Coalition Update: Groups Call for Ban on Antibiotic-Resistant Salmonella in Meat & Poultry

The Government Accountability Project, along with our fellow members of the Safe Food Coalition, sent a letter (PDF) to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack Thursday, calling on the agency to declare antibiotic-resistant (ABR) strains of Salmonella (including the strain that has sickened 107 in the recent outbreak) as adulterants.

The letter reinforces points made in a petition sent to the agency in May (PDF) by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which urged USDA to declare four strains of ABR Salmonella -- Hadar, Heidelberg, Newport, and Typhimurium -- as adulterants under the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Products Inspection Act. This would prevent the sale of meat and poultry products that have been contaminated with these strains.

Read the coalition letter here (PDF).

Read more about antibiotic use in food production here.

Sarah Damian is New Media Fellow for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower advocacy organization.

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China's Food Safety System a Satire of U.S.?

china_mapKeeping deliberate obstructions of food integrity under control seems like an impossible task for Chinese government officials. Perhaps, however, it’s just a blown-up version of what we face in the U.S., where oversight gaps and inconsistencies across our own food regulatory agencies abound. This Washington Post piece explores the structure of China's food system that has allowed food safety scandals to wreak havoc on a monumental scale:

And just why are there so many food problems in China? The answers, expert said, are complex, involving China’s system of myriad tiny farms, tens of thousands of small food-processing factories scattered across this vast country, and a regulatory system in which enforcement is divided among as many as 13 government ministries and departments.

The American food industry is more consolidated than that of China, a communist country (ironic?), but we’re alike in that food regulation in the U.S. is also split among more than a dozen different agencies (although the division of duties between the USDA and FDA is enough to cause problems). Chinese departments don't split up enforcement roles by type of product -- such as USDA-regulated meat and poultry -- but rather are "only responsible for a certain cycle, such as cultivation, production or sales.” The chief scientist for food safety at China's Ministry of Health acknowledges, because of this, "it's really difficult to control risk with this multi-layered management."

A Chinese website called "Throw it out the Window" was launched in June by "a fed-up 25-year-old graduate student" and a group of volunteers that have tracked 2,230 food safety scandals in the country since 2004.

We have enough to deal with at home (ground turkey recalls, misleading labels, antibiotic-resistance, etc.) let alone worry about the food coming from our number one trading partner. Apparently (according to the Post), FDA has been "increasing inspections of Chinese firms that export products to the U.S. market." But FIC has blogged about the obstacles FDA faces in China, including companies outright lying to inspectors and claiming they don't ship to the states. Already FDA officials can’t handle all the warnings of tainted food imports, only inspecting a tiny fraction of the millions of goods crossing our borders. It’s also interesting to note that FDA is “helping build China’s ‘technical capacity’ to improve its food safety regime” when our own means of regulation (that we in fact carry out) is far from efficient.

There have been a significant amount of arrests and company shutdowns in China, with authorities reporting that they have resolved more than 1,000 cases this year. But as Helena Bottemiller remarks in Food Safety News, "it's difficult to assess the overall impact of the waves of enforcement."

Indeed, the headlines of scandal have continued amidst high-profile crackdowns, with Chinese experts conceding that "the chances of getting caught and punished for producing or selling tainted food remains relatively small." (via WaPo). That's no surprise given China's high number of small food companies and its compartmentalization of enforcement bodies (on top of other conflicting interests and historic stifling of truth-tellers).

The Chinese government's expressed commitment to reigning in this nationwide threat to public health has allowed a unique effort not seen in other aspects of society, however. This not only includes the freedom of more investigative reporting witnessed in the media, but a new government-sanctioned reward program for those who blow the whistle on food safety violations. China has had to go outside its comfort zone, even paying people for the truth, to manage this overwhelming crisis.

If you think about it, our two countries aren't all that different in serious food safety problems. American food industry processing systems, like Chinese ones, are kept hidden, and problems aren’t addressed until hundreds are sickened and a media frenzy can’t be avoided. Both systems have serious oversight deficiencies. With China’s reward program as a potential exception, both countries have failed to take advantage of the workers along the supply chain who witness (and could halt) problems as they arise. Instead, the harassment of employees, in China and in the U.S., who speak up rather than hide what industry doesn’t want the public to know has been the norm.

With a complicated oversight structure and an apparent "lack of ethics among food producers," (from WaPo again) America … uh, I mean China, may have to resort to this encouragement of … yes, transparency, as a solution.

Sarah Damian is New Media Fellow for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower advocacy organization.

