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Without Fanfare, CDC Reports Sharp Decline in Foodborne Illnesses


By David Gumpert | Opinion | Food Safety News by Marler Clark

January 31, 2013


Wouldn’t you think that a one-third decline in reported foodborne illnesses would be a cause of celebration at the agency responsible for educating us about unsafe food? Well, if not a celebration, at least a slight smile, a teeny bit of self congratulation, maybe a soft exhale?


The U.S. Centers for Disease Control just reported such an occurrence, but buried the encouraging trend in a brief footnote that seems to have escaped media and professional notice.


Here is what happened. Last Friday, the CDC reported its “Surveillance for Foodborne Disease Outbreaks–United States 2009-2010.” This report, collecting “data on foodborne disease outbreaks submitted by all states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico through CDC’s Foodborne Disease Outbreak Surveillance System,” is something the CDC has in the past issued on an annual basis, typically three years behind real time. So, the most recent previous report, issued in September 2011, was for the year 2008.


If you read through the first-paragraph summary of the results, you might easily conclude, as I did, that the report covered just 2009, since the results aren’t all that different from 2008. The numbers in the latest report: 29,444 illnesses, 1,184 hospitalizations, and 23 deaths.


In the most recent previous report, the CDC showed 23,152 illnesses, 1,276 hospitalizations, and 22 deaths.


It’s when you stop yourself and realize, as I did a couple days later, that the report issued last Friday actually, for the first time ever, covers two years, that you go back and re-read the report.


You have to examine the report very closely, and deeply — ten paragraphs into it, in an Editorial Note, to be exact — to find out exactly what occurred in the reporting. The CDC transitioned to a “new reporting form and online data interface,” the note states, and when the smoke cleared, “the number of foodborne disease outbreaks reported in 2009 and 2010 declined 32% compared with the mean of the preceding 5 years.”


A new form and interface shouldn’t change the data, though, should it? No, suggests the CDC. But it indicates it isn’t sure why such a sharp decline occurred.


Last Friday’s report speculates...





Does The “No Illnesses” Language Belong in Recall Notices?


By Dan Flynn | Food Safety News by Marler Clark

January 31, 2013


Food companies that are voluntarily recalling a product usually use the language suggested by regulatory agencies that is then distributed electronically via the federal government websites. Recalls not connected to outbreaks almost always contain a line saying there are no reported illnesses associated with the recalled product.


William F. Keene, Oregon’s senior state epidemiologist, thinks it’s time for reporters and editors to “not let themselves be duped into amplifying press release boilerplate. ”


Both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) have templates for companies to use when writing a recall announcement. They are:


FDA: No illnesses have been reported to date.”


FSIS: “There have been no reports of illnesses associated with consumption of these products.”


“Until they have the isolate(s) serotyped, have PFGE’d (conducted a pulsed-field gel electrophoresis analysis), and compared to PulseNet or analogous data,” says Keene, “they are just blowing smoke.” He says that without subtyping data, the media should not fall for it. The only accurate report is that there is no way of knowing (at this time) if there are any associated illnesses.


Dr. David Acheson, who previously held top posts at both FSIS and FDA before becoming a partner at Leavitt Partners, says Keene “is correct, but nobody other than a microbiologist would know that the heck that means and the basic statement from the regulators is still correct.”


Acheson says the point of recall announcements is to answer the public’s “what should I do” questions, and he prefers keeping it “simple and specific.” Acheson says he might add the word “yet” to statements about no illnesses being reported.


Phyllis Entis, the food safety microbiologist and author, who publishes the highly respected eFoodAlert, covering food recalls worldwide, goes a step further than Keene.


“I think that an absence of a ‘no illnesses’ statement would be preferable to the current boilerplate,” she says. “I agree that we should be asking the question, and I have queried CDC in some cases. At times, I even get an answer!”


And Entis notes that boilerplate is used worldwide. The XL Foods recall, the largest beef recall in Canada’s history, originally came out with this line from the template: “There have been on reported illnesses associated with the consumption of these products.”


A short time later the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) was confirming 18 cases of E coli O157:H7 from XL’s contaminated beef.


Keene, who has solved many a multistate outbreak, admits he is motivated by a desire to “light a fire” under food companies to get them to turn over isolates to public health labs so they can be subtyped. Only then can the food isolates be matched to any human cases that might exist.


“As you can imagine, Keene says, “this is not a prospect that excites many food processors, as it literally asking for trouble. I think making it clear that we don’t know if there might be illnesses will prompt people to ask more of the right questions.”


Keene notes that often-ill people who are matched to contaminated food are never asked (or told) if they ate it. He says the system is complicated, with the left hand often not knowing what the right hand is doing.


Carol L. Tucker-Foreman, distinguished food policy fellow at the Consumer Federation of America and USDA’s former Assistant Secretary for Food and Consumer Services, says where there is a recall, there is risk.


“The current FSIS language suggests that there are no reported illnesses as yet and therefore no risk to public health,” she says. “But if that were the case there would be no recall. The recall means the company and FSIS know some meat from the recalled lot is available to the public. That means there is some continuing risk and the agency should say so.”


With her experience in and out of the federal government, Tucker-Foreman says both FDA and FSIS “are eager not to alarm the public unnecessarily or create to much of a problem for the company where there’s no reported illnesses.”


She says food companies “particularly hate the fact that a press release and recall occur based only on plant testing, However, there is no recall unless FSIS believes some contaminated product left the plant and has not yet been recover.”


For his part, Keene is the first to acknowledge that most recalls are not associated with illnesses. However, he says, that is only partially true because nobody is asking. If isolates were turned over to public health labs and searches for matches conducted, then we’d know more about whether or not there were illnesses...





FDA Announces Public Meeting on New FSMA Rules


Food Safety News by Marler Clark

January 31, 2013


The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday announced it will hold a public meeting to focus on the new Food Safety Modernization Act draft rules that were recently released.


The meeting will take place February 28, 2013 from 8:30 am – 5:00 pm and March 1, 2013 8:30 am – 12:00 pm in the Jefferson Auditorium at the U.S. Department of Agriculture at 14th and Independence Avenue, SW, Wing 5 Entrance Washington, DC 20250.


From the FDA:


The agency is announcing a public meeting to discuss the proposed rules to establish standards for growing, harvesting, packing, and holding of produce for human consumption (the produce safety proposed rule) and for current good manufacturing practice and hazard analysis and risk-based preventive controls for human food (the preventive controls proposed rule), which are the first of several proposed rules that would establish the foundation of, and central framework for, the modern food safety system envisioned by Congress in the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).


The meeting is also designed to solicit oral and public comments from stakeholders on the proposed rules, inform the public about the rulemaking process (including how to submit comments, data and other information to the rulemaking dockets), and respond to questions about the proposed rules.


Those interested in attending, or publicly commenting can register to do so here.


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