Many of you may be familiar with the famous confection known as the Kinder Surprise or Kinder Egg, a toy-filled chocolate that is touted as the single largest children’s candy category in the world. The treat is manufactured by the Italian company Ferrero and has risen to nearly cult status in certain countries. Kinder Eggs are sold worldwide; however, U.S. consumers have likely only tried the confection while traveling abroad or through some other surreptitious means. The candy has been banned in the United States for decades.
This Spring, though, U.S. consumers might see something similar to the Kinder Egg in their Easter baskets. Kevin Gass, one of the founders of Candy Treasure LLC located in New Jersey, has developed a safe alternative to the Kinder Egg that meets the approval of both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
The FDA has long viewed the practice of intermingling confectionaries with trinkets with apprehension because of the potential choking hazard it presents. In fact, Section 402(d)(1) of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act expressly states that a confectionery is deemed to be adulterated “if it…has partially or completely imbedded therein any nonnutritive object,” unless the nonnutritive object has a functional value and would not be injurious to health.
It is clear that the agency’s thinking on this subject has not changed. Most recently, in April 2012, the FDA reissued its import alert against Kinder Eggs and other similar products containing imbedded, non-nutritive objects, being offered for sale in the U.S. In the alert, FDA explained that “[t]he imbedded non-nutritive objects in these confectionary products may pose a public health risk as the consumer may unknowingly choke on the object.” Individuals attempting to smuggle Kinder Eggs across the border are subject to refusal of admission and a could face a potential fine of $2500 per egg.
Despite these restrictions, Gass announced earlier this month that his company’s product has been approved for sale in the U.S. Candy Treasure makes a confection called the Choco Treasure, which, like the Kinder Egg, is a chocolate egg that contains kid-friendly toys, such as figurines, full decks of mini playing cards, 3D puzzles and spinning tops. So how did this New Jersey company circumvent the country’s longstanding ban on the sale of confectionery that has a partially or completely imbedded non-nutritive object?
Gass explains that the Choco Treasure candy egg has a specially designed yellow egg-shaped capsule that contains each toy. There is a plastic ridge around the capsule which physically separates the two halves of the chocolate egg. It also alerts children that there is something hidden inside the chocolate. The capsule has a button that must be pushed in order to break it apart. In addition, the inedible toys contained inside the capsule are larger than those typically found inside the European equivalent. You can see how the concept works at the company’s website here: http://www.chocotreasure.com/how-it-works/.
This modification to the traditional Ferrero Kinder Egg is considered acceptable and is permitted for sale in the U.S. Ferrero's similar confection remains illegal, on the hand. FDA explained in a Compliance Policy Guide that if the trinkets are physically separated from candy item by some form of wrapping, this would be a sufficient safety precaution.
So this weekend you can enjoy your confection with nonnutritive objects legally. Or, if you are so inclined, you can sign the petition currently pending to lift the ban on Kinder Eggs.
On January 4, 2013, exactly two years after the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was signed into law by President Obama, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published two new proposed food safety rules that will be available for public comment for the next 120 days.
The first rule on “Preventive Controls for Human Food” sets safety requirements for facilities that process, package or store food to be sold in the United States, whether produced at a foreign or domestic-based facility, for human consumption. A separate rule will be issued for animal food in the near future. The rule will require that food facilities implement “preventive controls,” a science-based set of measures intended to prevent foodborne illness similar to Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) systems that are already required by FDA for juice and seafood processors. Each covered facility would be tasked with preparing and implementing a written food safety plan, which would include the following:
- Hazard analysis;
- Risk based preventive controls;
- Monitoring procedures;
- Corrective actions; verification; and
The FDA is also seeking public comment on a second proposed rule, which proposes enforceable safety standards for the production and harvesting of produce on farms.
This proposed “Standards for Produce Safety” rule proposes science- and risk-based standards that would address the major areas of concern for the fruit and vegetable industry including:
- Irrigation and other agricultural water;
- Farm worker hygiene;
- Manure and other additions to the soil;
- Intrusion of animals in the growing fields;
- Sanitation conditions affecting buildings, equipment and tools.
FDA indicated that the effective date of both proposed rules would be 60 days after the final rule is published. However, in order to allow all businesses, particularly small and very small facilities, adequate time to comply with the new requirements of the rule, FDA plans to adjust the compliance dates based on the facility’s size.
Although many in the food industry believe these rules are long overdue, FDA notes that it conducted extensive outreach to the produce industry, the consumer community, other government agencies and the international community. Since January 2011, FDA staff have toured farms and facilities of all sizes nationwide and participated in hundreds of meetings and presentations with global regulatory partners, industry stakeholders, consumer groups, farmers, state and local officials, and the research community. The goal was to develop proposed rules that could be applied to small and large food facilities alike.
FDA intends to release additional proposed rules addressing importer foreign supplier verification, preventive controls for animal food, and accreditation of third party auditors.
The attorneys at Stoel Rives will be providing more details about the proposed rules implementing FSMA here at the Food Liability Law Blog in the coming weeks. Stay tuned.
FDA Creates The Food Safety Preventive Controls Alliance (FSPCA) To Develop Training Courses And Materials For Prevention Of Contamination
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in cooperation with the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute for Food Safety and Health (IIT IFSH) created the Food Safety Preventive Controls Alliance (FSPCA) to develop materials to will help the industry comply with the new preventive control rules.
The Alliance is composed of members from the FDA, loca and state food protection agencies, the food industry and academia.
Under the FSMA, facilities are required to develop food safety plans that evaluate food safety hazards and identify the preventive measures to guard against those hazards. Facilities must also monitor preventive measures and manufacturers must also develop a plan of action to correct any problems that are discovered.
