With Thanksgiving just a day away, families nationwide are flocking to their local supermarkets in a last-minute effort to buy products necessary for the ideal holiday feast: turkeys, candied yams, mashed potatoes, and stuffing, among others.
Also flying off the shelves will be a variety of spices—cinnamon for hot cider, nutmeg for pumpkin pie, and ginger for grandma’s secret cranberry sauce recipe. We all know these ingredients are integral to a wholesome and pleasant holiday meal. (Grandma has sworn by the ginger for decades, who are we to say otherwise?) But what we may not know is that spices can be a potentially dangerous commodity if not inspected properly, and have historically been linked to illnesses and deaths from outbreaks that could have been prevented.
That’s why the Food Integrity Campaign sat down with industry insider and current whistleblower Jim Byron about his concerns regarding food testing practices, and why spices remain a cause for alarm.
“We’re approaching a time of the year when people are baking cookies and enjoying their families and food. Spices are considered a high-risk commodity by the FDA because often they’re added to food after it’s cooked. If there’s something in the spice that’s pathogenic, there’s no kill step and the pathogen has a direct route to the digestive tract,” he says.
Jim has over 20 years of experience working as a sales and marketing professional in the food testing industry, but was terminated from his position as IEH Laboratories’ vice president of technology transfer and international business in 2011 when he voiced concerns that the company wasn’t properly validating its food testing methods. Jim worried that the lab could mislead food companies, which could potentially harm consumers.
“Food producers and professionals care very much about producing food that’s safe, nutritious, and wholesome. Those professionals are depending upon testing as the last safeguard to prevent them from introducing something harmful to the market and to the public. For the most part, food that is produced is pathogen free (negative). When pathogens are present (pathogen positive), we need to have dependable testing methods that accurately tell the food producer, ‘This product shouldn’t go into commerce.’”
Improper or inadequate validation of food testing methods can pose significant risks to public health. Children are often especially susceptible to outbreaks such as listeria, which has a fatality rate of 20-30 percent, according to the Center for Food Security & Public Health and the Institute for International Cooperation in Animal Biologics.
In the vast majority of circumstances, food companies and food professionals take appropriate precautions to ensure that the products they sell to consumers are safe, notes Byron. But then there can be a bad apple laboratory with significant influence over the market that can undermine the integrity of the whole process. Relevant government agencies need to look at the data and connect the dots leading back to these bad apples and take appropriate action to prevent unnecessary illness.
“If the labs aren’t honest and don’t have integrity, those labs put the entire food industry in danger,” says Byron. “I’ve made a sad habit of sitting down and writing to our government agencies to call this to their attention and to tell them the information I have that can be valuable to them. Even with the Food Safety Modernization Act, enough hasn’t changed for the FDA, the USDA, and others.”
The responsible government agencies must recognize and respond to this problem. But for them to do so, and with urgency, requires the collective outcry from everyone who supports food integrity to demand accountability and point them in the right direction.
Jim Byron chose to affiliate with the Food Integrity Campaign and become its client because he understood it had the knowledge and reputation for successfully fighting these battles on behalf of food integrity. Similarly, he acknowledged the organization’s vast base of supporters who have consistently fought for progress in the food industry and supported whistleblowers just like him.
Photo: An eclectic spice bazaar in Istanbul, Turkey. Taken by Tord Sollie.