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Food Safety Website previously reported production during the April to June quarter kept fairly close to normal at 85.5 percent for livestock and 96.29 percent for poultry. Slaughter was disrupted during the quarter by numerous temporary plant shutdowns and production cutbacks as companies struggled with adjustments related to COVID-19.
The situation became serious enough that by April 28 that the White House empowered USDA, under the Defense Production Act, to keep meat and poultry plants operating while they managed their way through employee COVID-19 illnesses.
During the tumultuous quarter, USDA inspection personnel took administrative actions against only 17 large establishments. USDA was also charged during the quarter with implementing the guidance for meat and poultry plants from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) to minimize virus spread. That activity is not included in the report.
Here’s what it does say about large plant enforcement activities:
Other large establishments against which FSIS took administrative action include Agri Star Meat and Poultry LLC, Postville, IA, for inhumane slaughter; Allen Harim Foods, Harbeson, DE, for sanitation; Butterball LLC, Carthage, MO, for sanitation, HACCP; Indiana Packers, Delphi, IN, for inhumane slaughter; Jennie O Turkey, Faribault, MN, for sanitation, HACCP; Pitman Farms, Moroni, UT, for sanitation, HACCP; Washington Beef, LLC, Toppenish, WA, sanitation, HACCP; and Whole Stone Farms, Fremont, NE, for inhumane slaughter,
The report for the government’s third quarter, covering the period from April 1 to June 30, shows FSIS inspection personnel inspected 35.67 million livestock carcasses, down from 42.90 million in the second quarter of the fiscal year. Because of interruptions in production, meat industry experts say animals slaughtered later in the quarter were fatter than normal. That means the gap between this quarter and the previous is likely even narrower.
Meat and poultry shortages were forecast at the time the White House opted to use the Defense Production Act for the industry. While shortages were largely avoided, consumers started the grilling season paying about 10 percent more than a year earlier for beef products.
But since it became public knowledge, some are questioning the propriety of OSHA being in an exclusive agreement with the meat lobby. The Meat Institute and OSHA might be getting too chummy under the agreement.
“This announcement is very troubling because, while it’s appropriate for an agency to provide information and guidance to the industry it inspects and regulates, a formal alliance like this gives the impression that OSHA intends to exercise enforcement discretion for participating companies,” says Brian Ronholm, Director of Food Policy for Consumer Reports. “OSHA has been dismissive of the safety concerns expressed by meat and poultry workers, and this announcement seems to indicate the agency will continue to abdicate their enforcement responsibilities and give companies a free pass.”
Ronholm is a former USDA deputy undersecretary for food safety.
The agreement he is questioning is not all that unusual. The agreement was signed on July 29 and made public on Aug.12.
OSHA and the Meat Institute agree ” to work together to achieve the following objectives:
“Through this alliance, we look forward to working with OSHA to continue our work to protect the health and safety of the men and women who work in meat and poultry facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic and thereafter,” said Meat Institute President and Chief Executive Officer Julie Anna Potts. “These workers are essential to making food for our nation and are a critical part of our rural economies.”
“The security of America’s food supply relies on meat processing facilities continuing to operate with a healthy workforce,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Loren Sweatt. “Together, OSHA and the North American Meat Institute can help ensure that employers in this critical industry have the tools and information they need to protect workers from the risk of the coronavirus.”
During the two-year alliance, participants will develop information on recognizing coronavirus transmission risks and best practices for preventing transmission, and on challenges for exposure control in meatpacking and processing facilities. Alliance participants will also conduct outreach to small- and medium-sized facilities on available guidance and compliance assistance resources, including the On-Site Consultation Program, and will work together on other outreach activities, including providing information on OSHA’s enforcement policies and procedures relevant to the meatpacking and processing industry.
For the full text of the agreement go here.
The North American Meat Institute is the top lobbying organization for the meat industry. Its members process the vast majority of U.S. beef, pork, lamb, and poultry, as well as manufacture the equipment and ingredients needed to produce the meat and poultry products.
Later this week, the ranchers who belong to that group with the long name are holding their annual convention in Deadwood, SD. One major item on their agenda is to decide whether to continue to slow the use of RFID technology to keep track of livestock.
