein like fish and poultry. Locusts, for instance, contains between 8 and 20 milligrams of iron for every 100 grams of raw locust. Beef, on the other hand, contains roughly 6 milligrams of iron in the same amount of meat. Crickets too are said to produce 11 times more food than cattle, for the same amount of feed and 1000 times less water.

Edible insects, with their high feed conversion efficiency and fecundity, as well as their minimal space for rearing, certainly represent an advantageous solution for present and future food insecurity. They are an environmentally sustainable food source, with a significantly lower carbon footprint compared to meat production and they produce less waste too, with the proportion of livestock that is not edible after processing approximately 30 percent for pork, 35 percent for chicken, 45 % for beef and 65% for lamb. By contrast, only 20 percent of cricket is inedible.

Are bugs safe to eat?

Even though billions of people eat insects across the world and it is also food that is as old as humanity, one would expect that Western countries will be more accepting of this novel food. But that is not the case, as most people in non-bug eating climes cannot get past the fact that insects are pests, filthy and a nuisance for humans, animals and crops alike, and is probably unsafe for human consumption-Definitely valid concerns to have. Hence, they are not moved by the otherwise compelling reasons to include insects in their diet. Food safety aspects of edible insects are largely unknown, but there is a lot of discourse in the food space on the possibility of their consumption, thus necessitating a need for proper regulatory guidelines as to safety for human consumption. Insects just like vertebrates can contain biological agents and substances that can represent a health threat to consumers. Experts have said that the risks associated with insect-eating depend on the species of insects, the feed they consume, the environment they inhabit, and the production and processing methods adopted. This complexity is the reason consumers are advocating for assurance of the safety of edible insects. It is important to mention that in cases where the insects are farmed, they are reared in controlled environments, in which sanitary techniques are usually employed, thus reducing some hazards such as microbiological contamination Therefore, the differences in the habitats the edible insects are harvested from can contribute to differences in their safety for consumption.

Are edible insects tipping to the mainstream?

European Union

Many still don’t exactly want bugs inviting themselves onto their plates-it is acquired taste. But, for those that are embracing it in countries that have no insect-eating culture, safety should be paramount. Europe is one of the few regions where there isn’t a long tradition of eating bugs, but that is set to change, as a few weeks ago European Food Safety Authority indicated being set to OK edible insects in the coming weeks. If this ruling does go through as anticipated, it would allow for mass-produced insect-based foods to be available throughout the EU. Companies working in this sector have been trying to get an E.U. wide approval for several years. As edible insects were already being consumed in some Western European countries like the Netherlands that has slowly embraced eating insects like mealworms, grasshoppers, and Buffalo worms; Denmark is also rapidly becoming the epicenter of another beverage- “cricket juice”. To do this, these states, including Belgium and Finland have taken a permissive approach to a 1997 EU law that requires foods not eaten before that year to get novel food authorization. The ruling is likely to lead to the final authorization of their sale across the EU as a “novel food” opening up opportunities for mass production of a range of insect dishes to be sold across Europe for the first time.

United States of America

The United States is still in the early stages of acceptance of eating bugs, as there are legislative barriers and majorly a cultural barrier of disgust at eating them; some believe it is a feat reserved for fear factor participants. However, insects are beginning to make an appearance on menus across the country, while stores like Hotlix in Pismo Beach, California are putting creepy-crawly sweets on the map. This is what advocates like Robert Nathan Allen of Little herds-Austin Tx, have to say in support of insects as a viable part of America’s diet “…the economics work out, the nutrition is ridiculously good and the resource efficiency is way better than other parts of the food industry, even our ancestors ate it”.

COVID-19’s effect on the food system includes restrictions on meat processing supply and meatpacking, leading to shortages. Consumer’s demand for protein has not reduced and alternatives are being considered by many. Some economists have predicted that May 2020 could be a period when consumers will have fewer options when buying meat. According to Politico, consumers will see shortages of pork, chicken, and beef on grocery shelves this month with major packing plants swept by the coronavirus remain shut while the nation’s massive stockpiles of frozen meat begin to dwindle. The perceived breakthrough in the edible insects’ industry in Europe presents new opportunities for the food industry and may have a rippling effect in countries like the US, which are in the early days of accepting insects as a viable part of our diet and a packed protein option. Insects’ high nutritional value which is higher than other protein options could plug the gap left by US meat producers during this pandemic.

Are there any legal barriers to insect consumption in the US?

There are significant barriers to overcome to become part of the mainstream, one of these is the regulatory landscape as it relates to edible insects in the US. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) grants oversight for insect consumption but not actively, rather current regulations for food are applied to edible insects. FDA, typically responds to edible insect inquiry by stating that insects are considered food if they are to be used for food or as components of food and yet on the other hand regulates insects as filth. This blanket and ambiguous response goes to the heart of intolerance of insects as a likely food option and has been viewed by many observers as a lackadaisical acceptance of the consumption of insects by humans. The notable barrier to effective regulation of insects for human food appears to be FDA’s silence on insects as anything but food defects. The agency has received inquiries about insects for use as human food for decades but still has made little progress in regulating this food source, in this COVID- 19 era and with the meat supply concerns currently plaguing the US, edible insects may have been a viable option. 

Worthy of note is USDA involvement in insect farming through their Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) agency. For example, if you want to import a new species of insect that is not currently in the US, you would need to contact APHIS.

Attitudes towards eating insects and current farming techniques and technologies need to change if edible insects are to become a common food source and get the necessary legislative attention.  

1. Van Huis, Arnold. Potential of Insects as Food and Feed in Assuring Food Security, Annu Rev Entomol Vol .58(1)5663-583.

2. E. S. Committee. “Risk Profile Related to Production and Consumption of Insects as Food and Feed.” EFSA Journal 13(10):4257, 2015.

 3. Rumpold, BA, and OK Schluter. “Nutritional Composition and Safety Aspects of Edible Insects.” Mol Nutr Food Res 57(5):802

 4. Crampton, Liz. “See your bacon: A real meat shortage looms with virus shutdowns”, Politico, April 23, 2020

 5. Crampton, Liz. “See your bacon: A real meat shortage looms with virus shutdowns”, Politico, April 23, 2020.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety Website, click here.)

]]> 1