The Alliance will develop training modules, to train the trainer, develop industry specific measures, assess the need for future research, and prioritize the need for specific controls.
In its latest step to increase the safety of the American food supply, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced a Retail Food Safety Action Plan that includes several measures to help assure the safety of food sold in stores, restaurants, schools, and other foodservice operations. In support of the Action Plan, FDA also unveiled a cooperative agreement with the National Association of County and City Health Officials . FDA and the Association will promote the use of best practices by local authorities and attempt to increase retail food safety oversight as well as encourage the implementation of FDA’s Voluntary National Retail Food Regulatory Program Standards for retail food programs.
FDA today also released a Supplement to the 2009 FDA Food Code. The Food Code contains model food-safety regulations for retail and food-service operations including restaurants, schools and food stores. Local, authorities use the Food Code to develop food safety rules consistent with national regulatory policy.
Key changes contained in the new Supplement include:
- Requiring that food establishments have a certified food protection manager with the following additional requirements:
- that all operating procedures required by the Food Code are developed and implemented;
- that it can be verified that all employees are informed about their obligation to report certain health conditions that relate to transmission of food borne illness; and
- that any food the establishment receives after operating hours is delivered in a manner that does not create a food safety hazard;
- Requiring that food establishments have a plan for responding to and properly cleaning-up after an employee or other becomes physically ill in areas where food may be prepared, stored or served;
- Clarifying appropriate exceptions to the prohibition of bare hand contact with ready-to-eat foods prepared in the establishment;
- Clarifying the requirements for the safe storage and display of ground and whole-muscle meat and poultry;
- New requirements for devices used to generate chemical sanitizers on- site in the food establishment;
- Establishing clearer guidelines for the amount time a food establishment should be given to correct violations of different types of provisions in the Food Code.
The FDA confirmed this week that Listeria matching the strain that has caused health effects, was found on equipment and fruit at the Jensen Farms packing facility in Colorado.FDA Link..The recall that was announced on September 14 apparently actually began several days earlier and according to press reports included shutting down operations, the harvest and calling back trucks that were on the road. Four deaths out of 35 reported illnesses have occurred.
This recall brings into focus the new regulations that are to be promulgated by the FDA by January 2012 with respect to produce safety. Under Section 105 of FSMA the FDA is to establish standards for the safe production and harvesting of produce where the FDA has determined that standards would minimize the risk of serious adverse health consequences. FDA is required to publish a proposed rule on the minimum standards and publish updated Good Agricultural Practices by January of 2012. The standards are intended to include science-based minimum standards related to soil amendments, hygiene, packaging, temperature controls, nearby animals, water, and other hazards.
By this month, September 2011, the FDA is also expected to also publish a Notice of Proposed Rule Making which indentifies activities that constitute on -farm packing, holding, manufacturing and processing that will be subject to, or exempt from the Preventive Control Plan requirements under Section 103 of FSMA.
I attended the American Cheese Society conference in Montreal earlier in the month. The conference was attended by cheese producers and suppliers from around the world. At the conference I presented a PowerPoint on Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) . There were several talks on Food Safety and clearly, the industry is concerned about the new provisions where cheese in particular has been identified as one of the high-risk foods that will be subject to some of the more stringent new regulations.
Because of the conferences’ location, FSMA’s features related to import and export certifications and foreign inspections were of particular interest (see below). It is clear that imported food will garner additional attention under FSMA. This is particularly true given accounts of food safety issues in China involving vinegar, meat and bread.
FSMA IMPORT REQUIREMENTS
1. The FDA has a stepped up their foreign facility inspection program to be carried out in a manner to be negotiated with the relevant foreign authority. If inspections are not allowed within 24 hours of the request, a ban on the importation from that facility is authorized.
2. FSMA contains a new section (sec. 808) that requires the FDA to create a system for the accreditation of third party auditors for certification of eligible foreign facilities. The certification in turn will be used for the Foreign Voluntary Qualified Importer Program (see below) to provide assurance for food imports and to target foreign inspection resources. There are express requirements for auditors and certifications set out in this statute.
3. The Foreign Supplier Verification Program (sec. 805) requires every United States importer to perform risk-based reviews of foreign suppliers to verify that the food they import is produced in compliance with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standards (produce and hazard analysis and preventive controls) and is not altered or misbranded. In January 2012, the FDA is required to issue regulations specifying the contents of the specific verification programs. Each importer is required to perform foreign supply verification activities which may include monitoring records, inspections or annual on site inspections. It may also require reviewing the hazard prevention programs for foreign suppliers, periodic sampling and testing of shipments.
4. The law has clarified the definition of inspection to include: An “importer,” for this program, is defined as the United States owner or consignee of the article of food at the time of entry of such articles into the United States, or, if there is no United States owner or consignee, the importer is defined as the United States agent or representative of a foreign owner or consignee of the article of food at the time of entry into the United States. (Note that FDA seafood and juice facilities subject to Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) or low-acid canned food requirements are exempt.)
5. In January 2012, the FDA is required to issue a guidance document to assist importers in developing their foreign verification program.
6. Each importer is required to maintain records related to the Foreign Supplier Verification program for at least two years.
7. The FDA is required to maintain on its website a current list of the names, locations and other information deemed necessary by the importers in compliance with Section 2805 exemptions.
