Friday, March 26, 2010

USDA Proposes Parallel to FDA's Reportable Food Registry

The USDA proposed some new rules this week that would:

"...require official establishments to promptly notify the appropriate District Office that an adulterated or misbranded meat or poultry product has entered commerce; require official establishments to prepare and maintain current procedures for the recall of meat and poultry products produced and shipped by the establishment; and require official establishments to document each reassessment of the establishment's process control plans, that is, its Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point plans."

Sounds like the sort of common-sense stuff most people would assume is already required, right? I mean, you'd think that if "adulterated or misbranded meat" somehow made it onto the market, the company would be required to let regulators know. Alas, not the case.

Anyway, the proposed rules are based on recommendations from President Obama's Food Safety Working Group, and are largely similar to the FDA's Reportable Food Registry, the system that helped identify contamination early in the recent, high-profile case of hydrolyzed vegetable protein made by Basic Food Flavors.

This should go off without a hitch, but just in case, you can submit a comment in support of the proposed rule by visiting the rule's page on Regulations.Gov. There is a "Submit Comment" button at the top of the page.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The (New) Law of the Land: Nutrition Labeling at Chain Restaurants

H.R. 3590, more commonly known as the health care reform bill passed by the House of Representatives last night, contains a provision I'll bet most people weren't aware of. Deep in the bill, on page 1206, is Section 4205, "Nutrition Labeling of Standard Menu Items at Chain Restaurants." This section, which bears the full force of law once the President signs off on the legislation, requires chain restaurants (those with 20 or more locations) to prominently display the nutrition information for all standard menu items. How prominently? As in the picture above, chains will have to put the calorie content of each item right next to its menu listing. The rule also applies to vending machines.

Similar laws are already on the books in some jurisdictions (New York City, the State of California, and others), but the new federal law will supersede such state and local requirements. The fact that the federal law will preempt the patchwork quilt of local and state rules is significant in part because it is the reason this law was able to pass without much opposition from the industry. Food chains agreed to swallow this bitter pill in order to avoid the costly headache of navigating compliance on a locality-by-locality basis.

This sort of thing is a good reminder that local politics and regulations can matter in a big way, if only because they are so difficult and frustrating for large multi-state and national corporations to navigate.

The celebratory press release from CSPI, here.

Friday, March 19, 2010

HVP Recall Update

It's been more than two weeks since I first wrote about the recall of salmonella-contaminated hydrolyzed vegetable protein, so I figured it was about time for an update.

To begin with, it turns out that Basic Food Flavors was aware of the contamination and continued to ship product anyway. Sadly, this kind of criminal behavior from food producers is hardly even surprising anymore, considering how many high-profile cases we've seen in recent years. For two prominent examples, just look at the Peanut Corporation of America (which knowingly shipped Salmonella-tainted peanut products that ultimately led to hundreds of illnesses and nine deaths) and SK Foods (which intentionally falsified test results and other documents in order to sell tomatoes with illegal mold levels to producers of canned tomatoes, salsas, pasta sauces, and other products).

The recalled-product list gives a pretty good sense of just how wide-spread this ingredient is, and just how vulnerable our food supply is to negligence or criminal behavior at even a single facility, if that facility happens to make a common ingredient. The list currently includes 159 products from such familiar names as Trader Joe's, McCormick, Quaker and Pringles. As impressive as that is, this list doesn't necessarily include all of the products that contain contaminated HVP - the recall does not include products if their manufacturing processes or cooking instructions are deemed sufficient to kill off the Salmonella.

Despite this bleak picture, there's a bright side to all this. To begin with, nobody has gotten sick yet. Secondly, the whole investigation of Basic Food Flavors was initiated when one of their customers found Salmonella in the course of their own testing, and reported the results via the FDA's relatively new Reportable Foods Registry. It's nice when the systems we set up actually work!

