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April 2009, Volume 15, Number 2

US Food: Salmonella, Food Safety

Net farm income, $87 billion in 2007 and $89 billion in 2008, reached record levels with high commodity prices. However, falling commodity prices could reduce net farm income to $66 billion in 2009, the average for the previous decade.

President Obama proposed to save about $10 billion over the next decade by prohibiting direct payments to farms with annual gross receipts over $500,000. The budget bill approved by the Senate in April 2009 did not include this restriction on farm payments. Instead of a cap tied to farm sales, many reformers want a cap on government payments tied to the recipient's family income, cutting off government payments when family income exceeds $250,000 a year.

Advocates of organic and locally produced food found a supporter in President Obama and especially his wife, Michelle, who planted a White House vegetable garden. Some of those who want to change the US food system point to environmental activism in the late 1960s, noting that few believed then that in several decades there would be new laws, cabinet-level departments, and global concerns about environmental quality.

Organic and local food activists want more spending on their issues. The federal government spent $7.5 billion on farm subsidies in 2008 and $15 million on organic and local food. A combination of commercial success and celebrity chefs may add momentum to the calls for change in how the federal government supports farmers, especially in light of childhood obesity, food safety and environmental concerns.

Those who want to change food policy hope they have an ally in USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, who said that President Obama's budget proposal represented a choice between 30 million school children and 100,000 large farmers for additional federal support, and that the children should receive priority.

Salmonella. An outbreak of salmonella in peanut butter that left over 22,000 people sick and nine dead revived proposals to irradiate food to kill the E.coli bacteria. The Food and Drug Administration in August 2006 permitted irradiation of spinach and iceberg lettuce, but the industry has not used irradiation for fear of a consumer backlash. Only spices and some imported products, like mangoes from India, are routinely treated with radiation.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated 76 million US cases of food-borne illness a year, leading to 5,000 deaths and 325,000 hospitalizations. The US has irradiation centers around the US to sterilize medical supplies, but the food industry has been reluctant to use them to kill bacteria on food. The FDA has approved irradiation of meat, which kills bacteria and extends the shelf life. However, during tests in 2000-01, many consumers rejected irradiated meat.

President Obama in March 2009 announced the creation of a Food Safety Working Group to recommend changes to the US food safety inspection system. The federal government has 12 agencies to inspect food products and the plants that produce them; the main ones are FDA and USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service. The US has about 150,000 plants that produce food, and food from 216,000 plants overseas is imported to the US.

The Peanut Corporation of America paid private inspectors to check its plants, and they gave the Blakely, Georgia plant that shipped the peanut butter involved in the 2008 E.coli outbreak passing grades. The Peanut Corporation reportedly used temp agencies to hire production workers who were paid the minimum wage, and allowed the workers to don uniforms at home, which could have transmitted germs into the plant. The workers were laid off when the plant closed January 16, 2009, and the Peanut Corporation firm was banned from supplying products to the federal government for a year.

The American Institute of Baking provided the auditor that inspected the Blakely peanut plant. The AIB has 120 auditors who inspect plants that pack and process commodities ranging from peanuts to vegetables; the auditors solicit the client firms who pay them. Auditing provides about half of the AIB's revenue; the other half is from food-safety classes that instruct those working and managing food plants.

Food manufacturers say they rely heavily on third-party auditors to ensure the food and ingredients they buy are safe. Congressional leaders said that, with the plants being inspected paying for the inspections, a conflict of interest that can lead to passing grades for substandard plants is created. Industry leaders agreed, and urged Congress to create a single food safety agency with the authority to order recalls of unsafe food.

Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella, California first recalled two million pounds of pistachios from its 55-million pound 2008 crop after a supplier to Kraft Foods found several types of salmonella during routine analysis. Setton, the second-largest pistachio processor in the United States, found salmonella contamination on 18 occasions, but ran roasted pistachios through the machinery a second time and tested them again to ensure that no salmonella were detected.

The FDA advised Setton to recall its entire 2008 crop, which is likely to lead to recalls of a variety of products containing pistachiosÑSetton supplies nuts to five wholesalers and food manufacturers. California produced about 280 million pounds of pistachios in 2008, and the FDA advised consumers in April 2009 to avoid all pistachios.

In summer 2006, three people died after eating spinach with the E. coli 0157:H7 bacterium. In response, the leafy greens industry adopted a voluntary set of safeguards to keep wildlife, thought to be the carriers of E Coli, away from their fields, which were often fenced.

Restaurants. The number of restaurants and bars increased to 537,000 in 2008 from 361,000 in 1990, according to the National Restaurant Association. The increase was twice the 23 percent rise in population during this period, driven in part by the rapid expansion of casual dining chains such as Applebee's.

The 2008-09 recession showed that there were too many restaurants, as real sales declined one percent in 2008 and are expected to continue declining in 2009. Chains expected to shrink or fail include Outback, Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, Sbarro and Arby's; those expected to survive include Darden Restaurants (Olive Garden and Red Lobster) and fast-food chains.

Horses. The last US slaughterhouse for horses closed in 2007, and 100,000 US horses a year are shipped to Canada and Mexico for slaughter, and 6,000 a month were sent abroad in 2009. During the 2008-09 recession, more horse owners are abandoning their horses, prompting states such as Montana to allow slaughterhouses for horses to re-open.

Michael Moss, "Food Safety Problems Slip Past Private Inspectors," New York Times, March 6, 2009. Andrew Martin, "Spinach and Peanuts, With a Dash of Radiation," New York Times, February 2, 2009.

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