R-CALF USA represents U.S. cattle producers. Its long-form name is the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America. In the last year, it’s gone to federal court to keep RFID technology at bay.
R-CALF USA is not alone in representing the cattle industry. State cattlemen’s organizations from major beef producing regions are also involved in the RFID issue. They’ve helped startup U.S. Cattle Trace, a new disease traceability initiative.
Its goal is to develop a national infrastructure for disease traceability and encourage private industry’s use of the infrastructure for individualized management practices. Cattle Trace partners include the Kansas Livestock Association, Florida Cattlemen’s Association, Texas Cattle Feeders Association, Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, and Kentucky Cattlemen’s Association.
Maybe the cattle industry is going to put its branding irons away for the last time.
USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) recently awarded contracts to purchase up to eight million low-frequency radio frequency identification (RFID) ear tags.
The contract allows APHIS to purchase additional tags each year for up to five years.
“USDA continues its commitment to protecting our Nation’s animal agriculture by increasing traceability in the cattle and bison sectors, in this case by providing free RFID tags to interested producers,” said Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs Greg Ibach. “This will not only help offset the costs of switching to RFID tags but also help us more quickly respond to potential disease events.”
In their court case, R-CALF was complaining about how much RFID tags would cost economically strapped cattlemen. Traceability in food safety and managing animal disease would both benefit from the adoption of RFID technology.
APHIS’s job is to keep animal disease away from U.S. shores. It sees RFID as “the best opportunity to rapidly contain the spread of high economic impact diseases.”
It says the use of RFID tags better positions the livestock industry, State and Federal veterinarians to accurately and quickly trace animals exposed or infected with potentially devastating diseases before they can do substantial damage to the U.S. livestock industry.
Its plan is to provide RFID tags through animal health officials for distribution and use in breeding cattle and bison at no cost to the producer. According to APHIS:
Contracts for the RFID tags were awarded to three American tag companies, all compliant with the Buy American Act– Allflex (Dallas, TX), Datamars (Temple, TX), and Y-Tex (Cody, WY). Contracting with all three manufacturers will allow USDA to procure the number of tags needed to meet an industry volume equivalent to the number of replacement heifers in the United States.
As part of its overall effort to increase traceability in cattle and bison, APHIS distributed more than 1.1 million RFID tags to 38 states between January and July 2020. Each state veterinarian distributes the tags in a way that best serves their industry.
In that court dustup, attorney Harriet Hageman of the New Civil Alliance, representing R-CALF, claimed USDA with an attempt to unlawfully mandate the exclusive use of RFID tags. USDA appears more like a salesman giving free samples than an official with mandates.
R-CALF’s reaction will likely come in convention and the organization is not known for rolling over and saying “nevermind.” But for the rest of us, USDA’s strategy may be working out.
Late last year in the Netherlands, I did a slow-walking tour through a large VanDrie veal beef plant. The Dutch know what they are doing in any number of ways. But, the major takeaway for me was the Dutch use of RFID tags.
At the end of the tour, our Dutch guide could pick out a basket of finished veal beef products with a system that could identify the specific contributing animals.
That’s not something we’ve done much in the United States. For too long we’ve accepted a kind of lottery system, allowing a single hamburger to become the product of 50 animals from four countries. I am thinking of course of the tragic case of the Minnesota dancer.
All because nobody can answer the question: “where did this come from?
But restaurants crawling back from being shut down during the coronavirus scare, more information is better. Chipolte Mexican Grill, which five years ago was rocked by one food safety outbreak after another, now says it has a from “seed to stomach” traceability plan.
Food safety would benefit if we knew exactly what happens when an animal is processed. USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service also would benefit during outbreaks of animal disease.
And experts like Derrel Peel, Oklahoma State University ag economist, says that without an ID system, the USDA is hindering market access. “Virtually every other beef exporting country has an ID system in place,” says Peel.
Currently, cattle producers have various options for animal identification. Metal ear tags, backtags, brands, and tattoos are all among them. It is time to get with the 21st Century.
China in June stepped up its scrutiny of imported food, saying the possibility that it could spread infections could not be ruled out. Two months later, local testing claims to have found traces of the virus on the frozen packaging of chicken wings from Brazil and shrimp from Ecuador.
In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has found no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with the transmission of COVID-19.