Some other coverage from:
Food Politics, NPR, and the Food Liability Law Blog. I think this last one is particularly interesting, because it is written as a "what can we learn from this," but from an industry perspective. Consumers can obviously conclude that our country needs stronger preventative food safety enforcement (like that outlined in S. 510, currently awaiting a vote in the Senate...), but it's interesting to see what the industry thinks are the lessons from this whole mess (i.e. "have a crisis plan" and "make sure you have insurance")

Thursday, March 18, 2010

NYC to Require Restaurants to Post Inspection Grades

Following in the footsteps of  Los Angeles and several other major cities, New York will begin requiring restaurants to visibly display their most recent inspection scores for the dining public. Despite some industry opposition claiming that the grades are misleading or will scare consumers unnecessarily, this is an unequivocally good thing.

The posting requirement gives consumers a powerful tool, and gives restaurateurs a powerful incentive to clean up their kitchens. The effectiveness of the measure is evident in Los Angeles, where foodborne illness hospitalizations declined 13% when it took effect.

Other than being good news for New York diners, this bodes well for consumers everywhere. Where NYC leads, other cities and even state and federal authorities often follow. Here's hoping that other cities follow suit. Here in DC, my understanding is that you still have to file a FOIA request to find out whether your favorite pizza place has a rodent problem.

The official Press Release, a very useful FAQ document, and New York Times coverage.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Marion Nestle Speaking at Georgetown 3/24/10

What to EatFood Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition, and Health, Revised and Expanded Edition (California Studies in Food and Culture)

Marion Nestle, the prolific author and a leading expert on just about all things food, will be speaking at Georgetown University in a couple of weeks. She'll be talking about personal responsibility versus social responsibility for dietary choices. On a random note, the talk will be in a space at the brand new business school building, which is beautiful and worth a visit.

Full details below:

Artemis G. Kirk, University Librarian, and the
Georgetown University Library Associates
in Association with The Lecture Fund
invite you to
The Ellen Catherine Gstalder (C'98) Memorial Lecture

Food Politics Personal vs. Social Responsibility for Dietary Choices with Marion Nestle author and professor, New York University

Wednesday, March 24, 2010 at 7 p.m.

Lohrfink Auditorium, Hariri (MSB) Building, Georgetown University

A book-signing will follow the event.

Reservations are required to attend. RSVP by March 22 to or 202-687-7446.

Marion Nestle is Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, which she chaired from 1988-2003. She also holds appointments as professor of sociology at NYU and visiting professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell. Her degrees include a Ph.D. in molecular biology and an M.P.H. in public health nutrition, both from the University of California, Berkeley. She has held faculty positions at Brandeis University and the UCSF School of Medicine. From 1986-88, she was senior nutrition policy advisor in the Department of Health and Human Services and managing editor of the 1988 Surgeon General's Report on Nutrition and Health.

Her research examines scientific, economic, and social influences on food choice and obesity, with an emphasis on the role of food marketing. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her latest book, Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine, was published in 2008. Her upcoming book, Feed Your Pet Right, will be published in May. She writes the "Food Matters" column for the San Francisco Chronicle, and blogs daily (almost) at and for the Atlantic Food Channel.

The Georgetown University Library Associates are a group of Georgetown alumni, parents and friends dedicated to helping the library shape the creation of knowledge, conserve culture and transform learning and research. To learn more, contact us at 202-687-7446 or visit our Web site.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Apparently Foodborne Illness Has Real Economic Costs, As Well... ($152 billion/year)

A new study by Dr. Robert L. Scharff, a former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) economist and current Ohio State University assistant professor in the department of consumer sciences, estimates that foodborne illness costs the United States about $152 billion per year in healthcare, workplace and other economic losses.

Amid all the political yelling about whether or not healthcare reform cuts enough costs, it strikes me that food safety can and should be a haven of bipartisan support. After all, not only can all Americans get behind having a safer food supply, but making our food safer is also good economic sense.

More reason to write your senators and tell them to bring to a vote and support S. 510, the pending food safety legislation.

