Thursday, December 30, 2010


It has been a fairly quiet year for ground beef recalls. So I suppose it was time for one more before the end of 2010. The recalled product is "organic" ground beef - which we would like to think is a little better. This time it isn't.

The recalling firm is based in California. It has one of those quality-sounding names that are common in the food business - "First Class Foods, Inc." Unfortunately, first class or not, it is in trouble. Over the years several companies have folded because of E.coli 0157 in their ground meat. Recalls are very costly. And we may be in trouble too if we eat that meat undercooked. As we all know, ground meat is the most risky of all fresh meat products, because of the way it is made. E.coli 0147 can give you bloody diarrhea, and dehydration. In most severe cases, kidney failure can occur. No fun. Most likely to become seriously ill are young children, seniors and anyone with a weak immune system.

By the way, this is the fifth case in 2010 (12 mos.) of E.coli 0147 that testing has turned up in widely sold U.S. ground beef or raw beef products (such as raw patties, burgers). Plus two more in meat that would probably have been ground at the retailers, as it often is.

Here are the facts:

- Products were sent to retail establishments in Calif., N.J., N.Y., N.C., Wis., and Wash. State.

- The ones being recalled are:

---16-oz. packages of "NATURE'S HARVEST ORGANIC GROUND BEEF BRICK" sold singly with one of the following "USE or FREEZE by" dates: "12/30/10" or "01/08/11."
---16-oz. packages of "ORGANIC HARVEST ORGANIC GROUND BEEF BRICK" sold singly and in three-packs with one of the following "USE or FREEZE by" dates: "12/28/10" or "01/06/11."
---16-oz. packages of NATURE'S HARVEST GROUND PATTY" containing four (4) 4-oz. patties with the following "USE or FREEZE by" date: "12/30/10" or "01/08/11."
--- Each package label has the establishment number "EST. 18895"

If you have questions, you can call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline (1-888-MPHOTLINE) or Lucienne Adams -(310) 676-2500 at the recalling company. That is, if they are answering.

Remember, in many recalls, additional products and additional companies are added later, so you may want to be even more cautious. That is, if you don't want a bad start to 2011.

Cook those burgers well!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


I have just done a food recall roundup for the last 6 mos. of 2010, using official FDA and USDA data. Alright, I should have done it for the year, but this analysis is taking ages to do, because the goverment sites are not well organized. I also did not want to get into counting those hundreds of shell egg and HPV-related recalls that occurred earlier this year (see previous blog).

The below information represents one way of looking at the facts. Remember - I do not cover allergens, mislabelling, or foreign material such as bits of plastic, metal, pins, nails, whatever that is frequently found in all kinds of food. Nor do I include any "maybe" cases of contamination - just proven ones. The statistics could also be analyzed differently (e.g. by number of products recalled, number of illnesses and so on). I would guess that accuracy is about 90%. I should really check this twice more, as I usually do with any data, but don't have the time. Maybe later.

OK so here is a preliminary overview of hazards in the US food supply, as indicated by food recalls:

Most common cause of recalls: Salmonella bacteria (see earlier blog again). But remember, this is NOT counting those huge Salmonella-caused recalls earlier in the year. That would make it even worse. Salmonella caused some 30 recalls in the past 6 mos. Foods contaminated ranged from produce and meat to unexpected ones such as black pepper, sesame seeds, chocolate, nuts, cereal and soup bases. Well, just about anything and everything you could put in your mouth.

Most commonly contaminated type of food: Ready-to-eat foods, such as washed and pre-cut fruits and vegetables, sandwiches, deli salads, meats and other deli products and so on. The most common contaminant of these was Listeria monocytogenes bacteria (so dangerous for pregnant women because of harm to the fetus).

The single most often recalled food: cheese. Yes, this has been a bad year for cheese, especially cheese made from raw milk, which is always the most dangerous (see earlier blog). It has been the vehicle for E.coli, Staphyloccus, Enteroccus, Listeria and Salmonella bacteria. And yes, cheese has outpaced ground meat this year(which is usually contaminated with E.coli 0147).

Most unexpected contaminants: But note that I have covered these in the Safe Food Handbook (why? because I believe they are much more important than we believe). These are high levels of aflatoxin (a possibly carcinogenic fungal toxin) in white corn flour; high levels of lead in pommegranate juice concentrate.

Emerging contaminant nomination: Goes to E.coli 0145 (see earlier blog)in romaine lettuce. It was caught by the New York State Public Health Laboratory (I think I will send them a fan letter) when testing a bag of shredded lettuce that was shipped to a school district in New York. But it turned up in other states as well. I bet this very dangerous E.coli is around much more than we know - except food testing in most laboratories has only been done for E.coli 0147. My guess is that we will see much more of it in 2011.

How's that for a roundup?



I am doing some end-of-year thinking today. Among other things, I took a look at what the Food and Drug Administration considers to be "Major Public Health Threats" in our food. There are five food product recalls that the FDA presently classifies under this heading, taking place over the past two years (actually, less, since it is not up-to-date). The number of products recalled represents the latest information made available by the FDA (and also, may not be quite up-to-date, but it gives you the general picture).

Here they are:
Shell Egg Recalls (94 egg product recalled)
Hydrolized Vegetable Protein (HPV - a flavor enhancer) Containing Product Recalls (177 products recalled)
Pistachio Product Recalls - (664 products recalled)
Peanut Product Recalls (3918 products recalled)
Milk Cooperative Ingredient Recall (286 products recalled)

All except the first (shell eggs) were associated with ingredients used in processed foods (except for a few repackaged nuts). This kind of recall almost always tends to be more widespread.

And note - every one of these "major public health threats" was caused by one of the Salmonella bacteria. Of course, there were many other additional instances of Salmonella contamination of our food as well during this period (produce, ready-to-eat foods, spices, chocolate, pastries and more).

As I have said before - Salmonella is a major survivor, and it is everywhere in our food.

So I am giving Salmonella the "Worst Food Threat" award of the year.


