Unless you live under a rock, you probably know that there has been a huge cheese recall going on now for more than two months, involving over 130 products and dozens of companies.
The recall began on Feb. 10, 2017, and has gradually expanded as more and more retailers and companies realize the offending product, processed by Deutch Kase Haus LLC in Middleburg, Ind., may have been used in their own cheese production process.
The possible contamination is from Listeria monocytogenes, a bacteria found in the environment, not animal intestinal tracts, and one that can take 70 days for symptoms to show, so there is no way to know how many people may become ill from eating bad cheese.
Listeria infections are especially dangerous in pregnant women, often causing the death of the unborn fetus.
Despite the huge, far flung recall, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) is saying it cannot release the names and locations of stores that sold the recalled products because that is considered “Confidential, corporate information.”
When I was Nebraska’s Chief Medical Officer it did me little to no good when informed that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) was recalling 100,000 pounds of ground beef distributed to grocery stores in Nebraska.
I wanted to know the names of the stores and the towns or cities they were located in so I could advise the local public health departments to go to work informing their residents and protecting their health.
When I was asked to move to D.C. to head up FSIS as its politically appointed undersecretary, I knew I wanted to change the mindset that would not allow FSIS to release “proprietary information,” as (FSIS) referred to the excuse that prevented it from releasing helpful information, or “confidential, corporate information” as FDA has labeled the bureaucracy they hide behind on this issue.
I went to D.C. in 2005. The revised rule was posted in the Federal Register in 2008. That is actually pretty fast for Washington, D.C., a city of 12 sq. miles surrounded on all sides by sanity.
Naturally, the Grocery Manufacturers Assn. (GMA) and the American Meat Institute were adamantly opposed to naming outlets possibly selling contaminated meat and poultry, along with many other associations and alliances, but commonsense and sanity did actually prevail and now USDA does provide the stores’ names and locations.
Part of my argument for change was that people would not quit shopping at their favorite grocery store if a product was recalled due to contamination that was not their fault. If they kept buying from the same supplier, and kept having recalls, then all bets on customers staying with them would be off.
But that in its self may be a good thing that could produce change in purchasing patterns and safer products.
My other argument was simple: Which is more important, the life of a child or the bottom line on a company’s financial report?
Even GMA did not have a good response to that question.
Of course to win this battle I first had to have the full support of my Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns. I had worked for Gov. Johanns in Nebraska as his Chief Medical Officer for six years, so there was more than a little bit of trust built up.
Then, together we had to persuade the Office of Management & Budget (OMB) to allow the rulemaking process to proceed to fruition.
The moment that agreement occurred was actually on “a dark and stormy night” as the top OMB official and myself, along with many others, sat in a hanger at Andrews Air Force Base waiting for a thunderstorm to pass so we could fly to Belgium for high level talks with the European Union.
It is a long story that I won’t go into, but I doubt I would have ever got her undivided attention as I was able to get that evening without the lightening delaying the flight.
So what is the “Clause in the Federal Code” that FDA says has it gagged, while others may actually be gagging on contaminated cheese?
Several reporters and writers have asked me that question, and I have no answer other than it seems to me that USDA/FSIS blazed the trail and FDA finds it easier to sit by the campfire rather than follow the trail and the fights that come with it.
So I will close with a few questions for you to ponder:
- How can corporations claim confidentiality while potentially causing miscarriages and deaths?
- How can a federal agency (FDA), housed within the Department of Health & Human Services, not fight for the right of the fetus to live a healthy life? After all, it is Health & Human Services, not Commerce, right?