Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Food safety for whom? Corporate wealth versus people's health

Food safety for whom? Corporate wealth versus people's health

GRAIN, May 2011


School children in the US were served 200,000 kilos of meat contaminated with a deadly antibiotic-resistant bacteria before the nation's second largest meat packer issued a recall in 2009. A year earlier, six babies died and 300,000 others got horribly sick with kidney problems in China when one of the country's top dairy producers knowingly allowed an industrial chemical into its milk supply. Across the world, people are getting sick and dying from food like never before. Governments and corporations are responding with all kinds of rules and regulations, but few have anything to do with public health. The trade agreements, laws and private standards used to impose their version of "food safety" only entrench corporate food systems that make us sick and devastate those that truly feed and care for people, those based on biodiversity, traditional knowledge, and local markets. People are resisting, whether its movements against GMOs in Benin and "mad cow" beef in Korea or campaigns to defend street hawkers in India and raw milk in Colombia. The question of who defines "food safety" is increasingly central to the struggle over the future of food and agriculture.

The growing global menace

Food should be a source of health, not harm. But food can maim, cripple, and kill. The leading cause of food poisoning in the United Kingdom today is Campylobacter, a tiny bacterium, rife throughout the country's chicken supply, that causes in humans diarrhoea, fever, abdominal pain and cramping, and in some cases chronic, even life-threatening, conditions. People get it from touching raw poultry or eating undercooked birds. Some 85% of the chicken population in the UK may be infected. In the United States, the top culprits these days are Norovirus, mostly transmitted from dirty hands, and Salmonella, contracted from eating food with faeces on it. Norovirus will give you acute vomiting and diarrhoea, while Salmonella causes vomiting, fever and cramps


Graph: Data compiled by GRAIN from government and UN sources, 2008-2010 (except Australia=2005)

Among the more notorious food safety incidents in recent years was the melamine scandal in China in 2008. Six babies died and 300,000 others got horribly sick with kidney problems when the industrial chemical melamine got into the commercial milk distribution circuit. There was also a dioxin scandal in Germany in January 2011, where the German authorities shut down more than 4,000 farms after it was discovered that a German company had sold 200,000 tonnes of dioxin-tainted animal feed, which had subsequently entered the food chain. Dioxins are cancer-causing poisons formed in the burning of waste and other industrial processes. 1

How bad is the problem globally? Believe it or not, there are no global statistics or tracking mechanisms on food safety incidents worldwide; reliable data on their frequency and impact are grossly inadequate. Nevertheless, the available data do show that food poisoning is quite common in most countries (see Graph 1). 2 According to the Singaporean authorities, who run a pretty tight food hygiene system, roughly 1.5 billion people worldwide are affected by food-borne disease outbreaks each year, resulting in 3 million deaths. 3

The price of this food safety mess is huge. The UK puts the annual costs to the British economy at US$1.92 billion, which its Food Standards Agency bluntly calls "too much". Australia's annual bill is US$1.23 billion. The World Health Organisation says that the annual cost to Vietnam is US$210 million. In the US, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has long given the figure of US$35 million per year, but a new study released by the Pew Charitable Trusts at Georgetown University in 2010 puts the figure astronomically higher, at US$152 billion. 4

Food safety in the Fast Food Nation

Does US-style production represent the future of global food? Possibly. Certainly, elite Western opinion shapers and policymakers – the editors of The Economist, the directors of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, certain key elements in the Obama administration – think it should. So it is worthwhile to consider how the US food safety regime has responded to the dilemmas of scale in recent years.

In an industrialised, highly consolidated food system geared to maximising profit by selling vast volumes of cheap food, pressure exists at every phase of the production chain to cut costs by cutting corners, including safe food practices. Moreover, the very scale of modern food production means that seemingly isolated lapses can become quite grave, subjecting millions of people to danger based on the actions of a single production facility.