Monday, December 27, 2010


The new US food safety legislation, finally passed by the Senate a few days ago(see earlier blog), is supposed to strengthens the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Most importantly, it is supposed to make sure that the FDA focuses on preventing food borne illness, not just managing outbreaks once they occur. Of course, in theory that is what the FDA is supposed to have been doing all along. It just hasn't had the resources to do the job properly.

That prevention should include better public information - issued promptly if contaminated food does reach our markets, groceries and homes.

Unfortunately, the word "quickly" doesn't seem to exist in the FDA's prevention vocabulary. The FDA has to learn that each day counts. In fact, each hour counts. It doesn't take long for us to reach for that bad food and to eat it. But the FDA seems to think it just needs to protect the public 9-5 Monday to Friday, with holidays off. Unfortunately, food contaminants don't respect holidays. In fact, I almost get the feeling that they like to ensure at least one nasty seasonal outbreak just to yank our chain - contaminated Valentine's Day chocolates, contaminated turkey at Thanksgiving, nutmeg and gingerbread contamination just before Christmas day. You get the picture.

But over the Christmas holidays, the public was left exposed to food risk, with the FDA on vacation. Food alerts have been reaching me sooner through CNN (courtesy of news forwarded by my son, who is in the fashion business - nothing to do with food). The official FDA alert system, to which I belong, has notified me much later. That was the case with the recent outbreak in dog food, the one in nuts, and also, most recently, the one in baked goods.

Let me illustrate with one of the most recent food recalls. The very dangerous Staphylococcus aureus bacteria was discovered in Rolf's Pastry goods. The company is based in Chicago, but products are sold both on line and by major retailers, nationwide. One of the several contaminated pastry products found to be contaminated was Rolf's gingerbread houses, sold by Whole Foods in 23 states, decorated and packaged in clear plastic wrap, either under the Rolf's Patisserie label or Whole Foods' Market scale label. Naturally, they are often eaten by children, who are more vulnerable.

The FDA relayed the Whole Foods gingerbread and other Rolf's pastry recall information only today - Dec.27. Whole Foods had issued the recall on Dec. 24, which is when CNN reported it. That is, it was three days late. During those three days many children (whose parents and doctors did not catch the CNN alert) were more likely to become ill from eating gingerbread and pastries, and less likely to be correctly diagnosed and treated. That is not prevention. That is irresponsible!

I think I will give CNN the safe food award for 2010 - not the FDA.

Sunday, December 26, 2010


2010 has not been the best year for Whole Foods Market. True, the stock price has done very well - up by roughly 66% in 12 months. Now I wish I had bought shares last January after all, and held onto them. So maybe my singling it out is a bit of "sour grapes." But I do want to make a point: even the best and most popular higher-end food retailers, including those which specialize in organic and healthy-lifestyle foods, can be caught out selling dangerous, contaminated food.

In fact, it has been a pretty dangerous year for those who shop at Whole Foods - like dodging a bacterial bullet every time you buy food. In January, Whole Foods had to recall a number of Listeria bacteria-contaminated ready -to-eat products (along with some other large retailers such as Target, Shop-Rite, Wal-Mart) such spreads, cheeses. This bacterium is particularly dangerous for pregnant women as it can cause stillbirths and health-problems in the newborn. In early April of this year, it has to recall frozen yellowfin tuna steaks, because they were found to have elevated levels of histamine - a natural fish toxin which in high levels can cause scromboid poisoning. The fish was sold in its stores in 29 states.

Then in early Sepember, Whole Foods Market’s North Atlantic Region had to do a recall of Morningland Dairy and Ozark Farm's Raw Goat Milk Mild Cheddar Cheese - which carried not one, but two kinds of bad bacteria (Listeria and Staphylococcus aureus) . In November, Whole Foods was again found to be selling about 7 kinds of contaminated Cheddar cheeses in five states, manufactured by Bravo Farms. This time it was the more common Listeria bacteria again. Then, later in November, it found it was selling recalled Dagoba Organic chocolate made by Artesan Confections with a touch of Salmonella. In late November, it had to recall nutmeg sourced from a New Jersey supplier, again because of contamination with Salmonella. Later in December, it had to recall a number of cheeses manufactured by another of its suppliers - Sally Jackson - with yes - that awful E.coli 0157 bacteria this time. Then, just in time for little kids eating them, right on Christmas Eve, Whole Foods had to recall Gingerbread houses produced by Rolf's Bakery from its stores in 23 states.

I am getting rather tired of listing the recalls, so this is not a comprehensive list. But before I sign off - three things. One, Whole Foods Market sold many of these products (such as cheeses, nutmeg and others) under its house label. Secondly, I have noticed that several of these Whole Foods suppliers have sent it contaminated food before - that is, this wasn't the first time. Thirdly, I have noticed that the supplier involved announced its recall several days earlier, before Whole Foods got around to notifying its customers. Delays are dangerous. Maybe "healthy' Whole Foods needs to start being a bit more health conscious in the New Year.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


This has been a very bad year for cheese. We used to think of it as a safe food. But not after the last few months! And it is no longer just those Salmonella or Listeria monocytogenes bacteria that are cropping up in cheese. It is E.coli 0157:H7 as well and Staphylococcus aureus bacteria (which can also be deadly, particularly if antibiotic resistant). Recently there has been "an outbreak of outbreaks" linked to our cheeses.

Almost all the contaminations have been in raw soft or semi-soft cheeses, many of them produced by higher end artisanal cheese makers, sold in the more expensive stores and served in upper end restaurants. In the United States, raw milk cheeses are only supposed to be sold if they have been aged for 60 days (which is expected to allow most bacteria to die). Well, after this year, the government certainly has some ammunition for extending that time period, or, prohibiting raw cheese sales altogether.

Let's take a look at a six month period, July through December, 2010. In July, there was a recall of - yes, aged - raw milk cheddar cheese made by Milky Way Farm in Pennsylvania. Staphylococcus aureus and enterotoxin bacteria were found in samples of the cheese. Also in July, Azteca Linda Corp. of New York, had to recall a number of fresh cheeses and string cheeses because of Listeria monocytogenes contamination.About 5 weeks afterwards, they had to do another recall for the same reason. Then in August Queseria Chiplo of New Jersey had to recall a huge variety of their fresh and string cheeses again because of Listeria. This was followed in early September with a cheese recall issued by Morningland Dairy of Missouri, which had a double contamination of its cheeses - Listeria and Staphylococcus aureus, distributed under both its own name brand and that of Ozark Hills Cheese. The "healthy" Whole Foods Market admitted that it had sold the recalled Morningland Dairy Cheese and the Ozark Hills Cheese, and conducted its owns recall.

