Government Shutdown Puts Consumers at Risk

As the battle over The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and the debt ceiling stalls in congress, furloughs of more than 800,000 government employees continue and some public safety services have literally gone “offline.”

Salmonella outbreak

In an effort to research the massive salmonella outbreak that has sickened nearly 300 people, we turned to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s website for answers, only to find it was down. “Due to the lapse in federal government funding, this website is not available,” read a message on usda.gov. “After funding has been restored, please allow some time for this website to become available again.”

Fortunately, the website of the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), a public health agency within the USDA, is operational. While no poultry has been recalled, the agency issued a public health alert stating that raw products from Foster Farms in California may contain strains of Salmonella Heidelberg and should be cooked thoroughly before eating.

In a statement issued this week, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) said seven strains of Salmonella are responsible for the illnesses, including some that may be highly resistant to treatment by antibiotics. The consumer watchdog group claims the outbreak is sending 42 percent of victims to the hospital—a rate twice what is normally seen in Salmonella outbreaks.

“The number of people we know to be ill is just the tip of the iceberg,” said CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal. “This outbreak shows that [it] is a terrible time for government public health officials to be locked out of their offices and labs, and for government Web sites to go dark.”

Politico.com reports, “After the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service issued a public health alert Monday about a multistate Salmonella outbreak, it took the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about 24 hours to create an outbreak page on its website with detailed information for consumers and the media.”

The shutdown’s toll on government websites is varied. Some sites are down completely, while others remain functional – albeit with a warning that no updates will be made during the shutdown.

No automobile recalls

Due to furloughs, The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has no one investigating new consumer complaints. That means there will be no automobile recalls during the shutdown and all current investigations have stopped. A banner on the safercar.gov reporting page tells consumers, “Due to a lapse of Federal Government funding, NHTSA is unable [to] process safety defect complaints after close of business September 30, 2013. Consumers can continue to file complaints via this website, but they will not be evaluated by NHTSA staff until funding and services are restored.”

Although car manufacturers can still voluntarily recall vehicles, that is a rare occurrence. Major recalls usually require intense negotiations.

The NHTSA handles nearly 700 recalls each year, affecting 20 million vehicles according Joan Claybrook, former head of the agency.

“Safety is being undermined,” Claybrook said. “If unsafe cars are on the highway, if the agency isn’t operating so it can’t put out consumer alerts, if it can’t finish up a recall notice that it wants to publish or negotiate with an auto company they want to do a recall, that puts the public at risk.”

How has the government shutdown affected you? Please log in to comment or share your stories with us on Facebook and Twitter.

Sources:

Chicken salmonella outbreak becomes symbol of federal shutdown” by Michael Muskal, LA Times, October 9, 2013.

Gov’t shutdown puts brakes on automobile recallsCBS News, October 10, 2013.

FDA stops Antibiotic-Tainted Cattle

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) entered a consent decree of permanent injunction against a Vermont dairy farm for selling cows and bull calves, containing illegal amounts of antibiotics, for food.

According to an FDA press release, the decree prevents Lawson Farm from purchasing or selling any animals for use as food unless and until they take certain actions to assure that animals containing excessive amounts of antibiotics do not enter the food supply. The farm is also required to keep written records identifying which animals have been medicated and to maintain an inventory of medications.

The FDA previously issued a Warning Letter to Lawson Farm for similar violations, citing instances of penicillin levels nearly four times the legal limit in the animals.  Inspections of the farm revealed that defendants administered animal drugs, including penicillin, without a prescription and did not maintain adequate treatment records to prevent treated cattle from entering the food supply.

Dangers of Antibiotics in the Food Supply

Ingesting food containing excessive levels of antibiotics and other drugs can cause severe adverse reactions among the general population. Even at very low levels, they can harm consumers who are sensitive to antibiotics.

Farmers frequently administer low doses of antibiotics to otherwise healthy livestock to make them grow faster with less food and to prevent diseases that arise because of the cramped quarters the animals are forced to live in, often teeming with their own waste. Studies show this practice can contribute to the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or “superbugs.”

Earlier this year, the CDC reported a rise in drug-resistant germs called carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, or CRE. The agency stated CRE have become more resistant to last-resort antibiotics during the past decade.  These bacteria are causing more hospitalized patients to get infections that, in some cases, are impossible to treat.

To help prevent CRE Infection, patients should:

  • Tell your doctor if you have been hospitalized in another facility or country.
  • Take antibiotics only as prescribed.
  • Expect all doctors, nurses and other healthcare providers wash their hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub before and after touching your body or tubes going into your body.
  • Clean your own hands often.
  • Ask questions. Understand what is being done to you, the risks and benefits.

Sources:

“FDA, Justice Department takes action against Vermont dairy farm” Food and Drug Administration, July 9, 2013

Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE)Centers for Disese Control and Prevention, accessed July 11, 2013.

