Sunday, April 26, 2015

Safe Handling Instructions Lacking Proper Instructions

Salmonella bacteria can be found in raw meat and poultry products and if ingested can cause mild to severe illnesses or death. It is estimated that every year in the United States salmonella causes one million illnesses with 19,000 hospitalizations and 380 deaths. Salmonella illnesses and deaths cost $3.4 billion yearly in medical costs, wage loss and premature death.

Over the last couple of years, there have been numerous salmonella outbreaks and thousands of pounds of raw meat and poultry products recalled due to salmonella contamination.

The Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) has the authority to deem any pathogen, such as salmonella, that would ordinarily render a product injurious to health an adulterant. If salmonella was deemed an adulterant any raw meat or poultry products contaminated with salmonella would be prohibited from being sold to consumers.  However, FSIS claims they do not have the authority to deem salmonella an adulterant because common cooking practices can kill salmonella.

All meat products inspected by FSIS are required to be labeled with safe handling instructions. Part of the safe handling instructions states “Some food products may contain bacteria that could cause illness if the product is mishandled or cooked improperly. For your protection, follow these safe handling instructions…”One of the suggested safe handling instructions is to “cook thoroughly.”

What does “cook thoroughly” mean? According to FSIS’s website, all raw beef, pork, lamb, veal steaks, chops, and roasts should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 145°F.  All raw ground beef, pork, lamb, and veal should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160°F and all poultry should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165°F.

However, the “cook thoroughly” instructions on the safe handling label does not give consumers any guidance on the temperature they are supposed to cook their food in order to prevent foodborne illnesses, such as salmonella.

If salmonella remains unclassified as an adulterant, then the suggested cooking temperature to kill off bacteria contamination should be included on the safe handling instructions label.

Date Labels: What Do They Mean?

“Best by”, “expires by”, “sell by”, “use by”, and  “best before” are common date labels affixed to packaged foods. However, what these date labels mean is not very clear and have lead to consumers misunderstanding the purpose of the labels. The majority of consumers think date labels indicate when food is no longer safe but in reality the majority of date labels have nothing to do with the safety of the food. Instead, they indicate the manufacturers suggestion for when the food is no longer at its peak freshness or quality.

The misunderstanding of date labels has lead to more than 90 percent of Americans prematurely throwing away food. The report, “The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America,” authored by the Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council, found that this confusion has contributed to the 40% of uneaten food in the United States and an estimated $160 billion in food waste in the U.S. each year. 

In addition to the amount of safe and edible food wasted due to the confusion of date labels, many states prohibit the sale or donation of food after the date stated on the date labels. This prevents a large amount of  safe and edible food from being given away to food donation centers, which could be used to help feed the millions of food insecure and low-income people in the United States. 

What’s been done to regulate date labels? Not much. Currently, there is no federal law that requires uniform date labels. Both the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture have the authority to regulate food date labels but they have not taken any steps to regulate these misleading and confusing date labels on food products. 

Instead, date labels are currently regulated by states and every state has different laws for date labels on food products. For example, Alabama does not have any requirements for date labels, while Michigan has date label requirements for pre-packaged perishable foods, milk and other diary products. 

The Dating Game report recommends the establishment of a national uniform date labeling system. With the population and the amount of food insecure people increasing, a uniform system for date labels seems like a small requirement that could have a big impact on “feeding the world.”

Friday, April 24, 2015

Will the Hunter eliminate fish fraud?

Approximately one-third of seafood sold in the United States is mislabeled. Globally, seafood fraud averages 22% and includes any practice that misleads consumers about their seafood in order to increase profits. Seafood fraud harms society in a number of ways. Legitimate fishermen who follow applicable laws and regulations have to compete with illegitimately caught seafood that is laundered into the market, depressing prices and forcing out those who fish by the rules. Mislabeled seafood may physically harm consumers when cheaper, less nutritious and potentially harmful substitutes are labeled as higher quality fish. Seafood fraud harms consumers economically when they pay more for an inferior product and are misled about the availability of a limited resource. Society loses as a result of overfishing and unsustainable practices that threaten ecological diversity.

In March of this year President Obama‘s Task Force on Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing and Seafood Fraud released its action plan that “articulates the aggressive steps that federal agencies will take both domestically and internationally to implement the recommendations” of the task force. The plan is indeed aggressive, calling for final rulemaking to collect information on at risk species as soon as September 2016. In theory, consumers will be able to track their seafood from bait to plate including information on species, geographic origin, and means of production.