“Unlike foodborne gastrointestinal (GI) viruses like norovirus and hepatitis A that often make people ill through contaminated food, SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, is a virus that causes respiratory illness and not a gastrointestinal illness, and foodborne exposure to this virus is not known to be a route of transmission,” FDA says.
“It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”
China has since June increased inspections at Ports and asked originating companies shipping food to provide documentation that they are coronavirus free.
The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and FDA Commissioner Stephen M. Hahn, M.D., said China’s new export restrictions are unnecessary red tape.
“The United States understands the concerns of consumers here domestically and around the world who want to know that producers, processors, and regulators are taking every necessary precaution to prioritize food safety especially during these challenging times,” they said in a joint statement. “However, efforts by some countries to restrict global food exports related to COVID-19 transmission are not consistent with the known science of transmission.”
“There is no evidence that people can contract COVID-19 from food or from food packaging. The U.S. food safety system, overseen by our agencies, is the global leader in ensuring the safety of our food products, including products for export.”
After finding the trace amounts of virus, Shenzhen authorities conducted contact tracing and tested everyone who came in contact with the frozen packing with all results turning out negative.
The health commission for the Shannxi province, which serves Xian, is also testing people and environments connected with the frozen shrimp.
Chinese officials, however, agree there is no strong evidence that the virus can spread via frozen foods. The virus might survive on contact surfaces for up to two years at temperatures of minus 20 degrees Celsius.
Xinfadii, Beijing’s large food market will be open again this weekend. It was closed in June when the virus was found on a chopping board reportedly used for important salmon. And some believe the first COVID-19 cases in China was linked to the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan.
The exporting countries, Brazil and Ecuador, have not responded to the report.
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Livestock production for the April to June quarter reached 85.5 percent in comparison with the previous three month period. And poultry production was 96.29 percent of the previous quarter.
According to USDA’s Quarterly Enforcement Report for the federal government’s third quarter, which runs from April 1 to June 30, Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) personnel inspected 36.67 million livestock carcasses, down from the second quarter’s 42.90 million.
The drop off for livestock was 14.5 percent. Poultry production hit 2.362 billion birds during the quarter, off just 3.71% from 2.453 billion in the previous quarter.
USDA was empowered to use the Defense Production Act on April 28 after beef, hog, and poultry production facilities were all having difficulties operating because employees were becoming infected with the coronavirus. Facility shutdowns were occurring and media forecasters were predicting shortages of meat and poultry would be occurring just as had occurred with toilet paper a month earlier.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said at the time that the goal was to keep meat and poultry processing facilities open during the COVID-19 national emergency while maintaining the health and safety of “these heroic employees.”
Food industry employees were deemed “essential” and could not be forced off the job as was done with “nonessential” employees. Nor were could any “essential” employees be forced to work. Before and after the Defense Production Act was triggered, companies used offers of higher pay and bonuses to keep production shifts filled.
While meat and poultry shortages did not develop as so many predicted, production facilities did have to close temporarily or hold back on production. And keeping plants operating with sufficient employees did come with a price.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says reports from 23 states show 16,200 meat and poultry employees were infected with the virus and 86 died.
Another sign that U.S. production kept up during the quarter is that meat and poultry productions imported to the country were up only about 5 percent at 1.1 billion pounds.
The quarterly report also includes information about specific administrative, civil, and criminal enforcement actions undertaken by FSIS.
The USDA agency riled two administrative complaints, one against Mullen, NE-based Sandhill’s Beef, and the other against Milton, WV-based Nelson’s Meat Processing.
Against Nelson’s, FSIS wants to suspend and permanently withdraw federal inspection services because of repetitive failures to comply with regulations including humane handling and slaughter of livestock.
With Sandhill’s, FSIS’s complaint is for lack of either a HACCP or SSOP. Administrative Law Judge Tiemey Carlos issued an order for the parties to conclude the proceeding.
The quarter’s sole seizure acton was a familiar one. The federal court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania issued warrants for the seizure of meat and poultry items from Miller’s Organic Farm in Bird-In-Hand, PA.
The items were not federally inspected.
Also in Pennsylvania’s Eastern District, the firm of Chui Xun Liu entered into a consent decree, enjoining them from the sale or transportation of misbranded meat.
