Safe at the plate?

Every few months, an outbreak of foodborne illness roils the nation. But a byzantine regulatory system and a patchwork approach to coverage in depleted newsrooms ensures the press is always playing catch-up on the food-safety story.

Editors’ Note: Bottemiller’s bio should have mentioned that her employer, Food Safety News, is published by the law firm Marler Clark, which represents victims of food-borne illnesses. FSN operates separately and is editorially independent.

Four-year-old Jake Hurley was wearing a red power tie when I first met him on Capitol Hill in October 2009. He and his dad, Peter, a police officer from Oregon, had just finished a long day of lobbying for the Food Safety Modernization Act, a bill that aimed to strengthen federal food safety regulation.

Earlier that year, Jake had been part of a nationwide Salmonella outbreak, in which contaminated peanut butter had sickened 714 people and been linked to nine deaths in 46 states, sparking a recall of nearly 4,000 food products. There was considerable media coverage of the outbreak, but the headlines came too late to prevent Jake’s 11-day battle with a severe Salmonella infection. At the time, no one knew what was responsible for the surge in illnesses. Jake’s pediatrician even told his parents they could continue feeding him peanut-butter crackers, his favorite comfort food, which, they would later learn, were precisely what was making him sick.

The Hurleys’ local paper, The Oregonian, happens to have an experienced food-safety reporter, Lynne Terry, on staff—a rarity in this age of shrinking newsrooms. But, as usual with most foodborne-illness outbreaks, the media don’t receive information until long after people start falling ill. In this case, Terry didn’t learn of the outbreak until January 2009, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had started looking into the first cluster of matching Salmonella illnesses in November 2008.

The trickle of information from public-health officials during outbreaks—which has as much to do with the science of epidemiology as it does with the complexity of our modefood system—is just one of the challenges facing reporters covering food safety in the 21st century. Public-health cutbacks, a fragmented regulatory system, a global food chain, and a lack of transparency at federal agencies make the food-safety beat as complicated as the food system itself.

While the United States enjoys one of the safest food supplies in the world, food safety remains a critical public-health issue. According to the CDC, each year an estimated 48 million Americans—roughly one in six—are sickened by tainted food, 128,000 of them are hospitalized, and 3,000 die.

Incidents of multistate foodborne illness are now routine. In the past several months, mangoes, tuna, cantaloupes, cheese, leafy greens, ground beef, and peanut butter have all been tied to outbreaks caused by pathogens like E. coli, Listeria, and Salmonella. More than half of consumers consistently report being concerned about food safety, yet few media outlets have a dedicated food-safety beat, so the coverage tends to be more reactive than sustained and solutions-oriented.

The epidemiology of foodborne disease is complicated; there are numerous barriers to definitively linking sick people in multiple states to the same pathogen and a common food product. One of the biggest hurdles is that foodborne illnesses are severely underreported. For every case of Salmonella that is reported, the CDC estimates that some 29 are not. For a case to be reported to PulseNet, a national network managed by the CDC to help connect matching illnesses, a person would have to be sick enough to go to the doctor, the doctor would have to suspect foodborne illness, collect a stool or blood sample, and, if the sample tested positive, alert state health officials who would then have to determine and report the DNA “fingerprint” of the pathogen.

Detecting and solving foodborne-illness outbreaks relies heavily on the capacity and expertise of state and local health departments, which have been hit hard by budget cuts and are often tracking multiple outbreaks or small clusters of disease at once. According to the National Association of County and City Health Officials, since 2008 around 50,000 jobs in these departments have been eliminated nationwide.

Even when dealing with confirmed illnesses, it’s difficult to definitively link them to a food product. Health officials use food-history questionnaires to help identify foods that sick people have in common, but it’s not easy to recall what you had for lunch three days ago, down to the ingredient.

Cracking the cases can take some time. Last spring, during an outbreak of Salmonella that ultimately sickened at least 425 people in 28 states, it took health officials two weeks just to narrow the likely cause to seafood, with sushi as a prime suspect. Then, investigators struggled to identify the specific ingredient making people sick. If it was spicy tuna rolls, which many people had reported eating before becoming ill, was it the mayonnaise, the sesame seeds, the tuna, the hot sauce, the seaweed, or the rice?