8. There is also a Foreign Voluntary Qualified Importer Program (FVQIP) (sec. 806) which requires the FDA to establish in consultation with the Department of Homeland Security a “voluntary” program to expedite movement of materials through the process. Under this program, an “importer” is defined as the person that brings food, or causes the food to be brought from a foreign country into the United States. This is an important distinction from the definition under FSVP because it could mean that foreign manufacturers may be allowed to participate in this program. The deciding factors will not be known until the final regulations are issued. FVQIP regulations are not required to be finalized by the U.S. FDA until July 2013. In July 2012, the FDA is required to issue a guidance document regarding participation, revocation, reinstatement compliance of the qualified importer program. To be eligible the importer must be importing food from its facility that has been certified by a third party auditor that year.
9. The FDA is authorized to require as a condition to granting admission to an article of food imported or offered for export to certification or such other assurances FDA deems appropriate.
In short, the following is the relevant time table:
|January 2011||Authority to require import certification.|
|July 2011||Require importers to notify the FDAof any country tot which food was denied access.|
|January 2012||FDA to publish guidance AND regulations for the Foreign Supplier Verification Program.|
|July 2012||Establish program for Voluntary Qualified Importer Program.|
|January 2013||Effective date for Foreign Supplier Verification Program.|
The FDA asserts in its inspection manual its right to photograph in your plant. Yet the FDA does not have statutory authority to photograph. The manual cites the following cases as authority for its right to photograph the inside of a plant: Dow Chem. Co. v. United States, 476 U.S. 227 (1986), and United States v. Acri Wholesale Grocery Co., 409 F. Supp. 529 (S.D. Iowa 1976). But these cases rely on the theory of implied consent or a minimal expectation of privacy. These cases do not hold that FDA has the right to photograph the interior of a food facility when the facility has a strict policy against photography and does not consent to the photography.
So, should you resist FDA's request to photograph?
The first thing you need to do is to ask yourself the following two questions:
- Do you have a policy against photography in your plant?
- If you do, is the policy strictly enforced?
If the answer to either question is no, then you're on shaky footing in resisting the FDA's request. By not having a policy or by not strictly enforcing the policy, FDA's legal authority based on implied consent is that much stronger.
Assuming your plant does have a no-photography policy that is strictly enforced, you need to assess whether the photography is worth the fight. It may be. Resisting the request for photos may be worthwhile to protect potential disclosure of trade secrets and to prevent out-of-context photographs from being used adversely by FDA. The problem is that the harder you push against FDA, the more likely that it will seek more information and the more likely that it will seek enforcement action.
In a future entry, we'll explore what legal remedies might be available to prevent the FDA from photographing the inside of your plant.
Many who track FDA's implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) believe that a priority for FDA is Section 105, “Standards for Produce Safety” (FDCA section 419), in particular, the leafy greens regulations.
Farms are exempt under FSMA's produce safety rules if:
(A) during the previous 3-year period, the average annual monetary value of the food sold by such farm directly to qualified end-users during such period exceeded the average annual monetary value of the food sold by such farm to all other buyers during such period; and
(B) the average annual monetary value of all food sold during such period was less than $500,000, adjusted for inflation.
"Qualified End User" is defined as:
(i) the consumer of the food; or
(ii) a restaurant or retail food establishment (as those terms are defined by the Secretary for purposes of section 415) that is located—
(I) in the same State as the farm that produced the food; or
(II) not more than 275 miles from such farm.
The fear among many small farm and "ag-in-the-middle" proponents who are not exempt is that FDA will impose standards similar to those adopted by the National Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (NLGMA) proponent group. Even the proponent group concedes that "the metrics developed by LGMA are not appropriate in every area and must be modified to address unique risks presented in different regions as well as varying production practices across the country."
Those non-exempt farms who cannot logistically or financially possibly comply with NLGMA metrics should consider the following action steps:
1. Be ready for the rule-making process. Marshal your case why your operation is low risk and should be treated differently from larger-scale operations and for those in California and Arizona the standards were developed for.
2. Start now laying the ground work with your state department of agriculture to seek a state variance for the FDA rules. The FSMA allows that:
A State or foreign country from which food is imported into the United States may in writing request a variance from the Secretary. Such request shall describe the variance requested and present information demonstrating that the variance does not increase the likelihood that the food for which the variance is requested will be adulterated under section 402, and that the variance provides the same level of public health protection . . . .
3. Call your congressional delegation. FDA has significant reporting obligations to Congress, which will have a significant role to play (funding, oversite, etc.) in how the FSMA gets implemented. Start educating your Congress people now on the fears that exist by "ag-in-the-middle" about the produce safety rules.
Today, the United States Senate passed the food safety bill, S. 510. If this were to become law (and according to the New York Times , this is a big if), the legislation would impose the most sweeping changes to food regulation in decades.
Among many other things, the bill would allow the FDA to order mandatory recalls, impose new record keeping requirements on businesses and establish stricter import standards. As a consequence, virtually every FDA regulated food manufacturer would have to adjust its approach to food safety, record keeping, supply-chain contracting and government relations. If this legislation becomes law, stay tuned here for in-depth analysis.
On November 13, the FDA notified nearly 30 manufacturers of caffeinated alcoholic beverages that the agency intends to look into the safety and legality of their products. As the FDA explained in a news release announcing this action, under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act any substance intentionally added to food, in this case caffeine in alcoholic beverages, is deemed unsafe and is unlawful unless its specific use has been approved by an FDA regulation, the substance is subject to a prior sanction, or the substance is Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). To date, the FDA has only listed caffeine as GRAS as an ingredient for use in cola-type beverages in concentrations specified by the agency.