The case of Peanut Corp. of America demonstrates the perils of scale. Until recently, the company ran two plants: one in Texas, one in Georgia. These two facilities processed 2.5% of the peanuts produced in the United States, and sold "peanut paste" to the entire US processed food industry. By late 2007, the company had evidently given up trying to maintain hygienic conditions at its facilities. In late 2008, people started coming down with salmonella from a dizzying array of products containing Peanut Corp.'s paste, prompting the FDA to initiate a "voluntary recall". By the time all was said and done, the recall affected no fewer than 1,800 supermarket brands. The tainted products killed nine people and officially sickened around 700 – half of them children – in 46 US states. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reckons that for every reported case of salmonella, another 38 cases go unreported – so the real number of people made ill from the output of just two facilities may be up to 26,000. In the wake of the fiasco, US journalists showed that the FDA had "outsourced" inspection of the Georgia plant to state authorities, and then ignored the state inspectors' findings of atrocious hygiene practices. Moreover, it turned out that the company's own testing had found salmonella in huge batches of peanut paste, which it proceeded to send out anyway. i

In another incident in 2009, a company called Beef Packers, owned by transnational agribusiness giant Cargill, had to declare two "voluntary recalls" involving over 500 tonnes of ground beef infected with antibiotic-resistant salmonella. ii The USDA announced that consuming the suspect meat could cause "treatment failure" iii – that is, death – because of its ability to withstand drugs. At least 39 people in 11 states reported getting sick, and more than 200,000 thousand kilos of the tainted meat was served to school children through the National School Lunch program. iv

The official response to such incidents has been minimal. In January 2011, a hotly debated piece of legislation called the Food Safety Modernisation Act was signed into being. The intention of the original Bill was to update and inject some resources into the US food safety system. It basically called for more inspections, gave the government authority to mandate food recalls, and provided some traceability to an otherwise fairly unregulated industrial sector. Who would oppose such a move? The fat cats from the food industry, you might think – the Cargills and the Tysons, who don't want to be controlled. But you would be wrong. The new rules would hardly affect them.

According to an analysis by the US NGO Food & Water Watch, nothing in the Act would have prevented the Peanut Company of America from sending out its tainted paste. Worse, the rules would not even touch the meat sector, the biggest source of food-borne illness in the United States. v The main opponents of the bill throughout the debate were small family farm activists who, because of the way the bill was framed, saw themselves falling under these controls when they are not the problem. So instead of instigating real food safety reform in a country where one out of four people gets sick and 5,000 people die from eating contaminated food each year, the law might do next to nothing.

In the absence of stricter public action around food safety, corporations have moved to fill the void -- sometimes to tragicomic effect. A case in point: in the mid-2000s, a company called Beef Products Inc. had an ingenious idea: it would buy slaughterhouse scraps – which are extremely likely to be infected by bacterial pathogens – from large-scale beef processors at cut-rate prices. It would purée those parts into a paste, which it would then mix with ammonia to kill bacterial pathogens. It would sell the product back the the beef industry as a cheap filler for ground beef, with the added feature that the ammonia in the paste would sterilise the ground beef it was mixed with. The beef industry had found a "solution" to the problem of bacterial pathogens in ground beef! The product, known in the industry as "pink slime" for its distinctive look, could be found in 70% of hamburgers consumed in the United States by the end of the decade. The USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service, which oversees meat safety, applauded -- it recognised "pink slime" as safe without requiring testing, on the grounds that it had been sterilised by ammonia. But in 2009, a New York Times exposé found that pink slime in fact tended to be ridden with pathogens -- and was actively adding to the pathogen load of the ground beef it was mixed with. Beef Products Inc. responded by merely upping the ammonia dose for its mix. To this day, the product remains widely used in the vast US ground beef market, including at fast-food chains nationwide. vi

If the official US response to highly visible manifestations of food poisoning, like Salmonella-tainted meat and peanut butter, has been underwhelming and industry-friendly, then the response to low-level exposure to pathogens that cause cumulative damage has been virtually non-existent. The first kind causes spectacular, impossible-to-ignore symptoms like vomiting and diarrhoea; the second entails subtle, easy-to-ignore ones that can cause significant long-term damage. Corporate-led food safety regimes like the one in the United States have to at least gesture at the first kind; the second kind, not so much.

