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'Lettuce' count the ways

Let us count the ways the federal government has failed to keep us safe from foodborne illness.

Yes, let us count the ways the federal government has failed to keep us safe from a foodborne illness.

First is the current, growing E. coli O157:H7 outbreak linked to precut Romaine lettuce. As of April 19, 53 persons have been reported ill from this bug, involving 16 states, with 31 hospitalized.

That is a 60% hospitalization rate, almost twice the normal, so this bacterium is an especially virulent strain. Maybe it could be called a super bug?

And what have the Food & Drug Administration and Center for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) to assure our safety? They have advised throwing out any precut, bagged Romaine lettuce grown in Arizona.

That is a pretty big safety net. Why not name the brand and the stores it was sold in?

Oh, right, proprietary, confidential information. Protect the companies, not the public.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture started naming retail outlets for meat and poultry products contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 and other pathogens in 2008. Industry was not happy, but it was the right thing to do to protect the public’s health. Ten years later FDA still refuses to inform us if we are at risk or not.

FDA’s top leafy greens scientist says this is no problem, as the Arizona growing season is coming to an end and the shelf-life of precut lettuce is very short. He is even quoted as saying the leaves will start turning brown after one week of being precut, so most of it will be discarded very shortly.

Boy Howdy, that makes me feel really good about that Romaine lettuce in my crisper right now.

And on the same day, April 19, I get an email from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) announcing a new report criticizing USDA for not doing enough to keep our meat and poultry free from bacterial contamination. Included in the report is a picture of an open refrigerator door. It shows ground beef on a shelf directly above fresh red peppers and a turkey breast next to the peppers.

Whatever happened to the recommendation that raw meat and poultry are kept in a separate compartment, below all other items, to avoid any juices containing Salmonella or E. coli from dripping on to fresh vegetables that were not meant to be cooked?

Talk about a misleading public information visual.

Among the GAO recommendations to USDA was that it should have established standards for Salmonella levels on pork chops.

Readers, please help me out here. I have only been involved in the food safety arena for 20 years, so will someone with a longer history please advise me of when the last foodborne illness outbreak linked to Salmonella and pork chops occurred?

I mean, seriously, this is not like ground beef, with products from multiple sources blended together, or poultry with Salmonella migrating inward into muscle following a feather’s follicle, or even a blade or needle tenderized steak.

This is an intact cut of meat, sterilized by simply cooking it.

Another recommendation was for the administrator of the Food Safety & Inspection System (FSIS) to provide information about on-farm practices to reduce pathogen contamination by “controlling Salmonella in hogs”.

Seriously, I cannot make something like this up.

FSIS has no control over on-farm practices. Maybe APHIS does, but not FSIS.

And, FSIS has not had an appointed administrator since President Donald Trump was inaugurated. 

Hey, GAO the number one source of Salmonella foodborne illnesses is green leafy vegetables, not hogs.

Why not write recommendations as to how FDA, in conjunction with the much ballyhooed Food Safety Modernization Act, could reduce the contamination rates for green leafy vegetables that are not meant to have cooking as a final kill step?

Maybe GAO could write a report for FDA, urging for a clarification of the sources and retail outlets of green leafy vegetables when they are linked to a very serious and growing outbreak and leave the pig farmers alone.

If we want to reduce salmonellosis as a foodborne illness, the government needs to use its resources to attack the number one source, green leafy vegetables, and not some meat product, pork chops, that are basically one of the safest that we have.

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