How Did Hepatitis Get into Organic Berries?
The latest example of how even health-conscious eaters are not immune from foodborne illness outbreaks came last week with a recall of organic frozen berries contaminated with Hepatitis A. The products were sold under the brand name of Townsend Farms at two large chains: Costco stores in the west and Harris Teeter stores.
The latest count from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention is 87 people infected in eight states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Washington. Of these, 36 have been hospitalized.
According to the CDC, Hepatitis A “usually occurs when an infected food handler prepares food without appropriate hand hygiene." However, the source of this particular strain is still unclear, except that it probably did not originate in the U.S.
This outbreak raises several important questions about our food system.
Are Companies Duping Consumers with “Farm-washing"?
According to the fine print on the back label, shown on food safety attorney Bill Marler's blog, the fruit came from around the world: Chile, Argentina and Turkey. The pomegranate seeds processed in Turkey appear to be the culprit.
But you couldn't tell the international origins from the front of the packaging labeled “Organic Antioxidant Blend," with the bucolic image of Townsend Farms and its warm and fuzzy tag line: “Since 1906, Field to Farm to Family."
It seems at least one victim of the outbreak was fooled by the imagery. According to CBS News, Geoff Soza of California ate “a healthy breakfast of thawed frozen berries and Greek yogurt every morning" but while “celebrating his 30th wedding anniversary in Yellowstone National Park," the 64-year-old wound up in the hospital instead. At one point, things looked so serious that the words “liver transplant" were uttered by a doctor.
Soza seemed shocked to learn his favorite berries were not from the Oregon farm depicted on the packaging. According to the story:
Healthy and health-conscious, the Sozas always inspect their foods and select organic produce. They were surprised to learn that some of the fruit from Townsend Farms of Fairview, OR, was from outside the U.S. But the packaging convinced the Sozas the fruit was all-American because it bears the slogans "Grower. Processor. Distributor." and "Field to Farm to Family, since 1906."
Soza's wife put it plainly: "It was our distinct impression that these are raised under U.S. standards, especially organic food standards."
I asked Mark Kastel, co-founder of The Cornucopia Institute, if he thought the Townsend label was confusing as to the product's origins.
“Yes, it's deliberately deceptive, to make you think you're buying local fruit from the farm up the road," Kastel said. "There are many examples of this. Often companies with the word 'farm' in their name don't even do any growing themselves, they just contract with farms, sometimes from all over the world. Or they just buy from brokers in the farms or an anonymous source."
How does this connect to food safety risks? While small, local farms are not immune, the difference is in the magnitude of the impact: with a small farm, any adverse impacts are only felt locally, but with globalization, the potential hazards are spread far and wide, and to a much larger population.
Also, about the antioxidant claim on the package, registered dietitian Andy Bellatti says, “All whole, plant-based foods contain antioxidants. So, any combination of fruit can be 'an antioxidant blend' and what matters most is diversity of antioxidants, not just from berries."
Can We Trust Organic Labels on Imported Foods?
Among the most frequent questions I get regarding organic is “what about imported food; can we trust the standards in other countries?" The Townsend berries sport the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic seal, indicating that even though the mix contains imported fruit, it still conforms to the high U.S. based organic standards.
As Food Safety News explains, imported foods are evaluated by organic certifying agencies approved by the USDA:
Townsend Farms products are certified as organic by both Oregon Tilth, a private third party certifier, and the Washington State Department of Agriculture. But how is it that berries grown in Turkey, Chile and Mexico can get packaged in Oregon and certified as organic by the standards of the U.S. Department of Agriculture?
The short answer to that question lies in the fact that firms worldwide have the ability to certify farms according to the standards set forth by the USDA. As long as a proper authority can verify a farm operates according to organic standards once a year, that farm can become USDA-certified organic whether it's outside Indianapolis or Istanbul.
OK, but can we trust these foreign certifiers? Some watchdog groups such as Center for Food Safety and Cornucopia Institute have greater confidence in U.S. farms and U.S. organic certification than from imports. These groups and many others have grave reservations about particular countries with an increasing presence in the U.S., particularly China and India.
How Many Sick People Will it Take to Get Feds to Act?
Most importantly, this serious outbreak underscores once again, how the stalled food safety regulations, as mandated by the Food Safety Modernization Act (enacted in 2011), are adversely impacting public health.
The law, which numerous groups pushed hard for, mandates significant upticks in foreign inspections by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), although how those increases will be funded remains a serious question. Additional import safeguards include giving the FDA authority to require certification for food coming from certain countries as a condition of admission to the U.S.
But the required regulations for how these preventive measures would be implemented have been overdue for more than a year now. In April, a federal court agreed with the Center for Food Safety's lawsuit that the FDA has failed to adhere to statutory deadlines for final regulations.
The judge ordered the FDA to work with Center for Food Safety to submit a new timeline for the rules, which the court would then require FDA to follow. George Kimbrell, senior attorney with Center for Food Safety, says this process is currently underway, which is the good news:
Congress required the FDA to dramatically improve import safety. The firm, timely deadlines for new import regulations underscored how overdue and urgently-needed the improvements are. The court should soon set new deadlines for the regulations, and the FDA will finally do the job Congress required of it and protect the American public from continued outbreaks.
The bad news is that while the FDA continues to drag its feet, Americans continue to get sick. Whether it's Hepatitis A in imported berries, listeria in imported cheese or salmonella in imported papayas, our regulators have a lot more work to do to safeguard the food supply. Let's hope it won't take more illnesses to get them to take action.
Visit EcoWatch's FOOD page for more related news on this topic.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.