Warning for Meat Tenderized with Needles

Some grocers sell cuts of meat that have been mechanically tenderized.  Now, that may sound no different than machines wielding spikey meat-tenderizing hammers (like the one we all have shoved somewhere in the back of a kitchen drawer.) But for the food industry, the industrial method of meat tenderizing involves piercing the meat – with blades or needles.

While this process is great at making tough cuts of meat more tender, NPR reports, “[T]here’s a downside, too; a higher risk of surface bacteria making their way into the cut of meat, which can set the stage for food poisoning.” The CDC has tracked five separate foodborne outbreaks linked to mechanically tenderized beef. This is rather alarming news for anyone who enjoys their steak prepared on the rare side.

Food Safety

photo_1127_20060220Intact cuts of beef can normally be cooked safely at a temp of 145 degrees F because the meat is not penetrated by outside bacteria. However, pierced meats such as ground beef or mechanically tenderized cuts should be cooked to 160 degrees F to kill any outside bacteria (such as E. coli) that may have penetrated into the meat.

In response, the USDA has proposed new labeling requirements so that customers would know if their meat has been pierced with blades or needles – and adjust their cooking times accordingly.  The Food and Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) has also proposed updated cooking time recommendations for their website.

What do you think?

The government wants to know. (Really.) You can comment on the new rule until August 9, 2013.

 

Sources

Tender Beef, Without The Pathogens: USDA Proposes Labeling Rules” by Allison Aubrey, NPR, June 11, 2013.

FSIS Proposed Rule: Descriptive Designation for Needle or Blade Tenderized Beef Products, June 10, 2013.

 

Stay informed about food recalls

Foodborne illnesses kill more than 3,000 people each year in the United States. One in six Americans become sick from a foodborne illness annually. With numbers like that, it’s no wonder that food recalls are on the rise and awareness of the issue seems to be rising, as well.

Food recalls in the United States increased during the second quarter of 2012, according to Stericycle ExpertRECALL, a company which aggregates and tracks cumulative recall data from the two main agencies involved in recalls – the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Food and Drug Administration.

During the second quarter of 2012, FDA enforcement reports documented 169 food recalls initiated by 156 companies and affecting more than 5 million units, the fewest number of units affected by recalls in the past four quarters.

The recall numbers were up 19 percent from the first quarter of 2012 and up 16 percent from the second quarter of 2011.

The report found undeclared allergens or other allergen concerns remained the primary cause of recalls, accounting for nearly 40 percent of food recalls initiated. Foodborne illness concerns accounted for an additional 40 percent of recalls during the quarter, with Salmonella and Listeria being the most common reasons.

Total numbers have not been released yet for the third quarter of 2012, but a search of the FDA’s website shows there were 50 food-related recalls in September alone.

Most recently, a large recall of peanut butter and peanut butter products has made headlines. Before that, mangoes from Mexico sickened more than 100 people. And there have been several instances this year of bagged salads being recalled for possible contamination.

What should you do if you think you have recalled food?

When a food recall alert is issued, it usually includes information to help you identify whether you have the product in your pantry, refrigerator, or freezer and advises you what to do with it.

  • Check the recall notice. Manufacturers will provide information on what to do with the product. Typically, the instructions will tell you to either return the product to the store where you bought it for a refund, or to dispose of the product properly (especially if it has been opened).
  • To identify if a recall product is in your home, match identifying marks of the product with the recall notice details, such as product name and brand, container size and codes.
  • Do not panic. Most recalls are not associated with a food illness outbreak, and many are issued because there is a potential for the food to be contaminated. Often recalls are issued as a precautionary measure.
  • Do not eat the food. Even if you believe the recall to be just a precaution, do not eat the food! It is better to be safe than sorry. Do not donate the food to food banks or feed it to your pets.
  • Do not open the food container. Opening the food and checking it can potentially release bacteria or viruses that cause food illnesses into your home. If you do open or handle the product, wash your hands thoroughly with warm water and soap.
  • Preserve the evidence. If a portion of the suspect food is available, keep it, wrap it securely, mark “DANGER” and freeze it. Save all packaging materials (e.g. cans, labels, cartons). Save all purchase receipts.
  • Seek treatment if necessary. If you become ill and believe your illness is due to a food product, contact your healthcare provider.

What can you do to protect your family from food affected by recalls?

The most important thing is to stay informed. It might seem hard to find the time to search out all products that have been recalled, but several websites are available to help make the process easier.

One good place to look is the FDA’s website. They keep a running list of recalled food products. You also can sign up to receive email notifications about recalls from the FDA. You can also find similar information at foodsafety.gov.

At Elk & Elk, we are serious about safety and helping keep you healthy. That’s why we use our social media feeds (http://www.facebook.com/ElkandElk and www.twitter.com/elkandelk) to help inform you anytime there are recalls of any kind.

To find out more about the personal injury attorneys of Elk & Elk, please check out our website.