And the FDA Issued Warning Letters, and There Was Much Rejoicing!

Consumer advocates and nutrition professionals are celebrating a victory this week in the form of a blast of warning letters sent out by the FDA to companies whose product labels violate the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Among those notified in the crackdown were such well-known and well-advertised brands as Gerber, Beech-Nut, Gorton's, Sunsweet, Nestlé, Pom, and Diamond. Companies were cited for a variety of violations including unauthorized health claims, unauthorized nutrient content claims, and the unauthorized use of certain terms and descriptors that have strict, regulatory definitions.

The FDA action comes on the heels of a major report on food labeling from CSPI and a prominent editorial on the same topic by nutrition expert Marion Nestle. For those who received the FDA letters as well as the industry as a whole, the letters serve as a warning shot, a notification that this FDA will not be the laissez-faire regulator of the last administration. Among those celebrating the letters, there is a hope that this will just be the first step of many toward what could be a complete revision of food labeling rules and enforcement.

Celebratory reporting from CSPI and Marion Nestle's blog; the FDA's press release; and articles from the Washington Post and the New York Times. No press release from the Grocery Manufacturers Association...

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Ever Heard of Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein? Get Ready to Learn More than You Ever Wanted to Know.

The FDA held a press conference this afternoon to announce what may amount to be one of the largest food recalls in years. The contaminated product is something called "hydrolyzed vegetable protein" (HVP), produced by Basic Food Flavors of Las Vegas, and contaminated with salmonella. The good news is that nobody has become ill yet from consuming the contaminated product. The bad news is that because HVP is commonly used as a flavor enhancer in all sorts of foods, the recall may ultimately affect thousands or tens of thousands of products. In terms of weight, that will be millions of pounds.

What products are involved? Well, according to the FDA, even figuring that out could take weeks. Because HVP is a basic ingredient in so many products, and because it is ultimately sold through a number of distributors and re-distributors, it can be complicated to trace all of the affected product to its final destinations. As they figure it out, regulators will be updating the official list of affected products, located here. Some of the foods that commonly include HVPs are: dips, spreads, soups, soup mixes, pre-packaged meals, chips and snack foods, and gluten-free variations of many foods. In other words, this stuff is everywhere. Even the recalled foods will only represent a small fraction of the fall-out from this ordeal, since many products with affected HVPs will not be recalled, since the production process or cooking instructions for those products are sufficient to kill the salmonella.

What's scary about the scale of this is that there's not much you can do as a consumer to keep yourself safe. It serves as a good reminder of how important it is to have good preventative measures in place, and how important it is to empower the FDA to enforce these measures.  Which is why I'm not alone in hoping that this serves as a catalyst to finally get S. 510 to a vote in the Senate.

More from the Washington Post, here.

Oregon Oysters Recalled for Norovirus Contamination

Oysters from Oregon's scenic Yaquina Bay have been recalled after eight people in Newport, Oregon became ill with gastrointestinal symptoms after eating the shellfish. The case is a bit of a mystery, since Norovirus is typically only a problem with warm-water oysters. Officials are investigating possible sources including water pollution or contamination of the oysters during processing and preparation, but in the meantime excercise caution.

Oysters from the cold waters of the Pacific Northwest are typically safer from contaminants like Norovirus or Vibrio than the riskier warm-water oysters harvested in the Gulf of Mexico. That doesn't mean you can't get sick. Be cautious at the oyster bar this weekend, and always see a doctor if you feel ill after consuming raw or undercooked seafood.

More on the recall, from Food Safety News.

House Agriculture Committee Votes No On Cutting Subsidies

The House Agriculture Committee looked briefly at the President's budget proposals for moderate reductions in some types of farm subsidies, and came to a familiar conclusion. The committee likes the 2008 Farm Bill just the way it is, thank you very much, and is not interested in revisiting subsidies until the next farm bill is due in 2012.