It turns out that the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), which oversees the safety of the US meat supply, routinely endorses meat that it knows to be tainted with residues of "veterinary drugs, pesticides, and heavy metals", the USDA Inspector General revealed in a 2010 report. vii The damning report was met with silence by the US media – probably because small amounts of substances like heavy metals don't cause dramatic immediate symptoms, but rather hard-to-trace, slow-to-develop conditions like cancer. As the report puts it, the "effects of residue are generally chronic as opposed to acute, which means that they will occur over time, as an individual consumes small traces of the residue". In its report, the USDA Inspector General's office expressed confidence that the FSIS would redouble efforts to keep heavy metals and antibiotic traces out of the meat supply going forward. Yet it had expressed the same thing, after exposing the same problem, in its report two years earlier. viii

Another example is the US Food and Drug Administration's refusal to act on mounting evidence that Bisphenol A, an industrial compound found in many food containers, is an endocrine disrupter. If the food safety regime for spectacular pathogens could be described as porous, that for the second, more subtle, kind barely exists at all.

Written with contributions from Tom Philpott, senior writer on food and agriculture for Grist magazine.

i "Peanut Corp. Shipped Product After Finding Salmonella", Bloomberg News, 27 January 2009, http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=aeXwqlMnIWU0;
 and "Peanut Plant Had History of Health Lapses", New York Times, 26 January 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/27/health/27peanuts.html?_r=1&ref=health

ii "Antibiotic-resistant salmonella, school lunches, and Cargill's dodgy California beef plant", Grist, 10 December 2010, http://www.grist.org/article/2009-12-10-meat-wagon-cargill-salmonella/

iii "California Firm Recalls Ground Beef Products Due to Possible Salmonella Contamination", USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, 9 December 2009,


iv "Why a recall of tainted beef didn't include school lunches", USA Today, 2 December 2009, http://www.usatoday.com/news/education/2009-12-01-beef-recall-lunches_N.htm

v Responsibility for food safety in the US is divided between two agencies. The US Department of Agriculture is responsible for meat, poultry and egg products, which accounts for 20% of the US food supply. The Food and Drug Administration, within the US Department of Health, takes care of the rest. The Food Safety Modernisation Act addresses only the work of the FDA. The top sources of food poisoning in the United States are, however, poultry, beef and leafy vegetables (in that order, 2007). See: "Can Congress make a food-safety omelette without breaking the wrong eggs? ", Grist, 25 October 2010.

vi "Safety of Beef Processing Method Is Questioned", New York Times, 30 December 2009,

; See also, "Lessons on the food system from the ammonia-hamburger fiasco", Grist, 5 January 2010, http://www.grist.org/article/2010-01-05-cheap-food-ammonia-burgers

vii "FSIS National Residue Program for Cattle", Office of the Inspector General, US Department of Agriculture, http://www.usda.gov/oig/webdocs/24601-08-KC.pdf

viii "USDA Inspector General: meat supply routinely tainted with harmful residues", Grist, 15 April 2010: http://www.grist.org/

This is "food safety"?

Government and industry action on food safety gives little indication that they recognise any fundamental problem with industrial food production. Rarely do their regulations or standards hinder corporate practices in any significant way. On the contrary, they tend to reinforce the power of large industry while undermining, or even criminalising, small-scale production and local food cultures. Colombia, for instance, is in the process of implementing legislation to prevent the sale of raw milk in urban areas. Well over two million farmers and vendors depend for their livelihoods on these sales of raw milk, and around 20 million Colombians, most of them poor, depend on raw milk as an affordable and essential source of nutrition, easily made safe by boiling it at home. Hard pressed to justify its moves on public health grounds, the government says that the legislation is part of its commitment to the WTO, and that it will help to "modernise" the dairy sector, making it better able to compete with imports when a looming free trade agreement with the EU kicks in. 5

These days, in Colombia and elsewhere, "food safety" policy has little to do with public health or consumers. It has become a battleground among contesting interests, the site of power struggles for control over food and agriculture, with decisions being increasingly taken far from producers and consumers, in the obscure world of trade negotiations and multilateral agencies, where politics and commerce, not science and public health, are what drive things.