The USDA’s recent announcement that it will propose organic standards for farmed fish makes increased traceability in seafood even more important. Seafood is already one of the most mislabeled products, and organic labels are also subject to food fraud.

While increased traceability is important, it relies heavily on data collection and documentation provided by those in the supply chain. When these people are already engaged in fraudulent behavior, there is reason to be skeptical about the veracity of the data they supply. As a result, audits and testing will remain an important tool in rooting out seafood fraud. One such test is the Hunter, developed by Baltimore-based InstantLabs. With the simple swab of a fish, the Hunter can identify different seafood species in less than two hours. The portable, desk-top sized device allows end users with minimal science training to quickly determine the identity of seafood. While its ability to identify different seafood varieties is currently limited—the device can identify Atlantic blue crab, and Atlantic and Coho Salmon—the company plans to develop and launch tests for sockeye and Chinook salmon, catfish, red snapper, grouper, and tilapia by the end of the year. When available, these tests will allow those in the seafood supply chain to test the most commonly mislabeled fish on the market.

As with any new technology, cost is always a concern. Because the company is privately held, it has not released detailed information about cost other than to state that the equipment and test kits are generally less expensive (and much faster) than using labs. As demand for the technology grows, the company should be able to scale up production and make the equipment even more affordable. Moreover, increased demand will increase competition as others enter the market.

The fact that seafood fraud harms all of society coupled with increased regulatory efforts to reduce fraud means the government, retailers, restaurants, and other end users will likely demand more safeguards and testing from those throughout the supply chain. While completely eliminating food fraud in the United States seems unlikely, efficient and affordable technology like the Hunter will be an important tool in significantly reducing the amount of seafood fraud.

Are glyphosate tolerance levels headed in the wrong direction?

The month of March 2014 was a troublesome one for glyphosate. First, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared glyphosate “probably carcinogenic to humans” based on the unanimous recommendation of 17 experts representing 11 countries. Shortly thereafter, a study published by The American Society for Microbiology (ASM), in its peer reviewed journal mBio, linked glyphosate to antibiotic resistance. In addition to these two science-based findings, a viral video surfaced showing a man wrongly identified as an industry lobbyist refusing to drink Round Up after he claimed it was safe to drink.

The WHO based its declaration on three primary findings: (1) cancer in mice and rats that consumed glyphosate over a several year period, (2) mechanistic and cellular studies that provided “strong” evidence of how glyphosate may cause cancer, and (3) epidemiological evidence, primarily from glyphosate applicators and farmworkers. The ASM study examined the sublethal effects of various herbicides on microbes. Unlike previous studies that examined the lethal effect of herbicides, such as whether they kill an organism, the new study looked at the impact of glyphosate on the organism when it stays alive.

While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently reviewing Roundup as part of its regular 15 year review process, that is not the agency’s only recent action on glyphosate. In May of 2013 the EPA approved an increase in pesticide tolerance limits for glyphosate on certain crops. Although the petitioner Monsanto did not get an increase on all the limits they asked for, the EPA did double the tolerance level for soybeans, America’s second largest crop. Even though much of the data relied on in the WHO declaration existed at the time the EPA made its decision to increase tolerances, the EPA is not required to consider all the factors relied on by the WHO. For instance, the EPA does not have to consider occupational exposure to glyphosate, whereas occupational exposure is one of the three primary supports for the WHO’s position. Of course, tolerance levels may ultimately mean very little since the U.S. does not test produce for glyphosate residue.

Because antibiotic resistance is one of the world’s most pressing health problems and doctors will diagnose almost 1.7 million Americans with cancer while over a half-million Americans die from cancer in 2015, one has to wonder if increased glyphosate use is what society needs right now. The amount of glyphosate used in the United States increased ten-fold between 1996 and 2011 and continues to grow. The rise of superweeds coupled with increased tolerance levels will encourage farmers to use more glyphosate.

The EPA review process includes focus meetings, an assessment of changes since the pesticides last review, new assessments if needed, a public comment period, and consultation with other government agencies. Before the agency issues its final decision, it issues a proposed decision and allows the public at least 60 days to comment. The EPA recently said that it may recommend the USDA begin testing for glyphosate residues. Given recent announcements that question the safety of glyphosate and the fact that the EPA does not have to consider all available evidence regarding safety, it will be important for consumers to look for the EPA's proposed decision and comment accordingly.