The FDA noted in its release that it is not aware of any basis on which manufacturers may have concluded that the use of caffeine in alcoholic beverages is GRAS sanctioned. Consequently, in its letters to notified companies, including City Brewing, Gaamm Imports, Inc., and United Brands Company, Inc., the agency asked that within 30 days the notified companies “produce evidence of their rationale, with supporting data and information” for their conclusion that the use of caffeine in their products is GRAS or prior sanctioned. If the FDA determines that the use of caffeine in the alcoholic beverages is not GRAS or prior sanctioned, the agency stated it would take “appropriate action to ensure that the products are removed from the marketplace.”
This issue has been fermenting (pun intended) for some time. In the past year, alcoholic beverage industry leaders Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors agreed to discontinue their popular caffeinated alcoholic beverages Tilt, Bud Extra, and Sparks, and further agreed not to produce any caffeinated alcoholic beverages in the future. In late September 2009, the FDA received letters from eighteen attorneys general and one city attorney and five scientists expressing concerns about caffeinated alcoholic beverages. Among the chief policy concerns cited by these stakeholders was the increasing popularity and consumption of caffeinated alcoholic beverages by college students, coupled with general health risks associated with excess consumption of both alcohol and caffeine.
Manufacturers of alcoholic beverages had been operating under the TTB guideline that caffeine was a permitted but restricted ingredient, and had been warned by TTB and FTC about prohibited and/or deceptive advertising practices related to the effects of combining caffeine and alcohol. If the FDA takes the strong position that caffeine is an illegal additive, these advertising concerns related to caffeine and alcohol will disappear. The TTB and FTC will likely continue to focus scrutiny on other less common alcoholic beverage additives that have been treated like caffeine, such as ginseng, guarana and taurine.
And consumers will turn back to the original Red Bull and vodka for their caffeinated alcoholic beverage.
American Conference Institute (ACI) recently held its latest conference on food-borne illness litigation. The conference has been a fairly intimate gathering of the nation’s lawyers, insurers and experts involved with food-borne illness litigation.
This year, I had the privilege of moderating an in-house counsel “think tank.” The panel was composed of lawyers from a nice cross-section of food businesses: Yum Brands, Hormel, Fresh Express and SUPERVALU (though for each, food-borne illness litigation is a rare event) A slide-deck from the panel can be found here.
Also among the presenters at this year’s conference were Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) Dr. Arthur Liang and USDA/FSIS representative Dr. Dan Engeljohn. Both presentations provided fascinating insight into changes afoot in food safety enforcement and policy at the federal level. Here are some of the take-aways:
• “Outbreaks Waiting to Be Discovered” – Dr. Liang opined that, based on surveilled illnesses, most food-borne illness outbreaks are not presently discovered. He believes that recent data shows that there are perhaps 2-3 times more outbreaks nationally than what’s been uncovered over the last few years.
• Food Safety Progress Being Undone by Retail Deli Operations – FSIS says there has been a “steady increase in risky behavior at the retail level.” According to Dr. Engeljohn, budget authority is being sought to intervene with retailers, particularly smaller supermarket deli operations.
• Negative Tested Product Can Be Considered Adulterated - FSIS will be issuing a policy soon that for the first time will consider a “negative tested product to be determined adulterated” under circumstances where an associated product tested positive for pathogens.
• Non-0157 STECs - FSIS will be finalizing methodology to detect non-0157 Shiga Toxin-Producing Escherichia coli (STEC).
Off to Minneapolis this week for a lecture at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Food Science. I’ll be talking to professor Francisco Diez’s Food: Safety, Risks and Technology class. My lecture is titled “Consumers vs. Food Companies: Intersection of the Court System and Food Science.”
I plan a wide-ranging talk that touches on:
- The relationship and interaction between the tort system and food regulation;
- Basic principles of products liability law as it affects food;
- Three different types of food products claimants and how we respond to each;
- Why consumer claims matter to food companies;
- The importance of investigating agencies in determining the outcome of claims;
- The relationship between food-borne illness, home food preparation, organic food and locavores; and
- How lawyers use expert witnesses.
I’ll post the slides after the lecture.
Kristin Choo has written a piece for the ABA Journal tracking the history of food safety regulation, recent outbreaks and current legislation pending in Congress. I am grateful to be mentioned in the piece. The article can be found at this link.
Ms. Choo writes:
Litigation is likely to increase as a pumped-up FDA, an arm of the Department of Health and Human Services, identifies more outbreaks of food-borne illness and collects more evidence about their causes. Meanwhile, many companies are likely to struggle, at least initially, with stricter requirements to develop safety plans, disclose business records when outbreaks occur and improve procedures for tracing products, according to Kenneth M. Odza, a member of Stoel Rives in Seattle, who litigates food safety cases and writes a blog on the subject.
Ms. Choo also includes a summary of information (see below) derived from CDC documented outbreaks (two or more people with the same illness after eating the same contaminated food) from 1990 to 2006 broken down by category of food. Note that nearly 50% of illnesses documented are from produce or "multi-ingredient." Produce and "multi-ingredient" account for about twice the number of illnesses as beef and poultry combined.
|Breads and Bakery||179||4,904|
|Luncheon and Other Meats||196||7,108|
U.S. House of Representatives approved HR 2749 moments ago. This action followed some confusion yesterday where it was brought to the floor needing a 2/3 vote and failed. Here’s a link to a report by the Rules Committee including the language of the bill as approved today by the House. Changes to the bill from what was proposed by the Energy and Commerce Committee include amendments aimed at concerns by smaller farmers of the $500 “facility registration fee,” performance standards and record keeping.
The legislation has been the subject of heavy debate inside and outside the beltway. Here’s a link to the Editorial in the New York Times in support of the bill. The Grocery Manufacturer’s Association (GMA) also has expressed support in a June press release for the bill as marked-up by the Energy and Commerce Committee. From some opposed to the bill, here’s a link with an impassioned argument from yesterday.