Consider the case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), the fatal brain-wasting condition popularly known as mad cow disease. People get the human strain of it by eating the meat of cows that have been fed diseased animals as a cheap source of protein – a practice common in industrial feedlots since the 1970s. The US and Canada lost Japan, Korea and several other major export markets for beef when BSE was found in their herds in 2003, and have had a tough time regaining those markets because risks remain from their industries' feeding practices. 6 Indeed, in March 2011, a new case of BSE was identified in a Canadian cow. 7 But through constant pressure, particularly at the trade negotiating table, both countries have secured some concessions to allow certain parts of the cow, or the meat of younger animals, to cross borders freely. Both countries also went to the Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) in Paris, which has a similar role to Codex Alimentarius Commission in Rome but for the animal kingdom, to get their beef declared generally safe for consumption. Where does that leave Japan? Unmoved. It says that its standards are higher than those of the OIE or the US, and have to be given priority.

Beijing, for its part, has so far refused to budge. But that doesn't mean that Chinese consumers are getting ractopamine-free pork. The same government fighting off ractopamine-laced US pork, is aggressively pushing, in the name of "food safety", a consolidation and modernisation of the country's pig production based on the US factory farm model. China's two largest, vertically-integrated pork producers, Yurun and Shineway, both of whom have been heavily funded by the US bank Goldman Sachs, were implicated in recent food safety incidents involving ractopamine and clenbuterol (another banned drug added to pig feed for the same purposes). 8 In March 2011, Chinese consumers were shocked when a CCTV television report uncovered how ractopamine and clenbuterol are widely used in the farms supplying Shineway in Henan Province. 9 The report found that Shineway was actually offering farmers higher prices for pigs fed ractopamine. 10

Superbugs and megafarms

"Superbug" is a term used to describe bacteria that have acquired the ability to resist commonly used antibiotics. One of the most notorious is Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), which emerged in the 1960s in the UK and has since spread around the world, with deadly consequences. In the US alone, 17,000 people died from MRSA infection in 2005. i

MRSA is typically associated with hospitals, where the superbug has a tendency to get into open wounds and cause difficult-to-heal infections. But in recent years these superbugs have found another place to thrive: industrial pig farms. ii

In 2004, Dutch researchers identified a new strain of MRSA, later labelled ST398 or "pig MRSA", which they found in people in close contact with Dutch pig farms. Within two years ST398 become a leading source of human MRSA infection in the country, accounting for more than one in five human MRSA cases. Studies showed that these cases were closely related with pigs, and further research revealed that ST398 was running rampant in pigs on Dutch farms. A 2007 survey found ST398 in 39% of pigs and 81% of local piggeries. iii

New surveys of farms outside of the Netherlands have turned up similar numbers. iv The first ever EU-wide survey for MRSA on pig farms in 2009, using a method that "largely underestimates MRSA prevalence", found ST398 in more than two-thirds of EU member states. Spain and Germany had the highest incidence, with over 40% of pig holdings testing positive for MRSA. v Not surprisingly, given the European pig industry's heavy exports overseas, ST398 is turning up in pigs beyond Europe's borders, too. A study of pigs in the Canadian province of Ontario, for instance, found ST398 in a quarter of local pigs, as well as in one-fifth of the pig farmers tested. vi Only one study has been conducted in the US so far: it was a pilot study of two large hog operations in the midwest that found ST398 in 49% of the pigs and 45% of the workers. vii

MRSA has the potential to evolve in very dangerous ways in its new home on pig farms. The density of animals in factory farms allows the bacteria to evolve rapidly and in diverse ways. Also, the use of antibiotics on factory farms is ubiquitous. Pigs are routinely fed antibiotics in their feed and water, often as a preventive measure against disease outbreaks and even simply to increase growth rates.

