Two leading candidates have emerged to serve as the Agriculture Department’s undersecretary for food safety, which leads the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS). But there’s an "outside the box" and "outside the Beltway" candidate eager and ready to give up his comfortable private sector life for the less lucrative government job.
Bill Marler is a Seattle-area attorney who specializes in food safety litigation...
"If [the peanut butter salmonella outbreak] does not catch President Obama's attention, I do not know what will," he wrote last week. "Hey, Mr. President, call me, I'll work for peanuts."
My interest was certainly piqued by the other names listed as rumored picks, but I think whoever gets the job SHOULD be listening to Bill Marler... or maybe even reading his diaries on DailyKos!
Bill Marler posted an open letter to the incoming Under Secretary for Food Safety (FSIS) on my site, and I think it should be required reading for whoever gets the USDA FSIS job - and probably for Vilsack, his yet-to-be-chosen Deputy Secretary, Biden, and Obama as well. Rick Perlstein coined the term "E. coli Conservatives" and, well, the shoe fits. We need to make sure that shoe DOESN'T fit the Obama administration.
In his diary, Marler illustrates the recent rise of E. coli cases by examining the amount of beef recalled over the past several years:
2002 - 24 million pounds of beef recalled
2003 - Less than a million pounds of beef recalled
2004 - Less than a million pounds of beef recalled
2005 - Less than a million pounds of beef recalled
2006 - 181,900 pounds of beef (but don't ask about spinach)
2007 - 44 million pounds of beef recalled
The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention saw E. coli - related illnesses drop 48% between 2002 and 2006.
But then came Spring 2007. E. coli, which begins its life in the hindgut of a cow, mounted a surge on its home court. And, it came back with a vengeance. Forty-four million pounds of beef have been recalled in 25 incidents. All over the country, slaughterhouses, packing and distribution centers, retail outlets, and restaurants were once again testing positive for E. coli and people-mostly children-were getting seriously sick.
I'll just add to this that 2008 was a banner year for salmonella and E. coli took a back seat but did not go away. Over 5 million pounds of ground beef were recalled last summer, all from a Nebraska Beef plant.
Marler goes on to speculate WHY E. coli made such a nasty comeback over the past two years:
As with any unexplained mystery, theories abound. Could it really just be meat industry complacency? Did everyone respond to the good numbers in 2006 by taking a long nap? Did meat processors slack off-consciously or unconsciously-and relax their testing procedures? Did government regulators take a few years off?
Or could it be better reporting? Doctors are more aware of E. coli now, and perhaps when patients present symptoms of food poisoning; tests are more likely to be ordered. When the presence of E coli is found and reported, a recall is triggered.
There's always global warming. Seriously though - very smart people have posited that droughts in the southeast and southwest have launched more fecal dust into the air, which then finds its way into beef slaughtering plants. It has also been suggested that the rainfall in other areas created muddy pens-an ideal environment for E. coli.
Why not blame high oil prices? High prices have fueled the growth of ethanol plants. These plants are often built next to feedlots, and a byproduct of the ethanol production process-distiller's grains-is considered an excellent and cheap alternative to corn for cattle feed. Unfortunately, research associates the use of distiller's grains as feed with an increase in the incidence of E. coli in the hindguts of cattle.
Another controversial issue may affect the meat supply. The New York Times reported that immigration officials began a crackdown at slaughterhouses across the country in the fall of 2006. Experienced-albeit undocumented-workers have been cleared out and replaced with unskilled, inexperienced labor.
And then there's Darwin. Another theory holds that interventions have caused the wily E. coli microbes to adapt, selecting pathogens that are more resistant to detection or intervention.
My own concerns - in addition to what's expressed here - are that we are feeding cows the wrong diet to begin with (grain instead of grass) which allows the E. coli to thrive in their guts, and we're keeping them in the wrong environment (jammed together with each other and their own poop).
Fixing those two things would help with the E. coli. It would also be nice if their manure was composted to a temperature that could kill the microbes before it was applied as fertilizer anywhere. Of course - given that none of these mitigation strategies are being employed in a big way yet, they don't explain how E. coli problems went away and then came back again.
Here are a few solutions Marler suggests:
- Improved surveillance:
Improve surveillance of bacterial and viral diseases. First responders - ER physicians and local doctors - need to be encouraged to test for pathogens and report findings directly to local and state health departments and the CDC promptly. Right now, for every person counted in an outbreak there are some 20 to 40 times those that are sick but never tested. The more we test, the quicker we know we have an outbreak and the quicker it can be stopped.
- Government departments need to "play well together."
- Required training and certifications of food handlers. Fines or penalties to those who don't do it.
- Stiffen license requirements for large farms and retail and wholesale food outlets. Make them show they & their employees know how to handle food safely first.
- Increased inspections - and more inspectors.
- Reorganize government agencies on federal, state, and local levels to "increase cooperation and reduce wasteful overlap and conflicts."
- More legal consequences for sickening and killing customers - especially for repeat violators.
- Better food traceability.
- R&D for better food safety technology and better testing methods.
- A consumer-driven campaign like Mothers Against Drunk Drivers calling for safe food.
As for me, I'm not totally convinced that our current food system, as it is, CAN get too much better. Why do we accept factory farms as a fact of life? We is it OK that we eat all of this processed junk and call it food? If you look at most of the recalled peanut butter products right now, the vast majority are processed junk. Other items are healthy - like celery with peanut butter - but do you really need somebody to sell you cut and washed celery with a little container of peanut butter?
And then - totally off the topic of "foodborne illness" - there's the other types of food safety issues. The ubiquitous ones that our government knows about and just tolerates. Like mercury in high fructose corn syrup. That news came out this week. And the government knew about it since 2005. In fact, then-Senator Obama tried to pass a bill to fix the problem. Here's a list of foods that contained mercury - almost 1/3 of the 55 foods tested:
- Quaker Oatmeal to Go
- Jack Daniel's Barbecue Sauce (Heinz)
- Hershey's Chocolate Syrup
- Kraft Original Barbecue Sauce
- Nutri-Grain Strawberry Cereal Bars
- Manwich Bold Sloppy Joe
- Market Pantry Grape Jelly
- Smucker's Strawberry Jelly
- Pop-Tarts Frosted Blueberry
- Hunt's Tomato Ketchup
- Wish-Bone Western Sweet & Smooth
- Coca-Cola Classic
- Yoplait Strawberry Yogurt
- Minute Maid Berry Punch
- Yoo-hoo Chocolate Drink
- Nesquik Chocolate Milk
- Kemps Fat Free Chocolate Milk
Whoever DOES get the Food Safety job in the Obama administration, whether it's Bill Marler or somebody else, is going to have their work cut out for them.