This is unfortunate. Our farm subsidies are inconsistent and often wasteful uses of taxpayer money, and in a year when we ought to be trimming as much fat as possible from the budget, it is unfortunate that entrenched (and moneyed) interests are getting in the way of what were some very reasonable and moderate proposals by the White House.

Subsidies are here to stay for the next two years, and if mid-term elections go the way people are saying they will, I'd wager the tax-payer funded programs will get another vote of confidence in Congress in 2012.

More coverage here.

Monday, March 1, 2010

A Documentary You Will Not Be Seeing In Theaters

Apparently there's a new documentary out exposing Smithfield Pork for being basically awful. Do I know whether the claims made in the film are legitimate or overblown? Nope. Do I know if the film's any good at all? Nope. You see, Smithfield has threatened the filmmaker with so many lawsuits that no insurer will back the film's United States release. Censorship? Not strictly speaking. Foul play? Kind of.

If the film makes false accusations that would be unfairly damaging to the company, then it's reasonable for Smithfield to threaten legal action. But if the film tells the truth and is being kept off the market using legal intimidation just in order to suppress this truth, well in that case...

Apparently the movie is up on youtube in 10 minute installments, at least for the time being. If anybody's seen it, I'd love to know what they think.

Proof That I Do Not Judge the Food Choices of Others

Would the food police eat... THIS?

Cadbury Creme Eggs Benedict

Front-of-Package Labeling: Snake Oil for the 21st Century

Loads of coverage in the last few days of Marion Nestle and David Ludwig's editorial calling for an end to front-of-package labeling in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The issue here is all those nutrient and health claims that have become commonplace in our supermarkets. Such claims, like the ludicrous one in the photo above that somehow Cocoa Krispies will support your child's immunity, are regulated by the FDA (and to an extent the FCC, when you're dealing with other forms of advertising), but over the last century or so the food processing industry has been immensely successful at weakening this regulatory authority through the courts and through legislation. Their reason for wanting the unregulated right to make such claims is as simple as sales - the endorsement of the American Heart Association or an extravagent health claim can give a much-prized sales bump to just about any product.

Why are nutritionists, doctors and consumer advocates so opposed to front-of-package labeling? The industry would have you believe that none of these groups have your best interests at heart, that these people want to suspend your freedom of choice, and that they want to disregard the freedom of expression (in this case, corporate speech). Here's the thing: freedom of choice and freedom of speech are vitally important things that I love very dearly, and I'm convinced that on both charges the industry is flat out wrong.

Freedom of Choice
I have said many times that when we say "freedom of choice" we actually mean "freedom of informed choice." After all, what good is having a choice if you are forced to make that choice on insufficient or even misleading information. When the cereal company tells people that Cocoa Krispies will improve children's immunity, people use that information to make choices about what to feed their children. Improves immunity how? Compared with what? Compared with a honey-bun? Maybe, though I wouldn't put any money on it if someone actually did a clinical study. Compared with a bowl of oatmeal and some fresh fruit? No chance in hell.

Freedom of Speech
Pharmaceutical companies are not allowed to tell us that a medicine will cure a disease unless it has first done sufficient testing to prove to FDA regulators that the medicine is BOTH effective and safe. Is this a restriction on free speech? Yes. Do we get upset about it? No. Because when it comes to putting something in our body, we as a society very reasonably expect answers to basic questions like "what is this?" and "will it hurt me?" I fail to see how food is any different, particularly now that food is basically being advertised as medicine. I don't think anybody is saying that we should restrict TRUTHFUL claims about food. The problem is - and this is why Nestle goes so far as to suggest eliminating all claims - that very few claims are verifiably true, and it is in the best interest of the companies (who ultimately measure success in profits) to stretch these claims as far as possible in the interest of sales.

So I'm with Nestle on this one. In the entire history of front-of-label packaging, consumers have become not one bit more informed as a result, though they have certainly become fatter and more vulnerable to chronic disease. Enough's enough.

Responses to the the editorial from: The LA Times, Forbes, and Food Navigator.