# Food Safety

Will anyone verify meatpackers' COVID-19 mitigation efforts?

Novel coronavirus outbreaks have forced multiple meatpacking plants to shut down and turned Louisa County into Iowa’s hot spot for COVID-19 cases per capita. Governor Kim Reynolds asserted on April 15 that site visits and stepped up testing will keep employees healthy, minimizing disruption to the food supply chain.

But while routine food safety inspections of meatpacking plants continue, the companies’ additional steps to slow the spread of COVID-19 are outside the scope of regulation by the the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS).

Neither the Iowa Department of Public Health nor the governor’s office responded to inquiries about who–if anyone–will be inspecting meatpackers’ coronavirus mitigation measures.

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Details on Culver's egg safety proposals for Iowa

During Governor Chet Culver’s final address to the Iowa legislature this morning, he mentioned that his administration

provided the legislature and the new administration with a detailed summary addressing the historic egg recall last summer. This includes five proposed changes in Iowa law that will help improve food safety and employee training standards in the wake of the salmonella outbreak last summer.

I’ve posted the full text of the Culver administration’s egg safety proposals after the jump. This passage summarizes the five areas that would require legislative action:

Although the new federal egg regulatory regime is aimed at the state’s largest producers, a new, mandatory Iowa [Salmonella enteriditis] detection and prevention program should be enacted under amendments to existing law and the creation of a new Iowa Code Section 196.15 to complement the federal government’s efforts to prevent SE contaminated shell eggs from entering into the nation’s food chain from all of Iowa’s egg producers.

There are at least five issues that are not covered by the recent federal egg regulatory reforms, that Iowa law does not currently address and that, therefore, unless corrected legislatively, may leave consumers of Iowa-produced eggs vulnerable to future SE poisoning.  First, federal egg safety laws pertain only to egg farms that host at least 3,000 hens and do not cover smaller operations.  Second, under federal law, producers have no legal obligation to report positive SE testing results to any federal or state agency.   Third, there are no accreditation or certification standards for laboratories that conduct SE testing.  Fourth, there are no legal criteria that establish the minimal level of training and competency for persons who are charged with the responsibility for implementing a new mandatory SE detection and prevention program.  And, fifth, there is no clearly-identified funding stream to support an effective expansion of state egg programs.

It would take heavy lifting to get these sensible ideas passed and signed into law. Even when Democrats controlled both chambers of the Iowa legislature, few new regulations on agriculture saw the light of day. The Iowa House now has a 60-40 Republican majority, which makes passing new food safety rules even more of an uphill battle. Governor-elect Terry Branstad has repeatedly criticized what he views as excessive regulations on farms, and the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation endorsed Branstad and almost a full slate of Republican legislative candidates last year.  

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Congressional roundup: Funding the government, food safety and START

The U.S. Senate approved a continuing resolution today to fund the federal government at current levels through March 4, 2011. Both the cloture motion and the bill itself passed by large bipartisan majorities; Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin and Republican Chuck Grassley voted for the cloture motion and the funding resolution. Harkin slammed Republicans for blocking the fiscal year 2011 omnibus bill last week, because unlike the continuing resolution approved today, the omnibus bill would have increased funding for programs such as Head Start, child care subsidies, meals for seniors and drugs for AIDS patients. The House of Representatives is expected to approve the continuing resolution later today to stop the government from running out of money at midnight. UPDATE: The House approved the spending bill by 193 to 165, with 75 representatives not voting. All five Iowans voted, and they split along party lines.

A bigger problem will come in March, when House Republicans force through major cuts in domestic spending (probably with the eager cooperation of President Barack Obama). Those will be a drag on the economy, erasing any stimulative effect from the lousy deal Obama struck on extending the Bush tax cuts.

Meanwhile, the House gave final approval to the food safety bill today on a mostly party-line vote of 215 to 144. Iowa’s representatives split the usual way, with Democrats Bruce Braley, Dave Loebsack and Leonard Boswell voting for the bill and Republicans Tom Latham and Steve King voting against it. I am still surprised that the Senate resurrected the food safety bill on Sunday. I have yet to see any explanation for why Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma agreed to let it pass. Coburn had been that bill’s most vocal opponent in the Senate all year. It’s not as if Coburn suddenly decided to stop being a jerk; he appears ready to block the 9/11 responders bill from becoming law during the lame-duck session. Even some Fox News commentators are upset about that political maneuver.