Also in early September, Estrella Family Creamery of Monstesano, Wash. was found to be selling Listeria contaminated cheeses, but resisted recalling them (this is an interesting side issue for a future blog). Things were quiet for a month or so, but then in early November we got a new cheese contaminant - E.coli 0157:H7. And guess what - Costco found it was selling Gorganzola Cheese distributed by DPI Specialty Company which carried that deadly contaminant. Even worse, it had offered the cheese in store tastings. This was followed by a cheese recall by Del Bueno which included a range of cheese types (fresh, Ricotta cheese, dry cheese and more) again because of Listeria. In mid December, Sally Jackson Cheese was forced to recall all its soft cheeses made from raw cow, goat and sheep milk. To complicate matters, these cheeses apparently did not carry codes. Whole Foods was caught out again. It had repackaged the cheeses when cut up and placed its own store label on them.

If I have counted correctly - and haven't missed any - that makes some ten incidents associated with cheese in the last six months of this year. Well - not quite six months yet. A few days to go. Will there be more?


Saturday, December 18, 2010


Well, finally, the FDA is flexing some muscle. And in a good cause. That cause is rats in food warehouses. Apart from those nasty rats eating things, they also spread disease.

Unfortunately, rats are everywhere, together with their less unpleasant cousins, mice(See my previous rat post). My son, who just arrived home for the holidays, was entertaining me today by saying that he has accepted mice as a kind of permanent Tuesday through Thursday guests in his New York apartment (apparently the apartment is too clean the other days for them to feel interested. I hate to think what happens in between).

The FDA has also put down its bureaucratic foot on another rat-contaminated food wareheouse this time in New Mexico, owned by Duran and Sons LLC in Derry. Reportedly U.S. Marshals, acting under a court order sought by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, today seized chili pods, ground chili, crushed chili, and other chili products from the premises and made off with them so they couldn't be sold.

Quoting from the FDA notice: " FDA investigators found rodent nesting material and dropping on and around food, several rodent gnawed containers of food, and stains indicative of rodent urine. In addition, they saw a live cat, live birds, apparent bird nesting, bird droppings, feces and urine from other animals, live and dead insects, and insect larvae throughout the entire product warehouse."

It sounds like a veritable zoo. I assume the cat was after the rats, and the birds were just seeking housing. As for the rats...eating chili? Those poor rats must be really hard up.


Sunday, December 5, 2010


Well, it did and it didn't. What I mean is that, yes, the Senate did pass the Food Safety Modernization Act (S510) by a sizeable majority a few days ago, but no, it didn't really pass it. Bottom line - it has to go for another vote because of (politely called) "a technicality." A less polite description(as my husband would say) is "a screwup."

Here's the American Public Health Association summary of what happened (I can't improve on it):

"After Senate passage of the bill, House lawmakers from the Ways and Means Committee discovered revenue raising provisions that would raise fees for various enforcement measures were included in the Senate bill. The constitution requires that all revenue raising measures originate in the House of Representatives. House leaders are working to try to identify options to move the bill forward including potentially attaching it to a House bill and sending it back to the Senate for a final vote. However a potential road block awaits as all 42 Senate Republicans recently sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid vowing to block any future legislation until all of the expiring Bush tax cuts are renewed and all FY 2011 appropriations bills have been passed by the Senate."

Frankly, I find it very hard to understand how they missed such an obvious issue - unintentionally, that is. And I don't like the blackmail either. Our politicians are playing with the American public's health and lives. The current basic food safety legislation dates back over 80 years. Our food supply has changed, hazards in our food have changed - and other countries, such as Canada and the EU nations have updated their key laws ages ago.

No, this is not Big Brother telling us what we can and cannot eat. Such regulations exist in all modern countries, and much of what this law is proposing is actually already taking place, except that our government agencies have very little clout and money to enforce food safety standards.

Let's move it!


Wednesday, December 1, 2010


Well, I am glad I highlighted the risks of Salmonella bacteria in spices in The Safe Food Handbook. It has cropped up again. This time it is in ground nutmeg - including the Whole Foods non-organic one and the Frontier Brand ground nutmeg.

Yes, they came from the same source, and my guess is that this is not the end: other brands of nutmeg will also be found to be contaminated soon too. The recalled nutmeg was distributed by Frontier Natural Products Co-op, which got it from Mincing Overseas Spice Company of Dayton, New Jersey, which imported it from Indonesia, and supposedly sterilized it (sterilization is not always 100% successful, but some of us prefer it to fumigation, which is more commonly used).

You may want to go easy on using this very seasonal spice unless you cook it thoroughly (which will kill the bacteria). But, as one of my friends said, "We don't use much nutmeg, so is it enough to make us sick?" Yes, bacteria are tiny, and if it is contaminated badly enough, 100 or more Salmonella can be sitting on that one small pinch.

By the way - this same importer was involved in a recall of Salmonella-contaminated black pepper in March, 2010. Why does Whole Foods keep selling their products?



The description of Dogoba chocolate reads like poetry. Just take a look at their website ( Besides, it is organic, Fair Trade Certified, Kosher, and at least some of the cocoa ingredients are purchased from eco-friendly farmers in places such as the Dominican Republic. You would be tempted to buy it even if you didn't love chocolate, which I certainly do. A chocolate and coffee first thing in the morning, to get me moving.

But Artisan Confections, the U.S. makers of Dogoba chocolate, is currently recalling one of its products - Dagoba Organic Chocolate new moon organic Rich Dark Chocolate -74% cacao. The reason - yes, again - is that Salmonella bacteria have been found. This chocolate is sold at specialty stores and health and organic food retailers such as Whole Foods Market, and has been distributed throughout the U.S. So far only one lot is being recalled, but don't bet that this is the end.

