(Marginally) tougher food safety rules mean (marginally) safer food

May 11, 2010 | By | 8 Replies More

“There is no more important mission at USDA than ensuring the safety of our food, and we are working every day as part of the President’s Food Safety Working Group to lower the danger of foodborne illness. The new standards announced today mark an important step in our efforts to protect consumers by further reducing the incidence of Salmonella and opening a new front in the fight against Campylobacter,” announced Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on Monday.

Under these new proposed regulations, 7.5% of the chicken at a processing plant may test positive for salmonella. In 2009, average salmonella levels were at 7.1%, so I guess these giant food conglomerates won’t have to stretch too hard to meet the proposed rule.  I suppose it’s better than the 20% salmonella contamination that’s allowed under current regulations.  But perhaps current regulations are not the best standard with which to judge the new rules, given that they don’t regulate campylobacter at all.

Campylobacter- no more than 10% of your chicken may be

Campylobacter- no more than 10% of your chicken may be "highly contaminated" under proposed regulations

Campylobacter causes diarrhea, cramping, fever, and there are no federal standards governing how much of it can be in your food. Under the proposed regulations, companies may not have more than 10% of their carcasses “highly-contaminated” by campylobacter, and no more than 46% may be contaminated at a “low-level.”   I feel better, don’t you?

According to the Centers for Disease Control, campylobacter sickens over 2.4 million Americans per year, and about 124 of those die each year.  The Department of Agriculture estimates that the new regulations will reduce the number sickened by 39,000.  If my math is correct, that is an improvement of some 1.6%.  Salmonella sickens over 1.4 million and kills over 500 in the U.S. each year, and the new regulations should result in 26,000 fewer cases, which is an improvement of 1.9%.  I’m glad they are raising the bar, however incrementally, but it still seems like there’s more that could be done.

“These standards will have probably the greatest public impact for consumers’ health since anything USDA has adopted in the last 15 years,” says Caroline Smith DeWall, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.  That’s really more of an indictment of the laxity of the USDA over the past 15 years than a testament to the power of the new regulations, but it sure sounds good, doesn’t it?

In related news, the President’s Cancer Panel has released it’s new annual report, which warns that the dangers posed by chemicals in the environment has been “grossly underestimated.”  The cover letter, addressed to President Obama pleads with him “to use the power of your office to remove the carcinogens and other toxins from our food, water and air that needlessly increase health care costs, cripple our nation’s productivity, and devastate American lives.”

The Washington Post notes:

The current system places the burden on the government to prove that a chemical is unsafe before it can removed from the market. The standards are so high, the government has been unable to ban chemicals such as asbestos, a widely recognized carcinogen that is prohibited in many other countries.

About 80,000 chemicals are in commercial use in the United States, but federal regulators have assessed only about 200 for safety.

And the New York Times lays out some of the recommendations of the panel to reduce your cancer risk:

  • Buying produce grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers, or washing it thoroughly to remove them.
  • Buying meat free of antibiotics and added hormones, and avoiding processed, charred and well-done meat.

I know, I know, you’re thinking this is because it’s Obama’s advisory panel, so he probably stocked it full of granola hippies and it’s a conspiracy to get everyone to eat organic foods, right?  Not really:

The panel normally has three members, appointed by the president. Currently there are only two: Dr. Leffall [Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall Jr. of Howard University] and Dr. Margaret L. Kripke, a professor emerita from the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Both were originally appointed by President George W. Bush.

Anyway, if you haven’t already been convinced that the explosion of unregulated chemicals throughout our environment might possibly have some detrimental effects, you probably won’t  be convinced by this report.  For everyone else, this is a sobering wake up call.  Please see this post also for an important explanation of why it’s a good idea to take personal responsibility to ensure that you are safe.  Waiting for the regulators to step up to the plate might just mean that you become the next statistic.


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Category: Food, Health

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is a full-time wage slave and part-time philosopher, writing and living just outside Omaha with his lovely wife and two feline roommates.

Comments (8)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Brynn: Thank you for bringing our attention to this stunning report. This long history of timid government responses to potentially dangerous chemicals is really gloomy stuff. As you might expect, there is a suspicious intersection between lobbyists and the federal government when it comes to regulating what appear to be dangerous chemicals.

    Case in point: BPA, as described by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:

    "Eight days after chemical industry lobbyists met with Obama administration officials, federal regulators delayed action on including bisphenol A in a new effort to better regulate dangerous chemicals. The move is drawing suspicion, considering how the head of the Environmental Protection Agency had been talking tough in one speech after another last fall about the need to protect the public from such chemicals, particularly BPA."


    I was always concerned about this issue, but this story about BPA made me angry: http://dangerousintersection.org/2008/05/01/a-det

    If you want to see government falling down on the job, read this paragraph from p. 18 of the President's Report:

    BPA, which is detectable at biologically active levels in the urine of an estimated 93 percent of Americans can leach into food when the plastic containers are heated in a microwave oven or washed in a dishwasher. Over the past decade, more than 130 studies have linked BPA to breast cancer, obesity, and other disorders. In 2007, a group of 38 independent NIH-funded investigators concluded there was strong cause for concern that exposure could result in cancer and early puberty. A 2008 study found that adults with higher urinary BPA levels had elevated rates of heart disease, diabetes, and liver abnormalities. Studies also suggest that BPA may interfere with cancer treatments.

    Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruled in 2008 that BPA is safe even for infants (Letter from Stephen R. Mason, Acting Assistant Commissioner for Legislation, Food, and Drug Administration, to Rep. John D. Dingell, Chairman, House Committee on Energy and Commerce, 2008 Feb 25), Canada banned its use in baby bottles and infant formula cans the same year. More than 20 states (e.g., MN, CT, CA) and a number of municipalities in the U.S. (e.g., Chicago; Suffolk County, NY) are following suit with proposed or enacted BPA bans.

    [emphasis added].

    I am deeply concerned about the cumulative effect of the many potentially dangerous, largely untested (at least PUBLICLY untested) chemicals. Even if any one of these chemicals is safe individually, we shouldn't assume that they are safe in combination, especially the thick chemical stew in which we live. That concern does seem to be the conclusion of the newly released President's Report http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/07/health/research

    Children are especially vulnerable, the panel says. It urges the government to strengthen research and regulation, and advises individuals on ways to limit exposure to potential threats like pesticides, industrial chemicals, medical X-rays, vehicle exhaust, plastic food containers and too much sun.

    A cover letter urges President Obama “most strongly to use the power of your office to remove the carcinogens and other toxins from our food, water and air that needlessly increase health care costs, cripple our nation’s productivity, and devastate American lives.” Here's a longer, equally startling quote from the President's Report http://deainfo.nci.nih.gov/advisory/pcp/pcp08-09r

    We Need to Determine the Full Extent of Environmental Influences on Cancer. At this time, we do not know how much environmental exposures influence cancer risk and related immune and endocrine dysfunction. Environmental contamination varies greatly by type and magnitude across the nation, and the lifetime effects of exposure to combinations of chemicals and other agents are largely unstudied. Similarly, the cancer impact of exposures during key “windows of vulnerability” such as the prenatal period, early life, and puberty are not well understood. Nonetheless, while these diverse effects often are difficult to quantify with existing technologies and research methods, in a great many instances, we know enough to act. The Nation Needs a Comprehensive, Cohesive Policy Agenda Regarding Environmental Contaminants and Protection of Human Health.

    Environmental health, including cancer risk, has been largely excluded from overall national policy on protecting and improving the health of Americans. It is more effective to prevent disease than to treat it, but cancer prevention efforts have focused narrowly on smoking, other lifestyle behaviors, and chemopreventive interventions. Scientific evidence on individual and multiple environmental exposure effects on disease initiation and outcomes, and consequent health system and societal costs are not being adequately integrated into national policy decisions and strategies for disease prevention, health care access, and health system reform.

    Consider also, Chapter I of Part One (of Six Parts) of the Report, dealing merely with "Exposure to Contaminants From Industrial and Manufacturing Sources":

    Currently established or suspected carcinogens are far too many to enumerate in this report. As noted in Part I, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has evaluated nearly 950 agents and classified more than 400 as known, probable, or possible carcinogens.78 Similarly, the U.S. National Toxicology Program’s (NTP) most recent Report on Carcinogens77 lists 246 agents as known human carcinogens or substances “reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens.” Tens of thousands more chemicals and other substances are in use that never have been evaluated and whose carcinogenicity is unknown. A handful of chemical mixtures has been assessed, but virtually nothing is known about the toxicity of the myriad other possible combinations of various chemicals and other substances or differences in their carcinogenicity under various exposure scenarios.

    A large percentage of these synthetic and natural compounds are used in or are by-products of manufacturing and other industrial processes. Many millions of workers are exposed on the job to toxic and potentially carcinogenic or endocrine-disrupting chemicals, metals, fibers, combustion by-products, and other substances. Their exposures tend to be at considerably higher levels than those typically experienced by the general population. Panel meeting speakers noted that the families of workers exposed to hazardous substances also tend to have higher exposure levels than the general public. Family exposures can become high enough to raise cancer risk, promote or cause other diseases, or alter immune system or endocrine function. These exposures most often occur when chemicals and other contaminants are brought into the home environment on workers’ shoes and clothing.

    Unfortunately, due to improper storage and disposal of chemicals and ineffective control of emissions into the air, soil, or water, many toxics that originate in manufacturing and industrial settings enter the environment and may affect people far from the source of the contamination. Of particular concern, many toxics from industrial and manufacturing sources accumulate in the tissues of living organisms.

    The status quo (and incremental changes) are not acceptable in this situation. I'm glad to see that the current administration is not hiding the science, as did the Bush Administration. The above report should have been the headline in every major newspaper, summarized by a headline something like this: "We have the ability to test potentially dangerous chemicals that put your children at risk for cancer, but we haven't been doing this testing because we've been receiving industry pressure to keep you in the dark."

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    The American Cancer Society and three federal agencies named 19 chemicals and shift work on Thursday as potential causes of cancer that deserve more investigation.


  3. Brynn Jacobs says:

    New evidence is emerging that there are significant percentages of meat sold to consumers which are tainted with deadly bacteria.

    "It makes salmonella look like a picnic," is how David Kirby, an investigative journalist who has written about MRSA, a life-threatening pathogen, described it in an interview with Consumer Ally. MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is an antibiotic-resistant staph infection that kills about 20,000 Americans — more than the number of people who die from AIDS — each year.

    MRSA affects livestock and ultimately supermarket meat. Previously associated mostly with infections acquired in hospitals, nursing homes or by people with compromised immune systems, for the past 15 years MRSA is increasingly being traced to industrial animal feeding operations, so-called factory farms, where much of the nation's protein comes from.

    See full article from WalletPop: http://www.walletpop.com/blog/2010/09/27/meat-tai

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