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Where’s the Oversight? Food Animal Production Breeds Antibiotic Resistance

A resurgence in the discussion of antibiotic (over)use in large-scale animal agriculture has emerged in light of the antibiotic-resistant Salmonella outbreak linked to ground turkey.

A group of Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to the FDA on Tuesday urging it to speed up the implementation of guidelines to help manage drug use in food animal production. The FDA has already received over 500 comments on a draft guidance released last summer that recommends two principles:

(1) The use of medically important antimicrobial drugs in food-producing animals should be limited to those uses that are considered necessary for assuring animal health, and

(2) The use of medically important antimicrobial drugs in food-producing animals should be limited to those uses that include veterinary oversight or consultation.

chicken_barn_hmNo timeline on the document has been announced, but the change from automatically giving livestock antibiotics in their feed and water daily (to prematurely avoid animal sickness and hasten growth, thus expediting their time to market), to only treating them when a real medical concern exists, would be a drastic reduction.

According to the FDA, 80 percent of all antibiotics in the U.S. are given to food-producing animals, the vast majority for non-therapeutic purposes. The resulting increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or "superbugs," has many public health advocates concerned, with constant criticism of the agency's exceedingly slow and cumbersome attempts to address a serious problem.

A study published today in Environmental Health Perspectives found that conventional poultry farmers who switched to organic practices (ending their use of antibiotics) lowered the rates of bacteria resistant to drugs. Robert Lawrence, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (which funded the research in its early stages), said the findings "confirm what has long been suspected but never documented in the U.S."

As deadly outbreaks regrettably continue, and more dangerous "superbugs" inhibit treatment of foodborne illnesses, adequate oversight remains past due. It’s increasingly essential for the government to acknowledge the problem -- or at least allow transparency in the conversation (unlike the recent move by USDA to take down research from its website that links antibiotic use in animals with resistant bacteria) -- as well as hold industry accountable when its practices put the public's health at risk.

Sarah Damian is New Media Fellow for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower advocacy organization.

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Food, Inc. Documentary Airing Tonight (8/9) on PBS

foodincHave you seen the 2010 Oscar-nominated documentary Food, Inc. yet? If not, you have the chance to watch it on PBS tonight (Tuesday, August 9) at 9pm EST for an encore broadcast.

A POV Behind the Lens interview with filmmaker Robert Kenner explores his motivation for telling the story of America's industrialized food system (including Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma) and the growing public awareness of its problems since the film's release. From the interview:

It really became about something other than just food, it became about our rights, our First Amendment rights. That's when I realized, some of these food products have more power than we do as individuals. It became scary when I learned about veggie libel laws. You can be sued for endangering profits of food companies.

Kenner also explained his failed attempts to contact industrial producers for their perspective, going down "a lot of dead ends on this film, way more than I'm used to." He asserted the big food companies' preoccupation with conserving their bottom line, and how now that there is more discussion around food integrity, companies are reacting, "whether it's by making food healthier or better marketing." The marketing power of food behemoths, however, is a major reason Kenner saw the importance of showing his film on public television:

I think one of the important things about where this film airs is that I would've been concerned about having this shown on a network that has advertising, because so much of this film is about how products and special interest groups are taking over our lives and I think that there would've been a lot of effort to have censored some of the things in this film. And I'm thrilled to be a part of POV and I think it's a really important arena for airing exciting films.

Check out the PBS website for more comments by Kenner about Food, Inc. You can also check out the trailer below:

Watch the full episode. See more POV.

Sarah Damian is New Media Fellow for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower advocacy organization.

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Cargill Turkey Recall Initiated; Latest Deadly Outbreak Shows Food Safety Overhaul Needed

Update (Aug. 5, 2011): The USDA suspected a link between Cargill ground turkey and the Salmonella outbreak in mid-July, but did not ask Cargill to recall its products until this Wednesday.

Meatpacking giant Cargill has at last issued a recall of 36 million pounds of ground turkey after a Salmonella outbreak reportedly killed one and sickened at least 76 others across 26 states. Before the recall announcement, government officials wouldn't hint at which company was involved despite signs pointing to a single facility, as conclusive data supposedly remained lacking. An FSIS press release came out only after Cargill's own press release circulated the wires, leading the agency to finally admit a link between Cargill ground turkey and the outbreak. All of Cargill’s recalled products (more details here) were produced at its Springdale, Arkansas plant, where Cargill said it has suspended production“until it could identify the source of the contamination and fix it”.
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Cautious Optimism on Chinese Food Whistleblower Protections

china_window_attPhoto via wikimedia user TakeawayWhoa. A food safety whistleblower reward program … in China? The ongoing food crisis in the country has finally moved the government to compensate those who provide information on wrongdoing in the industry. The notion of paying individuals who take the bold step to expose corruption and abuse, instead of antagonizing them (which is disconcertingly common), is significant. Before we shower China with praise, however, we should consider what we know about the country’s treatment of whistleblowers.