Note that the registration requirements in the bill as currently written “does not include farms; private residences of individuals, restaurants, other retail food establishments; nonprofit food establishments in which food is prepared for or served directly to the consumer.”
The bill further exempts from registration farms that sell food primarily at farmers markets. Also exempts farms that “manufacturer grains or other feed stuffs” grown on those farms and distributed to other farms for “consumption as food by humans or animals on such farm.”
Also note that traceability provisions remain. Section 107(c)(2) recognizes that work remains on the regulatory level for FDA to collect information, and develop technology and systems, and establish pilot programs before traceability becomes a reality.
University of Nebraska has posted video on its website from the entire three days of the 2009 Governor’s Conference on Ensuring Food Safety. You can view my presentation on Defending Liability in Foodborne Illness Outbreaks. More important, you view the presentations of Dr. Andrew Benson and the other scientists who offer fascinating insights into the latest developments driving the science of food safety.
An important study was released this month by the Institute of Food Technologists addressing the challenge of responding to food contamination with limited scientific information. Ricardo Carvajal at Hyman, Phelps & McNamara wrote about this on the FDALawBlog last week. You can read the summary by Rosetta L. Newsome here.
Ms. Newsome summarizes the three main sections of the study as follows:
“details the U.S. legal framework that provides the foundation for U.S. food safety policy,
describes international considerations (e.g., Codex standards) that impact foods in international commerce, and addresses European Union law and standards.”
“briefly addresses structure activity relationships, surrogate compounds and metabolites,
predictions based on physical/chemical data, toxicological evaluation, use of animal studies, statistical considerations, and other aspects of risk assessment.”
“addresses why a new approach is needed to conduct a risk-based evaluation of the potential exposure, hazard, and toxicity of low levels of unwanted chemical substances in foods and how information on risk can be used to make appropriately conservative and balanced decisions[;] . . . also calls attention to the importance of evaluating benefits of the food(s) in which the component is found as well as risks.”
President Obama’s Food Safety Working Group announced its Key Findings on July 7. Three groups of initiatives were announced: 1) Salmonella, 2) National Traceback and Response System, and 3) Improved Organization of Federal Food Safety Responsibilities. All of these represent major shifts in food policy. Coming changes will impact nearly every part of the nation’s food supply.
Despite Obama’s stepped-up food safety agenda, the question of how these changes will affect food-borne illness litigation remains. Bill Marler in a recent blog post reacting to the July 7 Key Findings says, “I really may live to see the government ‘put me out of business.’” No doubt that many of Obama’s initiatives will improve food safety. But will it eliminate food-borne illness and accompanying litigation? Not likely.
Many food companies today follow food safety precautions that exceed anything proposed by the Obama administration or Congress. Yet those same companies continue to experience food-borne illness outbreaks and are targets of the plaintiffs’ bar. E. coli, Salmonella, and other pathogens are persistent in the environment and successful at Darwinian evolution. In some sense, the pathogens that are the source of food-borne illness always seem at least one step ahead of the law.
Crystal ball: Obama’s initiatives will lead to a safer food supply but will also help the government detect more outbreaks that previously went undetected. Undetected outbreaks rarely lead to litigation; detected outbreaks almost always lead to litigation. Growth in food-borne illness litigation, therefore, should continue to accelerate.
For food sellers interested in promoting a “sustainable” brand and inspiring food safety confidence in their consumers, meet Food Alliance. Food Alliance “is a nonprofit organization that certifies farms, ranches and food handlers for sustainable agricultural and facility management practices.” It bills itself as “the most comprehensive certification program for sustainably produced food in North America.”
I’ve recently joined the Food Alliance Board of Directors (in fact, I’m headed to Portland today for a board meeting). My hope is to assist Food Alliance in becoming more widely accepted and mainstream. Credible third-party certification, such as Food Alliance provides, offers a transparent pathway to sustainability of our food supply and consumer confidence in food safety.
Food Alliance takes a holistic approach that is broader and more dynamic than organic certification, which does nothing to address food contamination from pathogens such as Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria (in fact, many experts believe that organically grown food may be more likely to be contaminated by these pathogens). By way of example, Food Alliance certification standards, among other things, address “soil and water quality,” “ensure the health and humane treatment of animals,” “conserve energy and water,” and “ensure quality control and food handling safety.”
For more on why a holistic, independent third-party certification correlates with food safety (and accompanying consumer confidence), I’d suggest reading this op-ed piece co-authored by Food Alliance Executive Director Scott Exo, which was written earlier this year in the wake of the PCA peanut recall.
We wrote recently about the food safety legislation coming out of Henry Waxman’s House Committee on Energy and Commerce. That legislation, H.R. 2749, has passed out of committee and been reported to the full House for a vote. When the vote will occur is anybody’s guess. Reuters quotes Chairman Waxman as saying, “I am hopeful that before too long, we can have a comprehensive food safety bill on President Obama’s desk.”
Last week, members of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce released a discussion draft of the “Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009.”
The draft proposes beefing up the FDA registry of “all food facilities serving American consumers” and charging every facility $1,000 per year to fund FDA food safety activities. The new legislation would expand the types of facilities that need to register by eliminating certain exemptions from the 2002 Bioterrorism Act, though for now it appears to maintain exemptions for retailers, restaurants, farmers and nonprofits.
The proposal’s most ambitious and controversial proposal may be traceability.