Nor is this the first time that Dogoba chocolate has been involved in a recall. It was Salmonella problems again, back in March, 2006, resulting in the recall of a large number of Dogoba chocolate products. Then there was that lead contamination in May/June of 2006. The company upset a lot of people - especially Dogoba-Chocolate consuming pregnant women - by not being more forthcoming with information and coverage of testing. What is causing these problems at Artisan Confections? Is it contaminated imported ingredients (maybe the nutmeg used in some - see next blog), poorly cleaned equipment at the plant, ill workers, contaminated packaging? Whatever it is, Artisan Confections needs to take action to quickly identify and solve the problem or it will lose its healthy image -and its loyal customers. I think Whole Foods Market should be reconsidering selling their products.


Friday, November 12, 2010

E. coli O157:H7 in Costco Cheese

E. coli O157:H7 is a particularly nasty bacterium. Only a few in your food can be enough to give you a totally miserable week or so of diarrhea and stomach cramps. For people who are more vulnerable, and especially young children (under age 5), and sometimes, older adults, it can even be much worse. Just as they seem to be improving, they develop a type of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). HUS can be fatal.

We tend to associate E. coli O157:H7 with meat, particularly consumption of undercooked hamburgers. True, it turns up there fairly regularly, including in the past few months. But vegans - don't think you are safe. It can be on your fruit and vegetables too. And, for those who eat dairy - it can be right in the cheese.
That is where it has been turning up in the past ten days. On November 4, the FDA informed us that E. coli O157:H7 had been found in Bravo Farms Dutch Style Gouda cheese. Ugh - offered at in-store tastings by Costco in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada and sold in Costco stores. ("Would you like a little taste of deadly bacteria?") People in the Southwest are getting very sick...although no one has died yet.

Then today I found another cheese recall, this time for Mauri Gorgonzola cheese with sell-by dates of 01/31/11 and 01/14/11. It has also tested positive for E. coli O157:H7. And, again Costco is selling it. DPI Specialty Foods of Tualatin, Ore., cut, packaged and distributed the cheese to Costco stores in Colorado. According to the FDA, the strain of E. coli O157:H7 in this cheese is different from the one in the earlier alert. So what is happening? Who knows. Once the investigation is completed - and this could take weeks, or even months - we may be told the cause. But - and this is an update(11/15) further investigation shows Costco is blameless. It wasn't one of their workers, contaminating it while cutting it up. The cheese came from DPI Specialty Foods already carrying the E.coli (proven through its presence in an unopened package).

In the meantime, I continue to suggest a preventive approach. If you would just as soon not spend the next week or more in misery, don't buy or eat any kind of cheese distributed by DPI Specialty Foods or bought at Costco, until we find out more (contaminated equipment? sick workers with poor sanitation? ). It could well be that other cheese products will be implicated as well. If you want to be even safer, cut out all cheese for a while, as the problem or problems may turn out to be earlier in the food chain - and, could be an ingredient problem.


Monday, November 8, 2010


Cilantro is currently in the recall news. Companies are recalling their cilantro-containing ready-to-eat products such as chicken salads, fish salads, dips, and so on, because FDA testing has turned up Salmonella bacteria in the cilantro. So far, only two RTE food companies have issued recalls - Orval Kent and PPA Fine Foods, but quite likely, more will follow (as I warned in my first alert). Any time a commonly used food ingredient is involved, the number of recalls always grows, sometimes over a period of months.

Among retailers, Trader Joe's has been particularly hard hit, and is pulling many of its products - including one of my long-time favorites. (Even though I always argue that RTE foods are the most dangerous to eat, I have to confess that I do buy a few of my favorites such as Trader Joes Cilantro Walnut Dip.)
The cilantro behind this mess originated at Epic Veg Inc, a Lompoc, California company. You may note that in the right hand top corner of their produce box, there is a logo for Primus Labs, and a logo "When Safety Counts." I assume this is the laboratory that does the company's product testing for bacteria such as Salmonella - the one that turned up. I tried to find out where Epic Veg's products originate and who else was among its customers, but no luck. The company's website is remarkably uninformative. The source information is very carefully worded. It does not state where products are actually grown (California or across the border in Mexico?.

The only thing I did find out is that the two principals of the company apparently spend a lot of time on the golf course. Maybe they should spend more time supervising their operations, or they won't be able to afford the golf club fees anymore. Many small established and fledgling companies (I would guess this one is the latter) have gone belly up because of contaminated products. No company wants to continue buying their cilantro from a distributor sending them Salmonella as a bonus.


Sunday, November 7, 2010


In countries like the US, we forget that there are still people in the world who don't get their food the way we do. They don't grow it or buy much. I was reminded of this today when I googled myself and found, to my surprise, a rather obscure piece of field research I had done decades ago on food security among the "Remote Area Dwellers" (RADs - a politically correct way of referring to "bushmen") of Botswana.

Basarwa and other ethnic minorities living in the Remote Area Dweller (RAD) settlements - sometimes called "bushmen" - are the poorest of the poor in Botswana -a generally prosperous country. Most live in planned settlements in the Kalahari desert, which are truly desolate places. I will never forget the drive there, those glowing eyes of the Kalahari desert lions and cheetah surrounding the jeep as we changed a flat tire at dusk (our fourth), the sounds in the nights I slept in the settlements, the incredible heat and thirst. I still see the RAD people themselves - an apathy which beats description, a lost cultural pride.

Most were hungry, not just part of the year, but all the time. The reason: they were losing the sources of food supply that they knew and had always depended on as hunter-gatherers - wild meat and veld foods. Men have the main role in hunting although women also go along and help. Walking for miles in the bush and gathering veld foods and products is women's job. They do not grow any food. It is just not in their culture and programs to try to get them to do it fail. Their lack of water and good soil are other constraints. The hunting and water stories are too complex to explain here, but in brief, more powerful outsiders such as urban recreational hunters (and tourists) are depleting wildlife and cattlemen are capturing the RAD wells. This not ony results in hunger, but destroys the RAD social structure, which is interwoven with the hunting process and sharing the kill.