According to Indian Express, whistleblower protection is classified as a “fundamental right” in China’s constitution, enabling citizens to make complaints without being suppressed or retaliated against. That’s laughable, considering the fact that whistleblowers in China have undergone everything from the death penalty, jail time, exile, or even psychiatric treatment to have their challenges kept out of the public sphere.

Threatening harsh punishment seems to be China’s method of choice in thwarting a tainted public image. The massive and seemingly endless food scandals (toxic cooking oil here … exploding watermelons there) have certainly spurred a punishing frenzy. Yet it hasn’t seemed to matter which side the government uses as an example -- the perpetrators of food safety violations or individuals calling them out. Zhao Lianhai, whose son fell ill from milk contaminated with melamine in 2008, was sentenced to jail for two-and-a-half years after campaigning for victim compensation. He was finally granted medical parole after many wrote to the Chinese government in protest. Last week, on the other hand, one man received a “suspended death sentence,” or essentially life in prison, for his involvement in producing and selling pork from hogs that were fed clenbuterol -- a poisonous chemical outlawed in China.

Now the Chinese government is seeking food industry whistleblowers who will go through a coordinated process to help identify problems. Officials will hand out cash rewards (how much is unclear) to these truth-tellers, as long as a follow-up investigation proves their claims are accurate. Xinhua writes:

The commission said higher rewards will be offered to those who provide information on the underground businesses involved in producing, selling or use of illegal additives or making fake and inferior food products.

A financial incentive for food safety whistleblowers is something we are still lacking here in the U.S. Many whistleblowers in the U.S. food and agriculture sectors often have more incentive to keep quiet than risk their livelihoods by speaking the truth. A whistleblower protection provision affecting the FDA was included in the recently passed Food Safety Modernization Act, but that still leaves out a large part of the food chain, including meat and poultry industry workers under USDA.

But the fact that China aims to dedicate whistleblower funds via “government departments at all levels,” not to mention acknowledge the risk whistleblowers face, remains eyebrow-raising. From Reuters:

Those who work for people or companies which adulterate food products are especially encouraged to participate, the report said.

Governments must also make sure they protect the identities of the tipsters to prevent "revenge attacks", and will punish those who slander others with false reports or provide false information to get the rewards, Xinhua added.

Retaliation is a justified fear, no question. We know conflicting interests exist in China (as well as here in the states) that prevent adequate industry regulation, including government inspectors taking bribes. In a country where whistleblowers have lacked a safe space, it will be good to see their importance validated and voices heard, if properly protected.

Sarah Damian is New Media Fellow for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower advocacy organization.

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Meat and Poultry Injected with Salt/Water Solution Needs Labeling, USDA Rules

Photo via wikimedia user phototram

The USDA has finally decided consumers should know when a meat product is composed of 40 percent water-salt solution. Wow, you think? Congratulations, Department of Agriculture, for at last addressing the common industry practice of pumping ingredients into meat and supporting adequate labeling.

According to the agency, 30% of poultry, 15% of beef and 90% of pork contain "added solution." Yet current guidelines don't make it clear to consumers when meat has been treated and may consist of solutions that "can have more than five times as much sodium as occurs naturally in those foods," according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

Why is so much salt and water injected into our meat and poultry? An NPR article quotes the American Meat Institute, which acknowledges that the solution adds to the product's weight and can "replace the flavor and moisture loss that results from raising leaner animals or from potential overcooking."

Of course the meat industry plays down the fact that it adds weight to a product that it sells by the pound! Producers pride themselves in having a product with less fat than a few decades ago, but now must replace it with sodium and water for “flavoring.” If they are so proud, then how come consumers have been left in the dark for so long?    

If a chicken breast or a pork loin has been "enhanced" with a sodium solution, people at the grocery store can’t easily tell the difference from those that haven't. In 2010, the Government Accountability Office pointed out that the FDA has "largely not responded" to citizen petitions (including CSPI's) to reconsider the GRAS status of ingredients such as salt.

The USDA's move to require prominent labeling of “added solution” on raw meat products is clearly needed. Though industry will have at least two years to get used to the idea, with the proposed rules not likely going into effect until 2014 at the earliest.

In today's convoluted food system, we hope to see more steps like this toward transparency.

Sarah Damian is New Media Fellow for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower advocacy organization.

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