In the US, 80% of all antibiotics consumed annually are consumed by livestock. viii In China, the figure is nearly 50%. ix Even in the EU, where the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics for animals is banned and where the types of antibiotics allowed for livestock are controlled, the use of antibiotics for animals still exceeds their use for humans. In Germany, for example, three times as many antibiotics are given to animals as to humans. x Such widespread use of antibiotics in factory farms speeds up the development of antibiotic resistance among bacteria. Unlike other strains of MRSA, ST398 can already withstand tetracyclines, a group of antibiotics that is given heavily and regularly to pigs in factory farms. The medical profession is getting increasingly worried about what this will mean for the future of human health care, as antibiotics may become useless. The WHO now calls it "the greatest threat to human health". xi

The good news, however, is that ST398 still hasn't shown much virulence in humans, nor is it easily transmitted between people. Not yet, at least.

In 2010, a 14-year-old girl in France, recovering in hospital from pneumonia, was infected with a superbug. She soon began having serious respiratory problems, her lungs started bleeding, and within six days she died. The superbug that killed her was a clone of MRSA ST398 that is known to circulate in humans. The most alarming issue for the French doctors studying the case was that this was the first incident on record in which this strain of MRSA had acquired the capacity to produce a lethal toxin in humans, something that certain other strains of superbugs are able to do. They reasoned that if the clone of MRSA ST398 could do it, then surely "pig MRSA" has the same capacity. xii

It is not much of a stretch to imagine a situation where "pig MRSA" passes from a pig to a farm worker carrying another MRSA strain with virulence to humans, mixes with that strain, and acquires its capacity for virulence. The new virulent strain of ST398 could then easily pass back into the pigs, where it would rapidly amplify and spread. ST398 is transmitted to humans not only through contact with live pigs: the bacteria is also present on meat sold in supermarkets and can be carried over large distances by the insects that pass in and out of farms. xiii

The EU is slowly starting to take action to defend against such a possibility. It has implemented several measures to restrict the use of antibiotics in livestock production and, at national and at EU level, some surveillance of farms is being carried out. In 2009, a panel of the European Food Safety Authority recommended that the EU move towards "systematic surveillance and monitoring of MRSA in intensively reared animals". South Korea, for its part, banned the use of seven antibiotics in animal feed in 2008, and implemented a national programme to reduce the use of antibiotics on livestock farms. But such restrictions on the use of antibiotics for livestock hardly exist in the US, although proposed legislation restricting the non-therapeutic use of certain antibiotics in feed is currently before Congress. As for surveillance, the US National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System doesn't even test for MRSA. xiv Outside the industrialised countries, where the meat industry is expanding most rapidly, there is an almost complete absence of controls on the use of antibiotics in agriculture and of surveillance for pathogens such as MRSA.

Enhancing surveillance and cutting back on the use of antibiotics in factory farms are important measures. But they aren't enough to deal effectively with the threat posed by MRSA and the myriad other pathogens that thrive in factory farms. A staggering 61% of all human pathogens, and 75% of new human pathogens, are transmitted by animals, with many of the most dangerous – such as bird flu, BSE, swine flu and the Nypah virus – having emerged from intensive livestock farms. xv It is the way that animals are farmed that is fundamentally at issue. xvi

i E. Klein, D.L. Smith, R. Laxminarayan, "Hospitalizations and Deaths Caused by Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus, United States, 1999–2005", Emerg. Infect. Dis. Vol. 13, No. 12, 2007, pp. 1840–46.

ii Ed Yong, "MRSA in pigs and pig farmers", 23 January 2009,


iii X.W. Huijsdens et al., "Community-acquired MRSA and pig-farming", Ann. Clin. Microbiol. Antimicrob., Vol. 5, No. 26, 2006; A.J. de Neeling et al., "High prevalence of methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus in pigs", Vet. Microbiol., Vol. 122, No. 3–4, 21 June 2007, pp. 366–72; I. van Loo et al., "Emergence of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus of animal origin in humans", Emerg. Infect. Dis., Vol. 13, No. 12, 2007, pp. 1834–9.

iv Danish Integrated Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring and Research Programme, http://www.danmap.org/pdfFiles/Danmap_2009.pdf

v "Pig MRSA widespread in Europe", Ecologist, 25 November 2009; Broens et al., "Diagnostic validity of pooling environmental samples to determine the status of sow-herds for the presence of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)", Poster presented at the ASM–ESCMID Conference on Methicillin-resistant Staphylococci, in Animals: Veterinary and Public Health Implications, London, 2009.