Veld foods were also becoming depleted around the settlements. Here are some of the "veld" foods they were eating when I was there - when they could find them (I remember those delicious phane worms....):

•tubers, which is the staple of the Basarwa;
•various veld fruits, such as marula and milo;
•phane worms;
•mahupo (truffle);
•grewia (a type of berry bush, which is used as a cereal);
•nuts, such as mogongo and moramo; and
•herbs used for medicinal purposes and teas.

On this gourmet note...For more details, go to:


Thursday, November 4, 2010


I found a dead rat in the middle of my lawn today. Not exactly what you want to almost step on, as you go down after just one cup of coffee to collect the last of the season's (rather sad looking) tomatoes. Of course, that may be what has been eating them. I thought it was the squirrels.

Which reminds me, about the rats (or was it mice?) found in the Iowa henhouses of Wright County Egg - one of the two egg producers who gave us so much concern about Salmonella in our shell eggs in August of this year. Which also reminds me that I have been noticing quite a few of these generally unpopular critters coming up in the FDA's alerts, notices and recalls lately.

There were those rats found in the plant of the alfalfa producer who, after numerous warnings, was finally closed down. Then there was that Athens, Georgia food warehouse owned by Sun Hong Kai Holdings. Rats and mice were running all over the place, and jumping out of boxes at employees. (I won't go into details on how many dead/alive rats/mice and/or their droppings the inspectors found). After the FDA really got tough in August of this year, the workers were told to clean up the rats, their nests, urine, droppings etc. What they found was so bad that they ended up closing the warehouse (more unemployment).

More recent rats-in-food news has focused on rats in the food storage warehouses of a Nashville, Tennessee Lao Trading Company which distributes foods such as seafood items, tofu, canned fruits, vegetables and drinks, rice, rice sticks, fruit juice drinks, coconut milk, fish sauce and soy sauce in Tennessee. On October 27, the FDA announced that it has made the owner sign a "consent decree" - under which it promises to follow pest control practices, keep its warehouses in sanitary condition , and a few other things, to keep rats and nasty contaminants out. Until it did, it had to stop distributing food. Let's see if it does. By the way, it got into trouble for the same problem five years ago.

I am sure there are many recent cases I have missed. But that is probably enough: rodents like to be where there is food. Don't think they never get near our so-called safe food supply. And don't believe that inspectors catch all the cases. Next time you see little black things in your rice - throw it out.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


Well, the book and cover are finally done, and I now have a welcome month or so of relative calm before starting the book events (mainly in January). This is a time to get back to the "other" book - take note dog lovers - on dog food safety. That is, if I decide to go ahead. It was started about three years ago, and sadly had to be put aside (current status: a very rough draft). The book focuses not just on hazards in dog food (and treats, snacks) for dogs, but also on the links between dog food and the health of their "owners" or whatever we want to call ourselves.

My dilemma - am I really willing to go to all this effort to finish it? I had no idea that writing a commercial non-fiction book would be so much work..I think of all those other things I want to spend time on, that I have had to miss out on for the last few years. A co-author would be a great solution, but no veterinarian who values their career would be willing to co-author a book which is so critical of their profession.

In the meantime -Here are some pre-order links for The Safe Food Handbook (for humans):

Also available as an E-Book.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Bad eggs have been out of the news for the last week or so. But here's the latest - straight from the FDA.

Remember, there were two Iowa egg producers linked to those Salmonella bacteria contaminated eggs - Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms. Both were told they had to stop shipping whole eggs to the marketplace until the FDA cleared them (although they were allowed to send them to the liquid egg processing plants where they would be pasteurized, killing any bacteria - we hope).

Well, as of October 15, Hillandale Farms has now been authorized to begin selling shell eggs again. It seems to have gone along with FDA inspections and more stringent safety conditions. Wright County Egg had requested on October 1 to also resume selling shell eggs, but the FDA has turned them down - firmly. Mr. Austin J. DeCoster, owner of Quality Egg LLC of Galt, Iowa - and of Wright County Egg, has been sent a nasty warning letter, telling him to get this act together and follow the Egg Safety Rule, including on aspects of biosecurity, rodent control, safe packaging and storage. The letter ends with a warning:

“Failure to take prompt corrective action may result in regulatory action being initiated by the Food and Drug Administration without further notice. These actions include, but are not limited to, seizure and/or injunction.”

Bon appétit

Thursday, September 30, 2010


I almost rear-ended a police car yesterday. It was the policeman's fault - really. He swung out in front of me suddenly to give chase to a speeding car. He did not use a signal, or switch on flashing lights until later. Police often seem to think safe driving rules do not apply to them.

What does this have to do with food safety? Well, I thought of this incident when reading today's New York Times (Business section) article about the FDA inspector who was supposed to train poultry farmers on how to avoid spread of bacteria on poultry farms, breaking one of the cardinal safety rules herself, when she repeatedly parked her car too close to henhouses. By doing so, she could carry Salmonella or other bacteria in cow manure lodged in her tires or even transport contaminated poultry waste from one farm to another. In fact, it is believed that internationally much of Avian Influenza spread (apart from that carried by wild birds) is due to vehicles moving between poultry farms.

Why is it that those meant to enforce laws are often the first to break such laws - policemen, lawyers - and FDA inspectors?

And if an outbreak had indeed occurred at one of these poultry farms, the culprit inspector would not have been blamed - any more than that policeman would have been if I hadn't managed to brake fast enough.

Bon appetit!

Monday, September 27, 2010


No matter what improvements are made in egg production, the likelihood is that SE will never be completely wiped out of our eggs. There will always be the chance that SE-infected pullets will slip through the net, that contaminated feed will turn up again, that SE-infected rats will contaminate the laying environment, or, that something similar will happen. As a result, we can basically assume that a small fraction of all our shell eggs will always be infected with SE. Given past experience, we can also assume that there will be periods of time when that number will increase dramatically as there is an up-surge in SE infection among laying hens.

Whether we get sick from SE in our eggs will depend on four basic things: how vulnerable we are, how many eggs we eat, where we eat them and how we eat them. Let's turn to the "how" and "where." As we know by now, undercooked eggs and undercooked egg-containing dishes are the risky ones. Studies suggest that fried eggs (sunny-side up) are about the riskiest of all. The safest - well done eggs, pasteurized eggs (even if underdone), and egg dishes and egg-containing dishes made with pasteurized egg product.