FSIS filed in U.S. District Court for New Jersey for a permanent injunction against Little Falls, NJ-based Rainbow Foods Inc, and Robert Kalkan, its president. It seeks an end to violations and a promise to adhere to meat and poultry regulations.
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Now when I get a report on Salmonella infections in backyard flocks across 46 states or hundreds sickened by Salmonella Newport due to contaminated onions, I feel just a little bit of cheer.
Oh, it’s not that I am heartless about those suffering from Salmonella or unfeeling about just how icky almost 800 cases of cyclosporiasis can be. It’s just that at the moment, foodborne illness outbreaks and pathogens are signs that we might eventually be getting back to normal.
And that cheers me.
We’d started 2020 nicely enough with outbreaks of Listeria in 17 states for contaminated enoki mushrooms and of E. coli O103 infections in 10 states over clover sprouts.
President Trump activated the federal emergency over the COVID-19 coronavirus on Jan.31. For a while, after that, it seemed like foodborne illness dried up. Now it’s starting to feel like things might be getting back to good old normal.
We are into seven months of life being very different than it was before this emergency drill. We’ve all changed—some more than others.
As my routine involves news-gathering and writing, solo activities, I’ve been luckier than most. Still, I found myself listening to satellite radio’s Classics and Rural Radio instead of my bad old habits for talking heads on TV or radio.
There’s also more time for reading and reaching out without any noise.
Like most of us, I spend a half-hour or so each date updating myself on the various COVID-19 data sources–Worldmeter, John Hopkins, and CDC are all useful.
Is it good that we are at 5.1 million COID-19 cases when we had 60.8 million H1Ni cases during the 2009 pandemic? Or is it just bad that COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. had hit 165,000 when we got off with 12,469 during the 2009 pandemic?
Somebody this week wrote that we are closer to the end than the beginning. I think that is all a matter of one’s geographic perspective. I’ve been going back and forth between two areas with different experiences.
Weld County, CO, for example, has produced only a trickle of new COVED-19 cases this summer, and only one additional death. In the spring, it was a hotspot with more than 3600 cases and 90 deaths.
When I first arrived in Hays County, TX in the spring, fatalities since the onset was still in single digits, but grew to a total of at least 34 over the summer. Hays County did not escape the spike in cases Texas experienced over the summer, reaching 5,012 cases since the first diagnosis of the virus within the county on March 14.
There are currently 2,803 active coronavirus cases with 2,175 recoveries in Hays County, home to Texas State University in San Marcos.
Weld County is home to the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley.
Several convalescent homes and the JBS beef plant ran up the Weld County numbers in the spring. Texas put caution aside for a while, causing the spike, which came after TSU adjourned.
Living in either Greeley or San Marcos without fear is not difficult, although it can be tedious. It mainly involves staying away from other humans and masking up when some limited, short-time contact is required, like at the grocery store.
Dining is either take-out or outdoor seating, and some of the options are pretty good. Restaurants have done well with take-outs of dinner and drinks.
Traveling between the two locations is a two and one-half hour United non-stop from Austin to Denver. An MIT study out last week found there is a 1 in 4300 chance of contracting COVID-19 from a nearby passenger, or even better at 1 in 7,700 if the middle seat is vacant.
I’ve already “risked it” a couple of times, and plan to do so again in two weeks. Airports and airlines require masks, and its easy to avoid contact with people in the terminals. TSA wants to see your face but only requires removing your cover for a few seconds.
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The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Mississippi, conducted raids at seven sites across central Mississippi. It was the largest single-state worksite enforcement operation in U.S. history, resulting in the detention of 680 illegal aliens and the prosecution of 119 illegal aliens for stealing the identities of American citizens, falsifying immigration documents, fraudulently claiming to be United States citizens, and illegal re-entering the country after they were deported, among other federal crimes.
The four unsealed indictments announced late this week marks the first criminal actions against poultry company management personnel and is limited to two companies, A&B Inc. and Pearl River Foods, LLC.
“This office has a successful history of prosecuting employers for violating our immigration laws, and today marks another step in ensuring that justice is fairly and impartially done, no matter the law-breaker. I want to thank our partners at ICE Homeland Security Investigations and our office’s federal prosecutors for doggedly pursuing these criminal violations. The indictments unsealed today to mark the beginning, not the end, of our investigations and prosecutions. Rest assured that we will continue to pursue criminal wrongdoers and enforce our criminal laws wherever the evidence may take us,” said U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst.