The Senate took a step toward ratifying the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) today. Eleven Republicans joined all Democrats present to approve a cloture motion on that treaty, which the U.S. and Russia signed in April. Grassley voted with most of his GOP colleagues against the cloture motion on START; he has voted for various Republican amendments offered to the treaty. I haven’t seen any statement from his office explaining his opposition. The last START expired in December 2009, and we need to ratify the new treaty in order to resume inspecting Russian nuclear bases. There could hardly be a more important national security issue. Ronald Reagan’s former chief arms control negotiator said last month that Iran and North Korea were the “only two governments in the world that wouldn’t like to see this treaty ratified.”

Food safety bill "back from the dead"

Bleeding Heartland readers may recall that Senate Democrats imperiled the food safety bill, S510, by forgetting to put revenue-raising language in a bill that originated in the House of Representatives. Senate leaders tried to salvage the situation by adding the food safety language to the massive ominbus spending bill Congress was expected to approve last week. However, Senate Republicans torpedoed the omnibus bill, leaving few options for getting the food safety bill to President Barack Obama’s desk before the new Congress convenes.

According to Cox Radio reporter Jamie Dupree, the food safety bill came “back from the dead” on Sunday. The Senate took the food safety language from the continuing resolution on spending that had already passed the House and inserted it into a “Cash for Clunkers” bill the House had previously approved. (The food safety language replaced the Cash for Clunkers language.) The Senate then approved the new bill by unanimous consent. Amazingly, no Republican gummed up the works on that, not even the food safety bill’s deadly enemy Tom Coburn. The bill now goes back to the House, where Dupree says approval is expected this week. UPDATE: The Hill’s Alexander Bolton and Matthew Jaffe of ABC News report on the Senate maneuvering.

I had almost given up on this bill passing. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good step forward with bipartisan support in Congress. Both Tom Harkin and Chuck Grassley voted for the bill a few weeks ago in the Senate.  

Grassley, Harkin vote yes as Senate passes food safety bill (updated)

The U.S. Senate approved the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act today by a 73 to 25 vote. Tom Harkin and all other Senate Democrats voted for the bill, as did 15 Republicans including Iowa’s Chuck Grassley. Grassley also was among 14 Republicans who joined Democrats to support the cloture motion ending debate on the food safety bill yesterday.

Some details on the bill as well as its complicated path through the Senate are after the jump.  

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Northey ignorant about Iowa Code and other egg recall news

Following up on yesterday’s post, the recall of half a billion Iowa-produced eggs continues to reverberate in Iowa politics.

Republican Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey still denies that he could have done more to ensure food safety regulations were followed at the DeCoster facilities. Northey’s opponent, Francis Thicke, has said feed mill inspections “could have identified a strain of Salmonella Enteritidis before 1,470 Americans were sickened and a half billion eggs were recalled.”

Meanwhile, the non-profit Food Democracy Now announced that two major supermarket chains have agreed to stop selling eggs produced by Jack DeCoster’s operations.

Details and more links are after the jump.

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Is Obama putting a Monsanto exec in charge of food safety?

(UPDATE: Jill Richardson’s sources differ on whether these appointments are imminent.)

I received a disturbing action alert today from Food Democracy Now about who may oversee food safety regulations in the new administration. (Note: I got the action alert via e-mail, and it hasn’t been posted yet at the Food Democracy Now website. The link above is to the organization’s main page.)


There’s a possibility that former Monsanto executive Michael Taylor and irradiation proponent Dr. Michael Osterholm will be named to top food safety spots in the new Administration. […]

1. Michael Taylor, a former Monsanto executive, whose career literally fits the definition of the revolving door between government, lobbying and corporate interests. Before serving on the Obama ag transition team, Taylor made a name for himself rotating in and out of law firms, Monsanto, the USDA and FDA. While at the FDA he helped write the rules to allow rBGH into the American food system and our children’s milk.

Now we’ve learned that Taylor may be in line to run an office in the White House on food safety!

2.  On Monday, Secretary Vilsack is set to announce the appointment of Dr. Michael Osterholm, a food safety expert, to lead the Food Safety agency at the USDA. According to Food  & Water Watch, Osterholm has been “a zealot in promoting th[e] controversial technology (of irradiation) as the panacea to contaminated food.”

Irradiation allows food processors to nuke disease from contaminated food at the end of the production line, while ignoring the root problems that create unsafe food.

For Osterholm, the recent peanut butter fiasco apparently was just another example of how irradiation could save the day. “Clearly it’s a problem where the raw peanut butter or paste is consumed and not cooked,” Osterholm said.

