Food recalls - Who's to blame?

    The following is an item from

    Note the reference to consumer education and safe food handling and preparation as being part of the solution.

    It reminds me of the problem of how to address people speeding in automobiles. The solution isn't just in putting out more police, it's in assuring effective driver training, making responsible driving a public more, followed by publicly acceptable policing schemes.

    Perhaps putting out more meat police isn't the best way to go.

    Safety Zone
    By: James Marsden

    Food Recalls – Who’s to blame?

    (The views and opinions expressed in this blog are strictly those of the author.)
    Food recalls are becoming so common place that unless enormous quantities are involved, they barely go noticed. There are a lot of misconceptions about recalls. Although they make good publicity for FDA and USDA, showing the public how tough these agencies are on errant food companies, they generally are too little and too late to really protect the public.

    The very nature of recalls implies that the food product(s) suspected of causing food borne disease are already in commerce and are being consumed. This means that the recalled products have passed both the company's pre-shipment review and government inspection, yet somehow made their way into commerce in an adulterated state. In addition, most recalled products are not actually recovered. Most "recalled" products ends up being consumed and much of the returned product is not even part of the recall.

    Another problem with recalls is that they often represent a systematic failure in the food safety systems employed by the manufacturer. For every failure that is caught, there may be many others that go undetected. If food manufacturing processes are unreliable or inadequate, the problem is much bigger than what is captured in a single recall.

    USDA recalls involving foodborne illness outbreaks are even more problematic because of the intense inspection presence in USDA inspected plants. A food safety failure in a meat or poultry product is a failure of the inspection system as well as the manufacturing process. When USDA recalls are expanded to include all products made over long periods of time (as they have been), remember that inspectors were present and actively involved in the oversight of plant operations, SSOP's and HACCP plans throughout that entire period.

    Most importantly, recalls do little to protect the public health. Adulterated products should not enter commerce in the first place. When they do, they are consumed and people are at increased risk of foodborne disease. A recent report of the cost of foodborne illness in the US estimated that the cost is $152 billion per year ( Since foodborne illnesses are almost always preventable, there is a strong incentive to fix what is wrong.

    So what is the solution? Certainly, it is not more recalls. The solution is in the development and implementation of safe food processes that reduce or eliminate the risk of foodborne pathogens (i.e. pasteurization technologies) and consumer education on safe food handling and preparation. USDA and FDA should place their focus on requiring safe food processes under already existing HACCP regulations. Recalls represent a failure by all parties.

    March 08, 2010
    Comments2 Comments
    1. Firhill's Avatar
      The most recent case of food recall of Moonstruck cheese on Salt Spring was for listeria detected in a single wheel of cheese. For soft cheeses, any detectable amount seems to be a case for this recall. However, the federal government reviewed the situation with listeria following the Maple Leaf outbreak and they formulated a policy (search on "policy_listeria_monocytogenes_politique_toc-eng" for a pdf copy) whereby they recognize that listeria is essentially everywhere, and it may not be feasible to eradicate every trace of listeria. They have ranked foods according to relative risk, and allow a threshold level of listeria according to the riskiness of the food product. They also recognize that 5% of the population could carry listeria without even being sick, and the very young, the very old and pregnant women are most at risk and it would be most practical for that part of the population to refrain from high risk foods. Who knew that the government had the capacity for common sense.
    1. Firhill's Avatar
      “Rich and silky, an organic cheese to make you anything but blue” Globe and Mail, January, 2010
      “Sin on a cracker” Macleans Magazine – on Moonstruck organic cheese