“The results of this ongoing criminal investigation illustrate the importance of strong interior enforcement. The arrests made last year pursuant to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s execution of more than a dozen search warrants have thus far yielded 126 indictments, 117 criminal arrests, and 73 convictions. In total, more than 403 individuals falsified social security information in order to gain illegal employment in the United States,” said acting ICE deputy director and senior official performing the duties of the director Matthew T. Albence. “Companies who intentionally or knowingly base their business model on an illegal workforce deprive law-abiding citizens and lawful immigrants of employment opportunities, which are especially critical as our economy looks to recover from the challenges faced by the COVID-19 pandemic. ICE Homeland Security Investigations will continue its commitment to uphold the laws Congress has passed. These laws protect jobs for the legal workforce, reduce incentives for illegal migration, and eliminate inequitable financial advantages for businesses employing illegal immigrants.”
The indictments include;
Salvador Delgado-Nieves, 57, of Pelahatchie, Mississippi, was charged with three counts of harboring illegal aliens, three counts of assisting illegal aliens in falsely representing themselves to be United States citizens, three counts of assisting illegal aliens in obtaining false Social Security cards, and one count of making a false statement to law enforcement officials when he denied having hired illegal aliens at A&B, Inc. in Pelahatchie.
Delgado-Nieves faces up to 74 years in federal prison and $2.5 million in fines for these criminal violations, as Counts 1-6 carry a maximum of ten years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each violation, Counts 7-9 carry a maximum of three years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each count, and Count 10 carries a maximum of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Iris Villalon, 44, of Ocean Springs, Mississippi, was indicted on one count of harboring an illegal alien, and one count of making false statements when she denied that she had hired illegal aliens for employment with A&B, Inc., in Pelahatchie, and one count of causing false employer quarterly wage reports to be filed when she knew the Social Security number represented in such reports was not assigned by the Social Security Administration to that specific illegal alien employee listed therein.
Villalon faces up to 20 years in prison and $750,000 in fines for these criminal violations, as Count 1 carries a maximum of ten years in prison and a $250,000 fine, and Counts 2-3 carries a maximum of up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each count.
Carolyn Johnson, 50, of Kosciuskio, Mississippi, was a Human Resource Manager and Aubrey “Bart” Willis, 39, of Flowery Branch, Georgia, was the Manager at Pearl River Foods LLC in Carthage, Mississippi. Johnson was indicted on six felony counts of harboring an illegal alien as well as one count of wire fraud and two counts of aggravated identity theft. Willis was indicted on five counts of harboring an illegal alien.
The indictment charges both defendants with harboring illegal aliens following the execution of federal warrants at the Pearl River Foods facility on August 7, 2019. Johnson was also indicted for fraud and aggravated identity theft in connection with a grant from the State of Mississippi for reimbursement for on the job training for employees of Pearl River Foods. As set forth in the indictment, Johnson submitted claims for reimbursement for on the job training that never occurred.
If convicted, Johnson faces a maximum of up to 84 years in prison and $2.25 million in fines, with Counts 1-6 carrying a maximum of ten years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each violation, Count 7 carrying a maximum of twenty years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each violation, and Counts 8-9 carrying a mandatory minimum of 2 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each violation.
If convicted, Willis faces a maximum of up to 50 years and $1.25 million in fines, Counts 1-5 carrying a maximum of ten years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each violation.
Following the unsealing of the indictments, the four defenants made their initial court appearances.
These cases were investigated by ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations and are being prosecuted by the Assistant United States, Lynn Murray.
An indictment is merely a charge and should not be considered as evidence of guilt. Every defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.]]>
Why Mix’s motion denying the defense request for Fries to travel internationally will remain a secret is not known. It means the judge is not willing to share any reasoning she had with the public.
Before he was indicted for violating the Sherman Act, Fries had booked himself on a “once in a lifetime,” $37,000 safari to Tanzania. He is the president of Claxton Poultry Farm.
After U.S. District Court Judge Philip Brimmer decided the trial will not begin until Feb. 16, 2021, defense attorneys for Fries filed what they acknowledged was “an unusual request” for their client to be out of the country for the last two weeks of August.