The draft legislation proposes to require FDA to “by regulation establish a tracing system for food that is located in the United States or is for import into the United States.” The legislation gives the FDA few specifics other than to “maintain the full pedigree of the origin and previous distribution history of food,” “link that history with subsequent history,” “establish and maintain a system for tracing food that is interoperable with the systems established and maintained by other such persons” and “use a unique identifier for each facility.” No doubt the devil will be in the details.
Verbatim, here is the Summary of Discussion Draft of The Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009:
1. Creates an up-to-date registry of all food facilities serving American consumers: Requires all facilities operating within the U.S. or importing food to the U.S. to register with the FDA annually.
2. Generates resources to support FDA oversight of food safety: Requires registered facilities to pay an annual registration fee of $1,000 in order to generate revenue for food safety activities at the FDA; requires registered facilities to pay for FDA’s costs associated with reinspections and food recalls; allows FDA to charge a fee to domestic firms requesting export certificates for exported food.
3. Prevents food safety problems before they occur: Requires all facilities operating within the U.S. or importing food to the U.S. to implement safety plans that identify and protect against food hazards. FDA would have the authority to specify minimum food safety plan requirements and to audit food safety plans.
4. Requires safety plans for fresh produce: Directs FDA to issue regulations for ensuring the safe production and harvesting of fruits and vegetables.
5. Increases inspections of food facilities: Sets a minimum inspection frequency for all registered facilities. High-risk facilities would be inspected at least once every six to 18 months; low risk facilities would be inspected at least once every 18 months to three years; and warehouses that store food would be inspected at least once every three to four years. Refusing, impeding, or delaying an inspection is prohibited.
6. Improves traceability of food: Enhances FDA’s ability to trace the origin of tainted food in the event of an outbreak of foodborne illness. FDA would be required to issue regulations that require food producers, manufacturers, processors, transporters, or holders to maintain the full pedigree of the origin and previous distribution history of the food and to link that history with the subsequent distribution history of the food; and to establish an interoperable record to ensure fast and efficient traceback (current law permits facilities to hold a record in any format — paper or electronic — making efficient tracing of foods difficult for FDA). Prior to issuing such regulations, FDA would be required to conduct a feasibility study, public meetings, and a pilot project.
7. Enhances the safety of imported food: As an additional layer of protection, FDA can require food to be certified as meeting all U.S. food safety requirements by the government of the country from which the article originated or by certain qualified third parties. Third party certifying entities must meet strict requirements to protect against conflicts of interest with the firm seeking certification.
8. Expands laboratory testing capacity: Requires FDA to establish a program to recognize laboratory accreditation bodies and to accept test results only from duly accredited laboratories. Gives FDA the ability to require laboratories to send test results to FDA.
9. Provides strong, flexible enforcement tools: Provides FDA new authority to issue mandatory recalls of tainted foods. Strengthens criminal penalties and establishes civil monetary penalties that FDA may impose on food facilities that fail to comply with safety requirements.
10. Creates fast-track import process for food meeting security standards: Permits FDA to develop voluntary security guidelines for imported foods. Importers meeting the guidelines would receive expedited processing.
11. Enhances the safety of infant formula: Enhances FDA’s ability to assure the safety of new infant formulas before they go on the market.
12. Advances the science of food safety: Directs the Secretary to include food in an active surveillance system to assess more accurately the frequency and sources of human illness. The Secretary is also directed to identify industry and regulatory approaches to minimize hazards in the food supply.
13. Enhances FDA’s ability to block unsafe food from entering the food supply: Strengthens FDA’s authority to administratively detain unsafe food products. Grants FDA “quarantine” authority under which the agency may restrict or prohibit the movement of unsafe food products from a particular geographic area.
14. Directs FDA to assess the use of carbon monoxide in certain foods: Requires FDA to conduct a safety review of the use of carbon monoxide in meat, poultry, and seafood products.
15. Enhances transparency of GRAS program: Requires posting on FDA’s website of documentation submitted to FDA in support of a “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) notification.
16. Requires country-of-origin labeling and disclosure: Requires all processed food labels to indicate the country in which final processing occurred. Requires food manufacturers to identify the country of origin for all ingredients on their websites. Requires country-of-origin labeling for all produce.
1. Creates an up-to-date registry of importers: Requires all importers of drugs, devices, and foods to register with the FDA annually and to pay a registration fee.
2. Requires unique identification numbers for facilities and importers: To enhance information about FDA-regulated entities, creates unique identification numbers for all drug, device, and food facilities and importers.
3. Creates a dedicated foreign inspectorate: Requires FDA to establish and maintain a corps of inspectors to monitor foreign facilities producing food, drugs, devices, and cosmetics for American consumers.
4. Grants FDA new authority to subpoena records related to possible violations.
5. Provides protection for whistleblowers that bring attention to important safety information: Prohibits entities regulated by the FDA from discriminating against an employee in retaliation for assisting in any investigation regarding any conduct which the employee reasonably believes constitutes a violation of federal law.
This week the Obama administration announced the launch of a new website for the recently formed food safety working group. Obama announced the formation of this group in March in the wake of the high-profile food safety issues surrounding PCA peanut products.
This website will assist in tracking the efforts of the working group. As discussed previously on this blog, this group is expected to make recommendations aimed at detection, awareness and government reorganization. Possible examples include increasing funding to states to monitor food-borne illness, combining FDA and USDA food safety efforts, reexamining mandatory recall authority, increasing retail enforcement and implementing more aggressive consumer warnings.
What is not clear is whether the working group will look beyond just detection, awareness and reorganization to bolder initiatives that may result in less consumer illness and less legal exposure for food sellers. Bolder initiatives could include funding for irradiation, consumer food safety education, and fast-track development and implementation of technology that can sample food products for whole colonies of microorganisms.
