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Food Borne Illness

Food Safety Magazine recently published an interesting study on food recalls. The publication tallied recalls from 2015 data from three different agencies—the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA FSIS), and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. The results produced some interesting and disturbing insights.

According to the report, the good citizens of Canada and the US experienced 629 food recalls in 2015. One third of the total recalls was due to common, repeat allergens - wheat, eggs, peanuts and dairy. Other allergens included soy, sulfites and various types of tree nuts—almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, cashews and pistachios. Milk was one of the most undeclared food allergens.

Microbiological contamination was equally disturbing. In May 2015, evidence of Clostridium botulinum, a potentially lethal neurotoxin that paralyzes muscles was discovered in canned seafood. At the time, the recall was blamed on an unnamed pathogen. Fast-forward five months and 14 more canned seafood products were recalled between October 9 and November 10 -- primarily of cans of albacore tuna and salmon.

In July 2015 saw the merger of Kraft Foods Group and H.J. Heinz Company. The new company, Kraft Heinz Company had an abysmal food safety record. Barbecue sauce, Oscar Mayer turkey bacon and even their iconic Kraft slices were all subject to recall.

Even bottled water wasn't exempt. In June of that year, Niagara Bottling LLC recalled bottled water because Escherichia coli may have been present due to exposure to human or animal waste at two Pennsylvania plants. The recall affected over 14 different brands.

Contamination of fresh produce can occur at several stages across the production chain, including harvesting from the field or orchard, transporting, processing, distribution or marketing at the grocery store. The report cites seven apple recalls. All but one was due to Listeria monocytogenes contamination. Other recalls included Dole recalling bagged spinach in 13 states due to salmonella bacteria and in April, prepared foods that were sold at a number of major retailers, including Target and Costco were recalled because the products contained spinach potentially contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

Most cases of product recalls or food contamination incidents have fairly identifiable causes. Sometimes a product gets into the wrong package, or something gets left out of a label or the label is misrepresenting a fact. That was the case with a General Mills recall. The corporation recalled two of their most popular cereals — original Cheerios and Honey Nut Cheerios. The boxes were labeled as “gluten-free” but breakfast foods contained wheat.

Sometimes, it’s a mystery how the contamination occurred. Food companies in question often respond before the full scope of the contamination can be traced in order to keep exposure and bad press to a minimum. In the beginning of June 2016, General Mills issued a voluntary recall of 10 MILLION pounds of flour because of a suspected health threat risk although there was no clear evidence of cross-contamination. In that same time frame, a century-old Tennessee company, Grain Craft, announced “the intermittent presence of peanuts” in their soft red winter wheat. The FDA tested the Grain Craft mill in question and found no peanut protein, meaning the contamination happened after harvest and processing.

Grain Craft is among the largest independent flour millers in the United States. They don't sell to the public, they sell to the food processors, so the potential for numerous popular brands and food types to be affected by the cross-contamination is very real. On June 3, 2016 the first commercial food processor pulled their products that used Grain Craft's flour, Hostess recalled over 700,000 products containing the suspect flour after receiving two adverse events involving children with peanut allergies who suffered immediate allergic reactions after consuming Hostess donut products. Further testing on other shipments of flour from the same supplier as well as finished products revealed low level peanut residues. Kellogg and Pepsi Co also issued a massive recall of products that use Grain Craft flour. Grain Craft has recalled the affected flour.

On the same day of the General Mills recall, Kashi, owned by Kellogg, announced a major recall of one variety each of its granola and granola bars The bars in question contained ingredients made from sunflower kernels potentially contaminated with Listeria monocytongenes bacteria. The recall was part of an expanded recall by multi national SunOpta Corp which specializes in organic, non-genetically modified foods.

Whether the contamination occurs in the field, or on the factory floor, clearly, there is a lot of room for improvement on behalf of both the food industry and our regulators. An estimated 35 million people suffer from serious food allergies in North America and Europe. One out of six people will get sick from contaminated food every year - that's simply unacceptable.

As a conscious consumer, be aware that Intercontinental shipping of animal and food products exposes an inherent flaw in the industrial food sector. The business model enables the spread of food borne disease in a relatively short amount of time. To make a change, start by supporting local and regional farmers. Choose fresh regional produce instead of produce commonly sold in large grocery chains where much of the produce is imported. If you eat meat, choose regionally raised, organic, grass-fed/pasture-raised beef, poultry and dairy. And be aware that while some grocery stores carry organic foods, many items are imported.