      Susan and Julia Grace own Moonstruck Dairy on Salt Spring Island, one of the first certified organic dairy and cheese producers in BC. At first, their farm was like most in the Gulf Islands. Part of island farming heritage, it was the former 1890's homestead of the Beddis family. Susan and Julia grew vegetables, had some chickens, and direct marketed their farm products. They had ventured into a CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture program, that involved providing a weekly box of seasonal organic farm products to customers. But one day in 1998 Susan came home with a Jersey cow, and everything changed.
      The rich organic Jersey milk became butter and cheese, which was shared with their friends. Soon, everyone wanted to try the cheeses that Julia created. More cows were added and a milking parlour, cheese processing area and farm shop were built. A cottage industry license from the Milk Marketing Board was acquired. This allowed Moonstruck Dairy to hit the big time – cheese shops and quality restaurants. The awards soon followed, including two awards in 2008 from the World Jersey Cheese Festival on the Isle of Jersey, part of the International Jersey Conference. That year also saw their homebred cow, Printemps, classified as Excellent. Printemps is a product of both good food, good care and good breeding. (She is the daughter of the well known award winning bull Rock Ella Perimeter.)
      All that fame has not changed things on the farm too much. A quaint farm shop has a self-serve cheese fridge and honour box. On a recent tour of the farm, my 8 yr old son Isaac selected Beddis Blue from their farm shop, which was almost completely devoured by both of us before the ferry loaded up to go home. Absolutely incredible flavour, colour and feel in your mouth – it is worth hunting down. Their cheeses are highly valued at the local farmer's market, where the feedback from customers is an important mix of quality assurance and social life for the busy farmers.
      Until last week, Susan and Julia's biggest challenge was to ensure that they have the best organic feed for their cows, which comes at a premium price. The cows are fed a custom organic mix of lentils, peas and grains with alfalfa pellets. Their forage is a fine haylage, with a premium quality grass hay. All the cows and young stock are known by their names, incredibly well cared for and obviously serene and happy. They are raised according to organic principles that provide the cows with living conditions that allow them natural behaviours while promoting good health and low stress. The cost of living on the island is another challenge, both for the cost of feed and transportation, and also to pay fair wages for their milkers. The economic downturn has hurt many organic producers as consumers shift their preferences back to cheaper food. Organic dairy products are no exception to this. As belts tighten, the cows remain well cared for.
      Then a single wheel of their award-winning Camembert cheese was found to test positive for Listeria through routine testing. No illnesses have been reported to date. This was alarming to Susan and Julia, who had installed a state of the art UV water purification system to ensure high product quality and safety. They quickly responded with a public statement of their regret for this happening, and an assurance that an extra layer of independent testing would be added to their cheese making protocol. The public have been very supportive and concerned for Susan and Julia, a reassuring sign that an educated and appreciative public can be a farmer's greatest ally.
      The federal government has a policy recognizing that Listeria is essentially everywhere, and it may not be feasible to eradicate every trace of it. Foods are ranked according to relative risk, and a Listeria threshold is set according to the riskiness of the food product. It is also recognized that many people are exposed to Listeria but do not become ill and some of them may become carriers. Also, the very young, very old, immunocompromised and pregnant are most at risk and it would be practical for that part of the population to refrain from high risk foods. This policy is to provide guidance for health agencies. Last year the BC Medical Journal reported on a recent survey of leading public health nurses, obstetricians, midwives and family doctors who admitted their own knowledge about listeriosis is lacking, so they often do not advise high risk patients on food safety issues that could affect them.
      Susan and Julia Grace are fortunate to be in a community with residents and visitors that value their farm and their products. The Jersey cows are efficient and bred for a forage diet, so have been dubbed “green cows” for their minimal impact on the environment. Another advantage to them is excellent veterinary care by Dr. Malcolm Bond, who's dad Jesse raised Jerseys many years ago on Salt Spring. Susan and Julia's hard work and attention to detail have given them a position in the dairy and cheese community that is well deserved. In recent years there has been a renewed interest in family and shared cows, and the size and sweet temperament of the Jersey is well suited to this.
      Susan and Julia Grace are the new pioneers of Gulf Island agriculture, and it is so appropriate that the Jersey cow is again central to the success of a Gulf Island farm.

      “I am lucky to live with animals and create delicious food. I like working with the cows, and combining creativity and a connection to nature” Julie Grace, Moonstruck Dairy cheesemaker and farmer

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