Nobody disputes that consumers have a favorable view of organic certification in foods. Consumers generally believe that organic foods are healthier, and many believe they taste better. Yet, among food scientists, uncertainty prevails as to whether organics are safer, especially raw fruits and vegetables.
Absence of synthetic fertilizers is a primary distinction between organic and non-organic foods. And, from a safety standpoint, the absence of pesticides is the only provable claim that organic foods are healthier. But does the absence of one hazard imply the existence of another?
The prevailing pesticide substitute for organic foods is manure or composted manure. Dangerous pathogens such as E. coli O157 reside in manure. Some guidelines exist for composting manure. Unfortunately, as I learned recently in a presentation by Dr. Francisco Diez-Gonzalez at the University of Minnesota Food Science Department, these guidelines were written a decade ago, before science began to understand the prevalence of E. coli in the environment.
Science now understands that E. coli O157, for example, can persist for years in soil, let alone a more rich environment like manure. In some cases, it may be virtually impossible to rid of an environment of E. coli O157, short of treatment with non-organic substances such as tear gas or asphalt.
Outside of the 2006 spinach outbreak, there have been few food-borne illness outbreaks associated with organic fruits or vegetables. As organic farming continues to grow and detection of food-borne illness increases, the only question is how long it will be until another well-publicized outbreak. When it happens, will consumers continue to believe organic foods are safer? Will the industry be ready with evidence that proves the benefits of organic farming outweigh its risks?
At the recent Nebraska Governor’s Conference on Ensuring Food Safety, Dan Engeljohn from FSIS (USDA) announced a number of significant policy changes. FSIS’s changes in part are consistent with those previously announced under the last administration and in part represent the Obama administration’s new priorities. Those include (among other things):
1. Supermarket Enforcement – FSIS has not emphasized retail (i.e., supermarket) surveillance and enforcement since the early 1990s. FSIS perceives an increase in beef processing (e.g., grinding) at the retail level. As discussed previously on this blog, FSIS also perceives a failure by many retailers to maintain proper production logs. Supermarkets should expect the following:
A. Unannounced FSIS inspectors will be directed to pull samples on the spot if an inspector walks into a supermarket without good recordkeeping or with unsanitary conditions.
B. New regulations will be aimed specifically at retailers.
2. Non-O157 STECS to Become Adulterants – FSIS appears to be moving aggressively toward declaring at least certain non-E. coli O157 Shiga Toxin E. coli (STECs) as adulterants. FSIS is targeting strains known as E. coli O26, 103, 111, 121, 45, and 145. These strains account for 82% of non-O157 strains detected by PulseNet. Dr. Engeljohn explained that FSIS is looking carefully at these strains and is heading toward their regulation. But he commented that so far information collected about those infected with non-O157 STECs shows that these strains may be less virulent than O157.
3. Attention to Primal Cuts – At least two factors are driving FSIS to develop stricter regulation of primal cuts. First, FSIS learned in the last couple of years that needle-tenderizing injections of steaks are now commonplace in the industry. Second, FSIS is concerned about bench trim.
4. More Aggressive Release of Information to the Public – Dr. Engeljohn also indicated that FSIS will be more aggressive in releasing outbreak information sooner. No longer will FSIS await the kind of confirmation it previously required before requesting recalls or going public with outbreak information.
While the Obama administration has yet to announce an appointment for the FSIS’s Under Secretary of the Office of Food Safety, Dr. Engeljohn indicated that these initiatives are only the beginning. FSIS will be more aggressive on perceived issues of food safety.
The Food and Drug Administration is seeking to increase its budget for Fiscal Year 2010 by nearly 20 percent more than FY 2009 – to $3.2 billion. The Washington Post reports that the increase is the largest in the agency’s history.
The FDA’s spending request includes $259.3 million to be devoted to the “Protecting America’s Food Supply” initiative. The agency plans to, among other things, strengthen the safety and security of the food supply chain, increase food inspections, and reinspect food facilities that fail to meet FDA’s safety standards. The Associated Press reports that the FDA’s proposed budget would put 222 more food inspectors in the field, for a total of 1,022. A summary of the FDA’s FY 2010 budget is available here.
Dr. Margaret Hamburg, President Barack Obama’s nominee to oversee the Food and Drug Administration, is appearing before a U.S. Senate committee this afternoon regarding her nomination. The confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee began at 2:00 p.m. ET. Streaming video is available here.
The Associated Press is reporting that, if confirmed, one of Hamburg’s first tasks will be overseeing development of a vaccine for the H1N1 influenza virus. In Hamburg’s opening remarks to the Senate committee that were made available to reporters earlier today, she also noted that food safety will be among her top priorities. “Important steps must be taken to better protect the nation’s food supply from farm to form,” Hamburg said.
Together with Bill Marler, I have been invited to speak to agricultural stakeholders about legal issues and ramifications of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli outbreaks. In the past, the emphasis for this conference has ranged from basic science to applied science, and this year's conference will emphasize issues ranging from animal and plant management strategies to regulatory issues. Given the inevitable changes that will be coming in food safety regulation under the Obama administration, this should be a lively conference.
As pistachio recalls continue to be announced in the wake of salmonella-tainted pistachios from Setton Farms, two California lawmakers this week announced legislation that is expected to strengthen food-safety standards in that state.
The bill to be introduced in the California State Assembly by Assembly Speaker Karen Bass and Assemblyman Mike Feuer is expected to require detailed safety plans from food processors, periodic testing of food at California food processing facilities, and requirements for food processors to report to state authorities any positive tests for a dangerous contaminant within 24 hours.
