Iowa Eggs Still Problematic, and the FDA Hides the Data?

iowaLast year, the American public realized that there are major problems at egg production facilities, as the notorious Salmonella-egg outbreak sickened 1,900 people and led to a recall of more than 500 million eggs.

All of those eggs came from Iowa. You'd think the state would take an interest in fixing this problem immediately. But a new investigation by the Des Moines Register shows that not only do food safety problems persist at egg production facilities in Iowa, but also that government officials are withholding key data from the public regarding health lapses at these facilities.

Iowa is the nation's top egg-producing state, but right now (according to the Register) there is "almost no oversight of egg production, leaving that job to the federal government," which still has many gaps to fill. So much for fixing a problem.

The gaps? In addition to the mess between USDA and FDA responsibilities, egg producers are not required to report positive Salmonella results to any agency and are often alerted in advance about upcoming routine inspections.

Another obstacle the Register noted includes overcoming FDA’s unwillingness to publicly share the unsanitary conditions that exist at egg houses:

The FDA withheld an undisclosed number of reports in their entirety, and many of the inspection reports have several pages of notes completely blacked out on the grounds that they represent agency communications that are still subject to deliberation.

Still, the portions of the reports that have been disclosed show that even when egg producers are given advance notice of an inspection they may not be able to show full compliance with minimum food-safety requirements.

These inspection reports arent publicly available. The Register had to request them through the Freedom of Information Act, which is no easy process. 

If our country consumes eggs from farms that don’t institute basic food safety measures, shouldn't the public have the right to know about government evidence showing as much?

This information is hardly trivial, either. The story notes data "such as the size of rodent infestations, the brand names under which the eggs are sold, and even the names of diseases documented at the egg farms" were blacked out in the reports. 

The least that government officials could do is make publicly available records of such safety lapses -- especially if they aren't taking any action in response to their own reported concerns. The story details how some farms demonstrated inadequate Salmonella testing, or refused to report hens' exposure to disease to the state veterinarian, as required by law.

Big kudos to the Register for carrying out this investigation. It's really unfortunate that the uncovered issues couldn't be tackled from the start, rather than finding out in incomplete FDA reports a year after the fact.

As agency oversight remains deficient, we must rely on brave whistleblowers to protect our food supply. If employees on the egg farms, as well as government inspectors, felt safe enough to sidestep industry interests and report food safety threats, we wouldn't have to wait until another recall and multiple hospital bills to address the problem.

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

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Hershey's Guest Workers Protest Not So Sweet Conditions

hersheyWhen was the last time you broke off a piece of that Kit Kat bar? You probably didn't realize the conditions behind the scenes to produce and package these Hershey chocolates. Those are not quite as sweet … far from it, in fact.

Last week, several hundred students in the J-1 visa Summer Work Study program protested meager wages and harsh working conditions (including 60-hour work weeks -- often during night shifts -- and production lines too fast for them to handle) at a Hershey packing plant in Pennsylvania.

Jennifer Gordon, professor of labor and immigration law at Fordham University, reports in a NYT op-ed:

They received $8 an hour, but after fees and deductions, including overpriced rent for crowded housing, they netted between $1 and $3.50 an hour. Hershey’s once had its own unionized workers packing its candy bars, starting at $18 to $30 an hour. Now the company outsources distribution to a non-union company that hires most of its workers from the J-1 program.

It's nothing unusual for big companies in the food industry to cut every cost-saving corner, even if it means exploiting international students that are here for a cultural experience. The J-1 visa is the nation's largest guest worker program, run by the State Department but organized through employment sponsors (in this case the Council for Educational Travel). The program was started in the 60s to build good international relations and give foreign students a fun trip abroad, but decades later, it looks as though it’s doing the exact opposite.

To the workers' detriment, the government leaves oversight in the hands of the designated sponsors, "who profit from the arrangement and so have no incentive to report abuses."

The State Department and the Department of Labor are investigating the situation now -- but what about the hundreds of thousands of students that come to the U.S. every year under this program? There's clearly a major gap in protecting what has become a sizeable workforce.

The International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) has been fighting for some time to hold Hershey accountable for worker rights violations. The group points out that Hershey has increased outsourcing and reduced its union jobs in recent years, and "lags behind competitors in eliminating child labor, forced labor and trafficking in its cocoa supply chain ten years after it committed to ending these abuses."

A Hershey Company report (PDF) put together by a coalition of nonprofit organizations (including ILRF) illustrates the labor rights abuses at the source of chocolate production and Hershey’s lack of supply chain transparency. Much of Hershey’s cocoa is sourced from West Africa, where many cocoa farmers who can barely cover their costs (while Hershey’s CEO received an $8 million compensation package in 2009) pay children – some trafficked from countries like Mali and Burkina Faso and forced to work on plantations in Cote d’Ivoire – low wages to work long hours performing hazardous work and coming into close contact with toxic pesticides.

The perseverance of these student guest workers to be heard in Pennsylvania, despite Hershey's lack of concern and ostensible intimidation, is impressive. The ILRF writes:

The students were subject to threats and harassment by the warehouse managers; they were threatened with deportation if they spoke out about their conditions.

Good for them for standing up for themselves. Here's a video below of students appealing to Hershey's CEO John Bilbrey for better conditions.

If only these students, and all food industry workers, had the legal ability to speak up in such a way without risking their livelihoods. These students, who were only meant to work and travel in the U.S. for a few months, faced enough retaliation as it is for blowing the whistle on Hershey's wrongdoing. Imagine if employees who work at food companies to make a living on a regular basis spoke up. They face a very hostile environment with little incentive to do so.

We at GAP continue to support transparency at the work places that prepare the food and treats that end up on our shelves. You can sign the petition calling to end exploitation of student guest workers. Hopefully Hershey and similar corporations can get a clue and realize that we won't put up with their ill treatment of workers. Their voices are now being heard.

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

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Study of Peanut Butter & Salmonella Outbreak Further Vindicates Whistleblower

A study released Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine details the Salmonella outbreak from 2008-09 that killed nine and sickened more than 700 people (with 166 hospitalized). The L.A. Times recap of the study verifies what former Peanut Corporation of America (PCA, whose peanut butter caused the outbreak) employee Kenneth Kendrick tried to warn state and federal officials about years before.

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Whistleblowers Can Report Violations of Food Integrity Anonymously

Did you know you can make anonymous disclosures? We at the Government Accountability Project understand the heavy consequences whistleblowers face when speaking out against wrongdoing in the food industry. Fear of retaliation is one we take seriously.

In a legal battle with Food Lion for more than 10 years, GAP refused to reveal the identities of multiple company employees who reported (to us) gross food safety abuses occurring at the grocery chain (including removing expiration dates from expired products, and soaking poultry in bleach to conceal spoilage).

Individuals wanting to tell the truth, but who fear retaliation, can call GAP’s Food Integrity Campaign director, Amanda Hitt, at 202-457-0059 ext. 159 or email her at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Safely stand for truth. Anonymous disclosure is an option.

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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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The Real Motivation Behind McDonald's New "Healthier" Happy Meal?

happy_meal_attPhoto via flickr user Cosmic KittyYou may have heard that McDonald's has announced some "healthier" changes to its menu: adding fruit and reducing the portion size of fries in every Happy Meal, lowering the total calories by 20 percent. Whether you believe it's a step, though small, in the right direction or simply strategic marketing (or both!), the word is definitely out.

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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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