As for high-risk places, the worst ones are institutional food-service (such as nursing homes, residential dining rooms, schools, hospitals) and restaurants or other places such as conventions, receptions, where eggs are pooled and large quantities of food are prepared, often in advance. Many institutional food-services have begun to use pasteurized egg products - which are easier to store and use, as well as safer. So have a large percentage of restaurants, but not all. After all, whole eggs taste better. Some restaurants do use pasteurized eggs, but their higher price is a negative.

Studies of egg use in restaurants have also shown that a large percentage continue to have practices that would help any bacteria in the eggs to multiply (such as leaving an omelet mix, or egg-containing dessert mix at room temperature for a while). It could well be that it is getting increasingly less safe to eat out at a good restaurant (more likely to use whole eggs than is a cheap one) than to eat in a nursing home.

Hyvää ruokahalua! (as they say in Finnland)

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Test yourself: The egg carton has a label saying "Trafficanda Egg Ranch, Van Nuys, California. So where do you think these eggs were laid? California, of course. No...wrong. Actually, the hens they came from are sitting there at Wright County Egg farm in Galt, Iowa, and those eggs then travelled all the way to California, to be packaged and distributed here. And, they are now included in the shell egg recall - as of today.

How embarrassing for Trafficanda..and, annoying for us. We consumers in California were innocently buying and eating the eggs, thinking that at least they were California eggs, not Iowa eggs, so they were safe...And, local.

This is just one case. There are plenty of other examples. Moarc LLC, is another California distributor which is recalling over 24,000 eggs - received from the Iowa Hillandale farm, and re-packaged under the under the brand names Albertsons, Yucaipa Valley, Farmer’s Gems and Mountain Dairy, as well as sent to foodservice customers (unbranded). Similar things happened with the peanut product and pistachio outbreaks in 2008-2009.

Our food is distributed, and redistributed and repackaged and relabeled and repackaged and relabeled again. How do we know where it comes from? How will label reading help to keep us safe? We are constantly misled by the label, often confusing the location of the distributor with the place the food item was actually produced. During a recall, such as the present shell egg one, where the number of egg brands are constantly increasing, there is little we can do to make smart purchasing decisions, except to rely on the retailer to pull risky foods off the shelf...which some fail to do. The retailers also have a hard time keeping ahead of the recall-curve.

Of course, retailers could be extra careful, like one of my favorite and fairly safety-conscious local stores. Yesterday, when I walked over to get a carton of fresh eggs, I was met instead with what looked a group of stuffed hens (the correct size and with real feathers). If they hadn't been standing so still, I would have thought they were real. A sign below said something like this: "Our ---- (brand) eggs are not part of the recall, but we have removed them anyway to avoid confusion."

But they are correct: we consumers ARE confused. Who can remember all those different recalled brand names, "best-by" dates and Julian dates when they go to buy eggs? And keeping in mind that this is a constantly expanding list...

Eat beans instead.

Bon appetit!

Thursday, August 19, 2010


One thing we should never assume is that new food safety legislation is going to have an instant effect. Take eggs. Yes, the FDA has this year issued a new egg safety rule, meant to seriously reduce the chance that shell eggs could contain Salmonella bacteria - the main contamination risk in eggs. In fact, the majority of big U.S. egg producers and transporters are already doing most of the things proposed, and have been for years. Can they do better? Sure, there is always room for improvement, and hopefully, the legislation will help.

But if egg producers and egg transporters are being careful, how come more than half a billion eggs all over the U.S. have just been recalled because they could be contaminated with Salmonella bacteria? Everyone seems to be blaming the huge Iowa egg producers - Wright County Egg farms, and Hillandale Farms. Certainly, there is a chance that they slipped up. Let's face it, the violation record of Wright farms is not exactly great. If they break employment laws, maybe they have also been breaking the safety ones. And, there have been reports of rats...

But it could simply be that they were very unlucky. Maybe the chicks they bought were already ill, or the hen feed they bought was contaminated, or something else. The last think a food producer of any kind wants is a recall of their food products. The trouble is that bacteria are probably smarter at surviving than we are at catching them. Salmonella bacteria are proving to be one of the best. They are cropping up in almost every kind of food we eat - even in dry spices.

So, don't hold your breath and wait for things to get better. No matter what government does, or food producers and distributors do, things will never be perfect. There will always be a bad egg somewhere.

This is one type of food in which we consumers can really control our risks.



Bon appetit


Thursday, June 10, 2010

Unhealthy Spinach, Healthy Spinach

Americans love spinach. And we believe it is good for us. According to some statistics, teenage girls eat the least spinach, and women over 40 eat the most. Does this mean that we women must be undergoing some type of spinach epiphany somewhere between the ages of 20 and 40?

Most of the spinach we eat is grown right here in the United States. The U.S. is in fact, the world's second largest producer of spinach (China is well in the lead, with about 85 percent of the world's output). Most of what we buy is in fresh form. Whether fresh or frozen, we eat the bulk of our spinach at home.

For some reason, which always escapes me, a lot of my friends like their spinach raw - in the form of spinach salads. Of course, that leaves them more vulnerable to risks, since the cooking "kill" step is missing. Any bacteria (or parasites) in it, is going to end in us.

Remember that huge outbreak of food borne illness in 2006, caused by E.coli 0157 in bagged spinach? There have been some other smaller ones linked to spinach since. Most recently (in May, 2010) Salmonella bacteria were found in organic bagged spinach (no confirmed illnesses yet). Both of these instances originated in Salinas, California. True, there may well be animal-feces irrigation water being used, or, bacteria-carrying wild pigs running around the spinach patch. But the odds are, any problems in spinach that originate at the farm level, will be traced back to Salinas. After all, Salinas, California produces around 75 percent of the U.S. spinach crop.

Of course, if you eat your spinach cooked, you will be far less likely to come down with a nasty illness that originates in cattle or wild pig feces. But I have found few American restaurants - even those serving Italian food - that serve delicious cooked spinach the way I always ate it when working in Rome: delightfully covered in slices of roasted garlic, fresh lemon juice and olive oil. You may never eat a risky spinach salad again.

bon appetit!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Who's Right About the Salmonella?