Federal defendants, including those who like Fries remain free on trial, usually face some travel restrictions. Defendants waiting for trial usually have to give up control of their U.S. passports.
By extensively documenting exactly where Fries would be during the two-week trip, and detailing his “deep business and personal ties to the United States,” attorneys argued that Fries is simply not a flight risk.
Adding to their “no risk” argument is the fact that Fries is the employer of 2,000 Georgians and his multi-generational family all reside there. An avid-hunter, Fries has also been allowed to possess firearms under conditions of his release.
While the Magistrate is keeping her reasons for denying the request a secret, the Department of Justice(DOJ) attorneys said any extradition from Tanzania wouldn’t be easy.
Fries and Claxton Vice President Scott Brady are charged with a Sherman Act violation involving bid-rigging and price-fixing from 2012 to 2017. They were accused along with Pilgrim’s Pride President Jayson Jeffrey Penn and Vice President Roger Austin.
The $37,000 spent on the safari is not refundable.
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All this is supposed to be happening soon — well, maybe not the replicator part –but lab-created, cell-cultured meat will be ready pretty soon for the commercial market.
It’s been more than a year since FDA Deputy Commissioner Frank Yiannas and now USDA Under Secretary Mindy Brashears signed an agreement for the two agencies to jointly regulate “human food produced using animal cell culture technology, derived from cell lines of USDA-amenable species and required to bear a USDA mark of inspection.”
This week, in a joint FDA/USDA webinar, agency officials announced they will soon be accepting public comments on a rulemaking process. There’s no hard timeline on any of this, however. FDA and USDA first must agree to joint principles to govern the labeling of such products. Jurisdiction will remain important with FDA’s over seafood and USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) over livestock and poultry.
“FSIS and FDA are committed to developing joint principles for the labeling of food products made from the cultured cells of animals under their respective jurisdictions,” FSIS’s Matthew Michael said on the webinar “These principals will aim to eliminate any confusion among consumers — regardless of the species.”
Public comments will be solicited during the rulemaking process and considered during the development of labeling requirements for the new products. FSIS promises the labeling will be “truthful and not misleading.”
Under the Yiannas-Brashears agreement, which was signed on March 7, 2019, FDA’s role involves cell collection, cell banks, and cell growth and differentiation with a handoff to FSIS oversight for the cell harvest. FSIS will provide oversight for the production and labeling of foods derived from this cell work.
Jeremiah Fasano, senior policy advisor at FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, says a detailed framework for shared oversight for a harvest handoff is being developed.
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“This guidance finalizes FDA’s action level for inorganic arsenic in rice cereals for infants of 100 micrograms per kilogram (μg/kg) or 100 parts per billion (ppb) and identifies FDA’s intended sampling and enforcement approach. The basis for the action level is set forth in the revised supporting document,” according to the agency announcement.
The guidance identifies for industry an action level for inorganic arsenic in rice cereals for infants that is intended to help protect public health and is achievable with the use of current good manufacturing practices. It also describes intended sampling and enforcement approaches. It comes eight years after Consumer Reports (CR) first went public with the problem of the potentially dangerous presence of inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereals.
CR applauded the FDA for taking the action but did reiterate its concern that limits are still needed on arsenic in other rice-based products and on heavy metals in baby food. And, the Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF) alliance was more blunt, saying the organization’s research shows that FDA’s 100 ppb (parts per billion) “action level” is not a protective, health-based limit for babies.
“We’ve known for years that arsenic is found at troubling levels in infant rice cereals and can pose serious health threats to babies regularly exposed to it,” said Brian Ronholm, CR’s director of food policy. “The FDA’s action is an important first step, but the agency needs to be far more aggressive in protecting young children from the dangers of arsenic and other heavy metals in food.”
Ronholm is a former deputy undersecretary for food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Under the new guidance issued, the FDA has established the limit of 100 ppb for inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal—not far from the 90 ppb limit recommended by CR. Infants and children are especially vulnerable to exposure to arsenic. It can cause damage to a baby’s developing brain even at low levels, according to CR. Arsenic has also been proven to increase the risk of developing bladder, lung, and skin cancers, as well as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
No federal limit exists for inorganic arsenic in most foods. Since 2012, Consumer Reports has been calling on the FDA to set limits on arsenic in rice and rice products. Tests conducted by CR that year found varying levels of inorganic arsenic in more than 60 rice and rice products, including worrisome levels in infant cereals.