Food Democracy Now wants people to e-mail Vilsack immediately, asking him to block these appointments. The action alert included a sample e-mail, which I’ve posted after the jump, but it’s always better to write this kind of letter in your own words.

You may recall that in November, the Organic Consumers Association came out strongly against Vilsack for secretary of agriculture, largely because of his connections to Monsanto and other biotech companies. But it’s worth noting that President Obama put Michael Taylor on his transition team before he chose Vilsack to run the USDA. If Taylor does end up running a White House food safety office, don’t pin that mistake on Vilsack.  

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Check your pantry for recalled peanut butter products

We don’t buy a lot of processed foods, so I wasn’t worried about the major outbreak of salmonella that has been traced to contaminated peanut butter.

Then I glanced down the full list of recalled items, which Jill Richardson posted at La Vida Locavore. It includes lots of popular brand-name crackers, cookies, and other foods (such as Wal-Mart, Keebler and Hy-Vee).

There are even some organics on the list, like certain types of Clif bars (which we have in our cupboard).

Some PetSmart dog biscuits have been recalled too.

Note: the FDA says jars of peanut butter are not affected. This recall applies to other forms of processed food made with peanut butter.

Do not take chances with salmonella.

More reaction to Vilsack's nomination and good ideas on food policy

I don’t recall nearly as intense a reaction to Bill Clinton’s or George Bush’s nominees for secretary of agriculture. Either food and farm issues are much more salient now than they used to be, or I am noticing it more because Barack Obama is tapping an Iowan to head the USDA.

Tom Vilsack’s friend Jennifer Donahue says Vilsack is the “best possible” choice for secretary of agriculture.

Denise O’Brien urges sustainable agriculture advocates not to give up hope, because as governor Vilsack was accessible and did some good things on food and environmental issues.

Another Iowan, Food & Society Policy Fellow Angie Tagtow of Elkhart, wants Vilsack and incoming Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Daschle to work together:

A dichotomy exists between agriculture policies and Dietary Guidelines for Americans – yet, ironically, both are overseen by the USDA. Current food and farm policies stand in the way of making healthy food the easiest choice.

Food and agriculture policies must support disease prevention efforts and can save millions in health care costs. The USDA and USDHHS must use sound science, instead of pressures from special interests like biotechnology companies and the food industry, to reform policies and programs that support a healthy and sustainable food and agriculture system.

Specifically, Tagtow advocates cooperation between Vilsack and Daschle toward the following goals:

1. Creating an intradepartmental Food Policy Council, led by a Food Czar, “to assure farm, food and nutrition policies and programs support public health goals.”  

2. Enacting policies to build fertile soil. “Farmers should receive support or credits for decreasing use of synthetic farm chemicals, protecting natural resources, building soil, reducing fossil fuel use and capturing carbon.”

3. Creating incentives to grow more fruits and vegetables in the U.S.: “Our agriculture system does not grow enough of the right foods that promote our health. We are forced to rely on other countries to put fruits and vegetables on our plates.”

4. Making fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains more available to people on federal food and nutrition assistance program: “Improving the nutritional quality of the WIC food package and the foods served in schools will nourish healthy children, prepare them to learn, reduce childhood diseases, reduce food insecurity and produce healthy, productive adults.”

5. Leveraging food production as economic development. “Growing more food closer to where we eat it increases our access to fresh seasonal food, cultivates a closer relationship with farmers, and builds community resiliency, economic stability, food security and health.”

Tagtow’s suggestions are all excellent, and I hope Vilsack and Daschle will act on them.

Rob Hubler, former Congressional candidate in Iowa’s fifth district, is asking everyone on his e-mail list to support petitions calling for a more sustainable agriculture policy:


[…] Will you join me in continuing to work for the same values we campaigned on? There are two quick, but important, actions I want you to take. Both will make a difference for the future of rural communities, family farming and our entire food system.

First, I was proud to add my name to a remarkable effort to pressure President-elect Obama to appoint a “Sustainable Secretary of Agriculture” originated in our own district. Food Democracy Now (http://www.fooddemocracynow.org), launched last week by Iowan Dave Murphy, rocketed to national attention when Nicolas Kristof endorsed the effort in his New York Times column.

Nearly 50,000 people have already signed. Will you help push the petition to 100,000?