vi "Guelph Researchers Find MRSA in Pigs", University of Guelph, 8 November 2007, http://www.uoguelph.ca/news/2007/11/post_75.html.

vii T.C. Smith, M.J. Male, A.L. Harper, J.S. Kroeger, G.P. Tinkler et al., (2009) "Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) Strain ST398 Is Present in Midwestern US Swine and Swine Workers", PLoS ONE, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2009.

viii See "New FDA Numbers Reveal Food Animals Consume Lion's Share of Antibiotics", Center for a Liveable Future, Johns Hopkins University, 23 December 2010,. http://www.livablefutureblog.com/2010/12/new-fda-numbers-reveal-food-animals-consume-lion%E2%80%99s-share-of-antibiotics
 See also Margaret Mellon, Charles Benbrook, Karen Lutz Benbrook, "Hogging it!: Estimates of antimicrobial abuse in Livestock", Union of Concerned Scientists, 2001, http://www.ucsusa.org/

ix "Half of China's antibiotics fed to animals: expert", Xinhua, 26 November 2010.

x Kristen Kerksiek, "Farming out Antibiotics: The fast track to the post-antibiotic era", Infection Research, Germany, 22 March 2010,


xi AAP, "Greatest threat to human health", Sydney Morning Herald, 16 February 2011, http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/wellbeing/greatest-threat-to-human-health-20110216-1awai.html

xii Frédéric Laurent, "Les souches de staphylococcus aureus ST398 sont-elles virulents", Bull. Acad. Vét. France, Vol. 163, No. 3, May 2010.

xiii See Aqeel Ahmad et al., "Insects in confined swine operations carry a large antibiotic resistant and potentially virulent enterococcal community", BMC Microbiology, 2011, http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2180/11/23/abstract

xiv Maryn McKenna, "Alarm over 'pig MRSA' – but not in the US", Wired, 30 October 2010, http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/10/alarm-over-pig-mrsa-%E2%80%94-but-not-in-the-us/

xv John McDermott and Delia Grace, "Agriculture-Associated diseases: Adapting Agriculture to improve Human Health", ILRI, February 2011.

xvi GRAIN, "Germ warfare: Livestock disease, public health and the military-industrial complex", Seedling, January 2008, http://www.grain.org/seedling/?id=533

Food safety and global trade: Europe and the US impose their standards



Read the synopsis of this report here.



Approximately 50.3 million pounds of the beef recalled by HallmarkWestland went to federal nutrition programs, including the National School Lunch Program, and of those 50.3 million pounds, about 19.6 million pounds had already been consumed at the time the recall was issued. Release No. 0054.08, USDA, Transcript of Technical Briefing - HallmarkWestland Meat Packing Company (Feb. 21, 2008).

9. HSUS members that consume meat products, including beef products, are concerned about eating adulterated meat products and the health risks associated with such adulterated meat. Specifically, they are concerned that downed cattle are at an increased risk for harboring and transmitting BSE prions and other pathogens. The consumption of meat products derived from BSE-infected cattle is believed to cause a human neurological disease known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease ("vCJD"). The disease is progressive, invariably fatal, and there is no known effective treatment or cure. Downed cattle may also be at higher risk for harboring other foodborne transmissible pathogens, including E. coli 0157:H7, Salmonella, and anthrax. By allowing downed cattle to enter the food supply, USDA's regulatory loophole injures members of The HSUS by placing them at an increased risk of contracting these food-borne illnesses each time they eat beef.

10. Members of The HSUS are also concerned about the meat products provided to their children through the National School Lunch Program. More than 31 million school children receive lunches through the program each school day. To assist states in providing healthful, low-cost or free meals, USDA provides states with various commodities including ground beef.

As evidenced by the HallmarkWestland investigation and recall, the potential for downed animals to make their way into the National School Lunch Program is neither speculative nor hypothetical.


Sunday, May 01, 2011

STUDY OF ATYPICAL BSE 2010 Annual Report May 2011


Monday, April 18, 2011

Multidrug-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus in US Meat and Poultry



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