We have had another one of those incidents. FDA's laboratories have turned up dangerous bacteria in a food product, and the responsible food company says that its own testing didn't find any. It happens all the time - peanut butter, spices, lettuce, ground beef...Who is right? Of course, we tend to believe the government (sometimes, that is) and we tend to distrust the profit-focused public-health neglecting food industry. But they could both be right.

In the case in May, 2010, the suspect product was bagged spinach, distributed by Organicgirl, based in Salinas, California. Organicgirl (slogan - "good clean greens") is a USDA certified organic company with a devoted customer base (just read the facebook raves). It not only has "mother earth" in charge, but even uses 100% recycled plastic. "Most" of the greens it sells come from California and Arizona (where do the rest come from? Mexico?) and it tries to minimize food miles (all the way to Alabama). It also triple washes everything (maybe even quadruple washing, if you count that extra spraying).

But on May 27 Organicgirl had to admit that just possibly, one of its products was contaminated by Salmonella bacteria - lovely bagged baby spinach. The spinach had been distributed to California, Oregon, Arizona, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Alabama. The Best-if-used-by date was May 22 (a full week earlier). The company statement read: "organicgirl raw product testing records for the relevant time period did not show the presence of any pathogens." But the FDA's did, so it had to recall some 336 cases of expired (very likely to now be consumed) spinach.
So what happened? My guess is the following - and I am only guessing. Very small numbers of Salmonella bacteria were present when the company first did its testing, so the tests turned up negative. But, over the next few days - maybe even weeks, while on the road and in the store, the bacteria multiplied. Maybe just 3 or 4 Salmonella in a bag had become 3,000 or 4,000 or more. By the time the FDA sample was taken (apparently from a store), there were large enough numbers of Salmonella bacteria present to be show up in the tests. The chances are that my theory is right.

The lesson for us consumers - the fresher, the better. If the bacteria are below the numbers needed for an infective dose - maybe 1,000 to 10,000 of them, we may not get sick. Check the dates.

Bon appetit!

Friday, March 12, 2010


These days, recalls of widely used food ingredients are becoming quite common. Remember the PCA peanut product one in 2008-9 that went on for months and months? I kept thinking it was over, and then suddenly, yet another potentially contaminated food product would pop up under recalls. It eventually affected over 2,000 food products in 17 different food categories and made at least 714 people ill in 46 states. There was also a powdered milk contamination that year, as well as a pistachio one (less frequently used as an ingredient than peanuts) which received less publicity, but also affected many different companies and foods that use these as ingredients.

There have been problems recently with other common food ingredients as well. They including the 2007 melamine-containing wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate which contaminated our pet food and resulted in thousands of cat and dog illnesses and deaths - maybe 17,000 illnesses and some 4,000-6,000 deaths. The final numbers will never be known. Some of it turned up in our foods as well - though relatively little.

These types of food hazards are particularly scary for two reasons. One is that they can spread very widely and continue for months, creating a lot of havoc and illness along the way. Another is that they are so difficult for consumers to avoid, in part because of the nature of our industrialized food system, in which one company distributes to another which then may use these ingredients itself to make foods under different brand names -including house brands, or, distribute to still other food companies - or, do both. This can go on to create layers and layers of complexity and mystery.

At the present time, we have two such common ingredient outbreaks ongoing. One is in pepper (probably black and red - investigation is still ongoing - see earlier post), and the other is in hydrolized vegetable protein (HVP).

At present, some 153 food products are being recalled because of potential HPV contamination, including some very reputable ones, and house brand products such as those of Trader Joe's, Safeway and Publix. Here are some of the types of food products being recalled, all of which use HPV ingredients:

Bouillon Products
Dressing and Dressing Mix Products
Flavoring Base and Seasoning Products
Frozen Food Products
Gravy Mix Products
Prepared Salad Products
Ready-to-Eat Meal Products
Sauce and Marinade Mix Products
Snack and Snack Mix Products
Soup/Soup Mix and Dip/Dip Mix Products
Stuffing Products

And, by the way, except for that melamine case, the culprit in all these ingredient recalls has been one or other member of the Salmonella bacteria family. They seem to have an incredible capacity for survival.

This is getting scary.

Bon appetit!

Thursday, March 11, 2010


It is always nice to be proven right, although I know I should really not be pleased since people are becoming seriously ill all over America. But I did predict that the next big outbreak would be caused by Salmonella bacteria. And I did warn that spices are much more deadly than those innocent little pinches of taste suggest.

It is a long story, but basically what has been going on for the last few weeks is an outbreak of Salmonella montevideo bacteria in black and/or red pepper. Yes, Salmonella has proven itself quite able to live for months in dry environments, such as spices. And of course, it may soon move to a much pleasanter home when such spices are used as ingredient in many processed and ready-to-eat foods - or, in our homes.

In this case it started with people becoming ill from eating a variety of ready-to-eat Italian-style meats distributed by Daniele International Rhode Island(see earlier post). A trace-back of ingredients by the FDA eventually pinpointed pepper as the suspect ingredient, and the likely source as two companies - Overseas Spice Company, Dayton, N.J.; and Wholesome Spice Company, Brooklyn, N.Y. (some irony in the 'wholesome' name, right?). Both of these companies had supplied pepper to Daniele International. Of course, both also sold to other commercial companies as well, who incorporated them into their own products, or packaged and sold them under other labels.

As a result we now have a spreading outbreak and multiplying number of food product recalls - not just spicy sausage, but also recalls of black and red pepper - whole black pepper, crushed red pepper, and ground red pepper and of dips mixes and a variety of seasonings- too many to list. Two of the distributor are Dutch Valley Food Distributors, Inc. and Frontier Natural Products Co-Op. Frontier not only sold under the Frontier brand but also under the Whole Foods Market brands (poor Whole Foods - here's another recall for you). This is just the tip of the iceberg, or the beginning of the landslide.

In the meantime, illnesses caused by such Salmonella contaminated pepper have occurred in 44 states. So far there have been at least 249 confirmed cases, with many more winding their way through the reporting system, and more still to come.