A month into the investigation, the CDC issued a press release notifying reporters that there was a nationwide outbreak that might be linked to sushi, but gave no further details. “At this time . . . consumers are not being advised to avoid any specific foods or restaurants,” read the release.

Nine days later, the Food and Drug Administration announced that Moon Marine USA Corporation was recalling 58,828 pounds of tuna scrape, which is flesh scraped off the bones of tuna and ground into a raw paste. The scrape, sourced from India, was not sold directly to consumers, but was widely used by restaurants and grocery stores to make inexpensive sushi rolls and other seafood products.

Health officials advised consumers to ask their sushi joints if they used tuna scrape from Moon Marine before consuming tuna rolls. This update came six weeks after the FDA’s outbreak-investigation team was first notified of a cluster of matching Salmonella illnesses. Meanwhile, consumers were unknowingly eating the contaminated scrape. It wasn’t until federal health officials linked the illnesses to a specific food product that journalists were able to pass on critical information to their readers and viewers. In an email to reporters four days after the recall, the cdc announced that 48 more people had been connected to the outbreak since it announced its investigation.

The 2009 peanut-butter outbreak took two months to solve, and the investigation revealed a stunningly complex food chain. “That investigation was complicated because there wasn’t really one food vehicle—it wasn’t just peanut butter, it wasn’t just peanut-butter crackers,” says Bill Keene, a senior epidemiologist at the Oregon Public Health Services, who worked on the outbreak.

After Jake Hurley had recovered, Keene’s team found the guilty strain of Salmonella in an open package of Austin Toasty Crackers with Peanut Butter at the Hurley’s home, a piece of evidence that helped investigators understand just how widely the contaminated peanut butter had been used in other food products.

Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), the company implicated in the outbreak, processed less than 2 percent of the US peanut supply, but its contaminated peanut butter and peanut paste were ingredients in thousands of products—from Clif Bars to prepackaged Pad Thai and ice cream. Several types of pet food also were recalled.

Kellogg recalled the crackers that made Jake sick in January 2009, but dozens of other companies were still announcing recalls several months later. The FDA had to launch a searchable database to assist consumers who wanted to check the products in their pantry, as many of the recalled food items were shelf-stable.

In February 2009, Congress began an inquiry into what had gone wrong. The outbreak had not only hospitalized people in nearly every state, but it had cost the food industry hundreds of millions of dollars in lost sales and product-recall costs. Lawmakers expressed outrage over the conditions FDA inspectors found at PCA. The company’s Blakely, GA, plant had pest problems, mold, a leaky roof that could have allowed bird feces to drop onto food surfaces, and documents showed company employees had ignored positive Salmonella tests. As The Oregonian’s Lynne Terry later reported, “The hearings revealed a food-safety network in tatters. [PCA’s] filthy plants were not adequately inspected, and the company’s owner, who complained in emails that positive Salmonella tests were costing him money, ordered contaminated food shipped to customers.”

With Jake by his side, Peter Hurley testified at one of the hearings. Stewart Parnell, the CEO of Peanut Corporation of America, also was called to testify. He pleaded the Fifth.

At the same hearing, Jeff Almer, whose mother died from the tainted peanut butter after she had successfully battled cancer years earlier, begged lawmakers to fix the food-safety system. “Shirley Almer loved this country but was terribly let down by a broken and ineffective food system with abysmal oversight,” he said in his testimony.

Public-health advocates have been complaining about the fragmented food regulatory system for decades. There are more than a dozen federal agencies involved in food safety. The US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service has jurisdiction over meat, poultry, and processed-egg products, and the FDA covers virtually everything else, including eggs in the shell. The cdc is in charge of disease surveillance.

The jurisdictional lines between agencies are tough to keep straight. Bottled water standards fall under the purview of the FDA, but tap water is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA sets pesticide levels for fresh produce, but the USDA and the FDA share residue-testing duties. The FDA regulates cheese pizza, but pepperoni pizza falls to the USDA. The FDA has primary responsibility for seafood safety, but, in a move to protect domestic catfish farmers from foreign competition, the 2008 farm bill shifted catfish to the USDA’s purview. In the wake of the Gulf oil spill in 2010, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration coordinates with the FDA and the EPA on testing seafood in the surrounding area for harmful contaminants.

