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Bill Marler's top Ten Food Safety Stories of 2008

Food safety advocate and attorney Bill Marler (of Seattle foodborne illness powerhouse Marler Clark) polled his wide range of contacts in the food safety community, and assembled a list of the top ten food safety stories of 2008. Comments can be read (and made) at

1. Melamine in Chinese food products – where to start? With the kids, of course. We first heard about melamine in Chinese infant formula, resulting in heartbreaking numbers: 294,000 children sickened, hundreds hospitalized, and at least six infants who lost their lives. The crisis widened as melamine was found in candy, coffee, tea, and numerous other Chinese products, sparking recalls, bans, and now the US testing for melamine in our own products. It’s pervasive, it’s global, and it’s going to be in our food supply for a long time to come. In fact, the WHO has just announced first-ever “safe” levels of melamine consumption.

2. Salmonella Saintpaul in tomatoes—wait—peppers. A final count of 1,442 ill in 43 states, D.C., and Canada, and those are the confirmed illnesses. Using CDC math - which estimates that for every documented case of Salmonella in the US, another 38.5 go unreported - the total number sickened was probably closer to 50,000. In an outbreak that stretched for months without a smoking tomato, Americans got an inkling of what can go wrong in a global, mass-distributed food economy. The upside is that now there’s a lot of talk about increasing traceability.

3. E. coli – In addition to the continued rise of E. coli O157:H7 contamination in meat and other products like leafy greens and raw dairy, 2008 saw non-O157 E. coli burst onto the scene in an Oklahoma outbreak that sickened over 300 and caused the death of one. Non-O157 STECs (Shiga-toxin producing E. coli) have been documented and talked about; there have been high-level meetings by food protection agencies to address the issue. But here’s the bottom line: only O157:H7 is listed as an adulterant in meat. Non-O157:H7 STEC’s are not listed yet and not tested for, but still are making people very, very sick.

4. Raw Milk - The food story that has pitted health advocates against health advocates in a debate that sometimes reached the level of a screaming-match. On one side, those who insist that raw milk has numerous healthful benefits destroyed by pasteurization, and on the other side, those who counter (me included) that the bacteria in raw milk can cause terrible illnesses, mostly in kids, (bacteria which is —you guessed it—killed by the pasteurization process), and believe the risk to the public outweighs the rights of consumption. The issue came to a head in California State Bill 201, which sought to set coliform (basically, bacteria) limits in raw milk production, among other things. Even though the bill hoped to address the issues of both camps, the protectors believed it would actually worsen the regulation problem. Both groups lobbied hard. There were movie stars. Sick kids. The bill passed the legislature, but was vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger.

5. Listeria in Maple Leaf Deli Meats - Twenty Canadians died and hundreds, perhaps thousands, were sickened by an outbreak of Listeria in deli meats and soft cheeses. Most of the deaths were immunocompromised individuals: elderly, young, sick, or pregnant. The story has raised much awareness not only about Canada’s food safety vulnerabilities, but also the importance of more warnings on product labels and menus, as well as a heads up to the general public.

6. Frozen, uncooked entrees resulting in illness - again. We found out that we’re a microwave culture, and habits are hard to break. Consumers were infected with Salmonella after consuming entrees that contained raw chicken products and were NOT supposed to be cooked in the microwave. But they look just like microwave entrees, and just about everything else is microwavable, so confusion is understandable. Will it be WARNINGS WRIT LARGE or just doing away with problem products?

7. Irradiation of fresh iceberg and raw spinach was approved by the FDA. Consumer confidence in the safety of raw leafy greens has been shaken by spinach and lettuce-borne outbreaks and existing sanitizing technology is clearly not enough. Although irradiation is no replacement for good agricultural practices, it appears to be a good addition to the food-safety tool kit. There has been a great deal of debate about the safety of the products once irradiated, a discussion that has as much to do with personal choice as it does scientific research. Clear labeling will allow consumers to make their own decisions.

8. Multistate Outbreak of Human Salmonella Infections Caused by Contaminated Dry Dog Food. Well, it actually happened in 2006 and 2007 but was reported in 2008. The CDC, state health officials and the FDA investigated this prolonged, multistate outbreak of Salmonella enterica serotype Schwarzengrund infections. The source was identified as dry dog food produced at a manufacturing plant in Pennsylvania. Hundreds of humans and presumably a few dogs became ill. Bottom line: after handling pet food, pet owners should wash their hands immediately, and infants should be kept away from pet feeding areas.

9. Westland/Hallmark recall due to downer cows – This is on the list, in the last position, because many believed it was a food safety story, even though it technically wasn’t. An undercover video made by the Humane Society revealed that Chino-based Westland/Hallmark were slaughtering and selling the meat from “downer cows” - animals too sick to walk to slaughter. This is an absolute no-no, as cow sickness can mean bad meat. Because of the video and the resulting bru-ha-ha, 143 million pounds of beef was recalled – the largest meat recall in American history. Why is this not really a food safety story? Because no contaminated meat or illnesses were documented. But shining a spotlight on poor practice led to better practice, and that should lead to safer food.

10. There are still 13 days left in the year, so this one has been blank in the likely chance something will come up. If not, it will mean a happier holiday season for the American consumer as well as for those in the food safety community. Hats off to those who work hard year-round to keep the American food supply as safe as possible—here’s wishing you a quiet (and safe) season.


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