The FDA is continuing its investigation of the original source of these pepper products. It isn't saying at the moment. My guess would be China, where a lot of such spices come from these days. I'll see what I can find out.

Bon appetit (but take it easy on the peppers and spicy sausages and hope your retailer is keeping up with the recalls).


Saturday, January 23, 2010

From Cheeseballs to Italian Sausage

A kind of update to the previous post on ready-to-eat (RTE) foods. It drives home the point of how risky this type of food is.

The latest: a recall of about 1,240,000 pounds of ready-to-eat Italian sausage products by a Rhode Island firm. That is a whole lot of sausage. And it's not even Listeria bacteria. No, it's one of the common Salmonella bacteria again. Not as likely to cause death in the short term, but there is a chance that it will not only give you a few miserable days, but also leave you with longer-term health problems like reactive arthritis or something else.

And just a few days earlier, it was cheeseball time, recalled by a Wisconsin-based distributor who got their cheese from Parkers Farm, which has had to recall a lot of their products recently because of Listeria bacteria. The cheeseballs may also be carrying it.

What will be next?

Bon appetit (but avoid RTEs whenever you can)


Friday, January 15, 2010

Ready and Risky Food

We Americans are eating more and more 'ready' foods - those nice-and-easy, no cooking items we can just eat straight out of the package, or slab onto a piece of bread or bagel in 30 seconds flat. These foods are also among the most risky to eat. Why?

One reason is that they have been touched by so many hands or pieces of equipment, any one of which could be contaminated. Another is that usually several different ingredients have been mixed in together, any which could spread microorganisms from one to another, where it might grow even better.

One presently ongoing outbreak (recall date, January 9, 2010) involves several different products from the same company - peanut butter, processed cheeses, several types and flavors of bagel spreads, several types of salsa......All of them in plastic tubs with snap-on lids. The company involved, Parkers Farm, Inc. of Coon Rapids, Minnesota, supplies such major retailers as Costco, Safeway, Whole Foods, Target and many more.

The bacterium Listeria monocytogenes is the culprit again, as it often is in these kinds of foods. This bug is the one that is so risky for pregnant women (very frequently causing miscarriages and stillbirths). It can also cause serious and sometimes fatal infection in young children, frail or elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems. If you don't fall into any of these categories and you get it, you are just likely to have a few days of high fever, severe headache, nausea, abdominal pain and diarrhea. Consider yourself lucky.

So how did the bacteria get into the food products? We don't know yet. The investigation is ongoing. But the chances are that it got in the usual way - through some contaminated piece of equipment, or a food plant worker that carried the bacteria (some estimate that 10% of workers may do so).

Yes, the products are all being recalled, but don't rely on the recall. For a list (which is likely to grow) link to the FDA recall site (see sidebar).

bon appetit!

Sunday, January 3, 2010


I suppose it was simply a matter of time before we had another nut-related outbreak.

Remember the peanut-linked one last year that seemed to go on for ever, then followed by a smaller one associated with pistachios? Well, the holiday season brought with it an outbreak in hazelnuts. True, hazelnuts are nowhere near as popular in the US as they are in Europe, but a lot of us do tend to eat them at least this time of the year. Otherwise, we just love them in chocolates and certain other baked goods.

Anyway, another outbreak of salmonella contamination in nuts was not what we wanted. The first recalls came out about mid December. It was only associated with hazelnuts that had been shelled (not those in shells), both organic and non-organic, and seems to have started at a large company that shells the nuts and then supplies other companies and retailers. My guess - another case of contaminated equipment.

And don't think this was just some small incident. In the end some of the higher-end retailers such as Whole Foods, and Harry and David, as well as several others, had to conduct product recalls at their busiest and most lucrative time of year.

Which reminds me, I ordered several Harry and David products to be sent to people such as my doctor and her staff. I hope they didn't contain hazelnuts. I had better check the FDA -Harry and David product recall list. How does one notify one's doctor that you may have sent her contaminated goodies as a thank you gift?

Bon appetit!


Saturday, January 2, 2010


Meat is not the most risky food we eat. More illnesses are caused by contaminated produce. On the other hand, our meat isn't all that safe either.

Let's take a quick look at how safe American meat was in 2009. We can get some idea from looking at how many recalls were announced for bacteria-contaminated meat or meat products by food companies - often under strong pressure from the USDA, which is in charge of keeping our meat safe. Mind you, this kind of data badly underestimates the real situation. Much of the time - who knows how much - contamination is either not caught, or else, is hidden, so that a costly recall will not have to take place. Also, bacteria are only one possible food contaminant, including in meat. Finally, much of meat and other food contamination occurs at later stages, for instance, at the meat market, in a restaurant, or in our homes. This would not result in a recall of products that have been distributed to wholesalers or retailers. Keeping all this in mind, here's an overview of meat recalls in 2009 that were not caused by bits of plastic, allergens, mislabeling or such other problems, but were due to 'bad bugs' that entered at early stages in the farm-to-fork process.
  • Bacteria caused at least 22 recalls of meat or meat products (such as sausages, cold cuts, meat pastes) in 2009, some small, others large-scale and multi-state recalls. In all, probably about 2 million pounds of meat were 'recovered' (read that as 'arrived back at the recalling company' ). We can assume that an even larger amount was eaten (recalls come too late, retailers and consumers don't hear about them).
  • The USDA announced one or more recalls of bacteria-contaminated meat or of a meat product every month of 2009, except for March (when there was just some allergens and mislabeling of products).
  • The most common bacteria involved in a recall in 2009 were the deadly E.coli 0157:H7 which was identified as the cause of fully 50%, or eleven meat recalls, in 2009.
  • Listeria bacteria (very dangerous to pregnanat women, people who have serious illnesses) were tied to seven outbreaks in 2009, usually in connection with processed products (such as smoked beef brisket, sausages, duck confit, bacon bit products and the like).
  • Salmonella bacteria caused four outbreaks.

Which is the most dangerous meat to eat? It's still the same as it has always been - ground beef, and especially ground beef made into hamburgers that you can just throw on the grill or into the microwave.

Bon appétit!