Attempts to reorganize this regulatory spaghetti into a single food-safety agency, an idea that gets floated after each major outbreak, have not gained traction. It is understandable, then, that media outlets don’t have a comprehensive way of covering this system. If a newsroom even has a reporter assigned to cover food safety, in most cases it is just one piece of a much broader beat, or multiple beats.

The Associated Press, for instance, has Mary Clare Jalonick on food policy, which includes food safety and agriculture. McClatchy has Erika Bolstad on food safety, as well as environment and agriculture. Dow Jones has Bill Tomson covering the USDA and food safety.’s JoNel Aleccia covers the entire universe of health issues. USA Today has veteran food-safety reporter Elizabeth Weise, but she’s on the paper’s breaking-news team and also handles science issues. At The Oregonian, Terry also is on the breaking-news team, but picks up food safety when there’s a big story.

For many other outlets, food safety is just not a priority. For the second time in two years, The Washington Post has shifted its reporter covering food safety—as part of a “consumer regulatory issues” beat—to a different area, and as of late November it had not named a replacement. Reuters does not have a reporter assigned to food safety. The New York Times has reporters who cover food and agriculture, food business, and the FDA (which ends up being mostly drug issues), but no one is directly responsible for staying on food-safety issues. One reporter at the Times acknowledged that sometimes food safety “falls through the cracks.”

A year ago, Bloomberg assigned Stephanie Armour to the beat, and has since ramped up its coverage of food-safety policy. Armour recently collaborated with Bloomberg reporters in Mexico, Vietnam, and China on a months-long investigation for Bloomberg Markets Magazine that detailed broad conflict-of-interest problems with private food-safety auditing firms, including Peanut Corporation of America’s auditor, which gave the company’s Georgia plant a “superior” rating before the Salmonella outbreak.

Yet despite this increased focus on food safety, Bloomberg recently added hospitals to Armour’s portfolio.

After years of work by a broad coalition, including hundreds of lobbying meetings with victims of foodborne illness, Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) in December 2010. When President Obama signed the act into law, nearly everyone, including the media, hailed it as the most significant update to food-safety law in seven decades, since the modern FDA was founded in 1938.

But the overhaul promised by FSMA, which was supposed to shift our system from reactive to preventive, has not happened. The four most critical regulations called for in the bill, which would mandate preventive safety practices for food manufacturers and produce growers in the US and abroad, have been languishing at the White House Office of Management and Budget for a year. OMB officials maintain that the rules are complex and that they are working diligently to finalize their review, but industry stakeholders, consumer groups, and public-health advocates say that election-year politics put the regulations on hold. With the election over, food-safety activists hope the administration will finally move ahead with these regulations.

Several editorial boards have urged the Obama administration to implement FSMA, but there has been limited news coverage of the delay, even as foodborne-illness outbreaks continue to grab headlines. Covering these policy-heavy stories can be challenging, in part because it’s difficult to translate them into something interesting for the average news consumer. “When journalists do actually write those stories, they are often too technical for the general public to follow, not because the writer has done a bad job, but because of the complexity of America’s food system and the byzantine rules that are meant to keep it safe,” says Jane Black, who used to cover food at The Washington Post, where she now writes a monthly column.

Four years after the PCA scandal, the Hurleys are experiencing déjà vu as the country deals with another Salmonella outbreak tied to peanut butter that has sickened 42 people in 20 states. More than half the victims are children under the age of 10, and more than 200 products have been recalled. The FDA has, once again, launched a searchable database for consumers.

Last October, the family received a postcard from Costco notifying them they had purchased organic peanut butter months ago that had been recalled. Peter had actually been following the latest outbreak, but didn’t know that peanut butter he had purchased was part of the recall. To their relief, they hadn’t eaten any of it.

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Helena Bottemiller is the Washington, DC, correspondent for Food Safety News. Food Safety News is published by the law firm Marler Clark, which represents victims of food-borne illnesses but is operated separately and is editorially independent.