CR found that some infant rice cereals, which are often a baby’s first solid food, had levels of inorganic arsenic at least five times more than has been found in alternatives such as oatmeal. According to federal data, some infants eat up to two to three servings of rice cereal a day. Eating rice cereal at that rate, with the highest level of inorganic arsenic CR found in its tests, could result in a risk of cancer twice as high as its experts calculated to be acceptable.
Subsequent tests by Consumer Reports in 2014 found that rice cereal and rice pasta can have much more inorganic arsenic than its previous test showed. CR concluded that one serving of either could put children over the maximum recommended amount they should have in a week.
And CR tests in 2018 of other packaged foods for babies and toddlers found troubling levels of inorganic arsenic, cadmium, and lead. CR found that at least two-thirds of the 50 packaged foods it tested had worrisome levels of at least one of these heavy metals. Fifteen of the foods would pose health risks to a child who regularly ate just one serving or less per day. Snacks and products containing rice and sweet potatoes were particularly likely to have high levels of heavy metals.
The risks from heavy metals grow over time, in part because they accumulate in the kidneys and other organs. Regularly consuming even small amounts over a long period of time may raise the risk of bladder, lung, and skin cancer; cognitive and reproductive problems; and type 2 diabetes.
“Parents can take a number of steps to limit their child’s exposure to heavy metals in food, but they should be able to expect that the government is putting public health first,” said Michael Hansen, senior scientist for Consumer Reports. “The FDA should set protective targets for reducing exposure to heavy metals with the goal of having no measurable levels in children’s food.”
For parents concerned about exposure to heavy metals, Consumer Reports recommends talking with a pediatrician to determine whether their child should be tested. Parents can reduce exposure by serving their child a broad array of healthful whole foods, limiting the amount of rice cereal in their diet, and being mindful of how much fruit juice they serve.
Arsenic is strictly regulated in drinking water, but unrestricted until now in infant rice cereals. Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF), which includes scientists, nonprofit organizations, and interested donors, says FDA has not considered IQ loss and other forms of neurological impact that children may experience from high exposures to arsenic in rice.
”And FDA failed to consider harm from multiple toxic heavy metals—arsenic as wells lead, cadmium, and mercury, that contaminated not only rice but other common baby foods as well—all of which contribute to risks for a baby’s healthy development,” the organization’s statement said.
An HBBF study in 2017 found toxic heavy metals in 95 percent of 168 baby foods tested. They also found rice cereals on average contained 85 ppl of arsenic.
“The FDA’s announcement is a step toward ensuring that babies’ brains are protected from exposure to harmful chemicals, but it is not a large enough step,” said Charlotte Brody, HBBF’s national director. “When we released our baby food study in 2017, we suggested that the FDA set an enforceable, health-based limit for arsenic in infant rice cereal and other rice-based foods to protect infants from both cancer and neurological harm. Three years later, this newly announced guidance is not the solution. It’s just the first step in the right direction.”
HBBF said the FDA action will do little to lower babies’ risks from toxic heavy metals in rice-based foods. Because of their high levels of heavy metal contamination, 15 foods consumed by children under two years of age account for 55 percent of the risk to babies’ brains. Topping the list are rice-based foods — infant rice cereal, rice dishes, and rice-based snacks. These popular baby foods are not only high in inorganic arsenic, the most toxic form of arsenic, but also are nearly always contaminated with three additional toxic heavy metals, lead, cadmium, and mercury.
Lead and arsenic in rice-based foods account for one-fifth of the more than 11 million IQ points children lose from birth to 24 months of age from dietary sources, according to HBBF, It says this concentrated risk underscores the need for more clear and protective action from the FDA and baby food companies.
The HBBK statement also says the lack of guidance has also played a role in inequality and racial health disparities, pointing to these findings:
“Making the food that babies eat safe should be the baseline,” Brody said. “Setting a standard for the maximum amount of arsenic allowed in baby foods is a start to keeping them safe — but 100 ppb is still far too high. No amount of arsenic, lead or other toxic heavy metal is safe for babies.”