A video of Assemblyman Mike Feuer’s announcement is available below. Meanwhile, the FDA continues to update its list of recalled products.
In the next couple of weeks, I have the unique opportunity to travel back to Cornell University, my law school alma mater, to spend time getting acquainted with its world renowned food science program.
While in "gorges" Ithaca, I plan to audit courses such as “Food Safety Assurance” and “Current Topics in Food Science & Technology.” I also plan to speak to graduate students in the program about “life in the trenches.” This should be interesting as the intersection of science and law is never boring.
I expect to have plenty to write about upon my return. In the meantime, if you are shopping for some of the best maple syrup or dairy products available, be sure to visit the Cornell Dairy Store where you can order online to stimulate the upstate New York economy.
Update to today’s earlier post: the Georgia House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill today that would strengthen food safety laws in Georgia. The Georgia House and Senate now will resolve minor differences in the proposed legislation and send a final version to Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue for his signature.
Also today, the AP reports that the chief executive of Kellogg Co. is urging food safety reforms, including written safety plans for all food companies and annual inspections of facilities that make “high-risk foods.” The AP article notes Kellogg lost $70 million worth of peanut products in the recent salmonella outbreak linked to Peanut Corporation of America.
In the wake of the latest Salmonella recall, Congress is holding well-publicized food safety hearings, and food safety may be rising on the priority list of the Obama administration. One question that arises is whether the perceived crisis in food safety will lead lawmakers and the public to revisit the option of food irradiation. The New York Times recently ran a nice piece on the topic. The article begins:
Before the recent revelation that peanut butter could kill people, even before the spinach scare of three summers ago, the nation’s food industry made a proposal. It asked the government for permission to destroy germs in many processed foods by zapping them with radiation.
That was about nine years ago, in the twilight of the Clinton administration. The government has taken limited action since.
The article quotes Suresh Pillai, director of the National Center for Electron Beam Research at Texas A&M University, as saying “It’s unnecessary for people to be getting sick today with pathogens in spinach or pathogens in peanut butter.” He describes the potential for irradiation of food as “humongous” and says that “[w]e have the technologies to prevent this kind of illness.”
As discussed previously on this blog, irradiation has wide support in the food industry and even has the support of plaintiffs’ lawyers such as Bill Marler, who has written a lengthy three-part series on the topic.
The question may not be whether irradiation is another tool that can prevent food-borne illness, but rather why is irradiation not being used on a wide-scale. Mr. Pillai likened fears of irradiation to “early phobias about the pasteurization of milk.” Aside from lengthy delays in FDA approval, consumer fear may be the problem. The only solutions may lie in (1) a joint effort between industry and lawmakers to educate the public on the benefits and safety of food irradiation, and (2) action by Congress and the FDA to help provide industry with the resources and political cover to begin using irradiation on a wide scale.
Happy New Year. Thank you for your support, readership and feedback for this site. Since we launched the blog in late February of 2008, the growth in readership has been extraordinary. I'm overwhelmed at the response. My hope is that the blog has provided some measure of assistance to those in the food industry. As always, I welcome your feedback, suggestions and critiques.
In the coming year, I hope to spend more time on the blog exploring trends in liability, insurance coverage and consumer claims related to the food industry. I also hope to discuss more deeply the anatomy of consumer-based food borne illness and labeling litigation.
You may notice a drop-off in the frequency of postings between February and April as I will be spending more time on the road. I apologize in advance. One of the things I will be doing (and posting about) is visiting with students and faculty at the Cornell Food Science program in Ithaca, New York. I hope to learn more about emerging technologies related to food production and safety.
Recently, I’ve received several requests for resources explaining the anatomy of a food-borne illness claim. In other words, what events can be expected, and when? What can or should a company (in particular the legal department) do in response to a claim?
Part I – Notice of an Outbreak (and Possible Claims)
First off, don’t panic. Your company’s crisis management team (which has been well-rehearsed for this scenario) should convene action upon the first notice of a possible outbreak—even before verification and before claims are apparent. Food safety experts should contact the health departments that may have identified the outbreak. Together with the legal, sales and quality assurance departments, your food safety experts should be involved in a full investigation of the possible outbreak. The earlier the intervention, the greater the possibility of collecting key information that may be useful in determining whether your company is linked to the outbreak and pinpointing other possible sources of the outbreak. Public relations experts should also be consulted at the first possible moment.
Checklist for the legal department:
- Log events, actions and communications. This is critical for responding to government agencies and to claims.
- Record all reported injuries. Collecting information about potential claims early is a key to mitigating those claims and future legal costs.
- Notify insurers. Insurance companies require prompt notice; insurers may also have assets available for crisis response.
- Document the investigation. Litigation may be protracted, and a well-documented investigation may be key to the company’s defense.
- Institute a litigation “hold” on the destruction of any company documents or emails. Don’t turn a bad situation into a nightmare; spoliation claims can take on a life of their own.
- Retain product samples for future testing. This may be critical to support experts’ opinions at trial and to preserve claims against suppliers.
- Review and retain vendor/supplier documents. Recovery against suppliers could be as important as or more important than insurance recovery.
- Assess the merits of a consumer hotline. It could be helpful in disseminating accurate information to consumers (inaccurate or conflicting information can lead to litigation) and in collecting information about the pool of potential plaintiffs.
- Assess the merits of a consumer/vendor reimbursement program. Like having a consumer hotline, providing immediate reimbursement could help dampen the volume of future plaintiffs.
Stay tuned for Part II – Receipt of the Demand Letter.