Second, the Center for Rural Affairs launched a Grassroots Letter to the next Secretary of Agriculture. No matter who Obama selects, the next head of the USDA needs to hear from you. You can sign the Center for Rural Affairs Grassroots Letter and leave your own comment about the change you would like to see to food, farm and rural policy. The Center for Rural Affairs will send your signature and comment onto the next Agriculture Secretary.

Join me in signing their letter here: http://www.cfra.org/08/grassro…

Peace & Justice,

Rob L. Hubler

I agree that it’s helpful to add more names to those petitions. Food Democracy Now has more than 58,000 signers already. The Center for Rural Affairs’ proposals are wide-ranging and sensible.

The Organic Consumers Association, which came out swinging against Vilsack last month, hasn’t given up on blocking this appointment. On Wednesday they launched a “Stop Vilsack” petition.

This strikes me as ineffective and unwise. There is no chance of Obama backing off from this nomination. He was aware of Vilsack’s position on agriculture when he made the decision. There is no chance of the Senate not confirming Vilsack. Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa chairs the relevant committee and has already said he will make sure Vilsack’s confirmation hearings go smoothly.

The Organic Consumers Association would do better to organize pressure on Vilsack to take specific actions, either reversing bad Bush administration policies or moving in a more sustainable direction, as the Center for Rural Affairs and Tagtow are proposing.

Daily Kos user CornSyrupAwareness had a different take on Vilsack’s nomination:

I’m glad to see Iowa get their due with this pick of Tom Vilsack. They were instrumental in getting our man elected, and we should all tip our caps to Iowa. Iowa is now paid in full for their efforts and I’m glad. This way they don’t get their due by ‘vetoing’ a Surgeon General’s warning on High Fructose Corn Syrup.

CornSyrupAwareness also quoted some comments Obama made months ago about corn syrup, and posted this great clip of Bill Maher asking Joe Biden, “Which is more likely to contribute to the death of your average American: a terrorist strike, or high-fructose corn syrup, and air that has too much coal in it?”

Once Vilsack is confirmed as secretary of agriculture, a lot of other positions within the USDA will need to be filled. At La Vida Locavore, Obama Foodorama drew attention to last week’s little-noticed resignation of Elizabeth Johnson, the Under Secretary for Food Safety of USDA and made the case for Bill Marler to replace her:

[T]here are opportunities for swift and dramatic change, particularly in food safety. If the USDA fulfilled even half of its already existing mandate, we’d have a far cleaner and safer food chain. Elizabeth Johnson’s now-vacant post as Under Secretary for Food Safety needs to be filled by an inspired, activist leader, someone with both a long institutional memory, and a firm grasp on how to rapidly change what’s so terribly wrong with our system. There’s one individual in the food safety world who is the most uniquely qualified candidate to take on such a huge challenge: Attorney Bill Marler, the foremost food poisoning authority in the country (pictured).

A founding partner of Seattle’s Marler Clark law firm, Marler is an extremely activist consumer advocate and champion of change in food safety policy and practice, both in the US and abroad. His focus on food safety began in 1993, when he won a landmark settlement against Jack in The Box for E. coli contamination. Since then, Marler’s firm has become a powerhouse of food borne illness litigation, garnering close to half a billion dollars in settlements for injured clients.

Marler himself is now the leading US expert in institutional and agricultural structures for food safety, and he regularly works with farmers and major corporations to change/create safety practices (most recently, he persuaded global conglomerate Conagra to dramatically alter their policies). He’s repeatedly testified before Congress on food safety, and has been a vociferous and much-published critic of government policies and practices (including the ongoing labeling fights over “organic”). His Marler Blog is the best internet source for food safety information, and as the years have gone by, Marler has devoted more and more of his professional life to non-profit consultations on food safety and security around the world. Under the umbrella of Marler Clark’s non-profit organization, Outbreak, Marler consulates with foreign food agencies, producers, and governments on how to better protect the public from poisoned food, and how to create safe food systems. This is crucial for any Under Secretary for Food Safety, because America imports a huge part of our food supply each year. Marler has not only been an activist on getting foreign producers to focus on safety, but he’s also intimately acquainted with exactly what goes on in international markets.

The undersecretary appointments don’t get much attention but are quite important. Thanks to Obama Foodorama for shining a light on food safety. (UPDATE: Daily Kos user Halcyon informed me that Marler is an occasional diarist at Daily Kos. His most recent post is about the top ten food safety stories of 2008.)

Share any relevant thoughts on Vilsack’s nomination or federal policies on food and agriculture.

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