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As the FDA has been dealing with food contamination and food safety issues, it has largely ignored the issue of food fraud.
Now American food producers are urging the FDA to take a stronger stance on fraud, which occurs when food is improperly labeled.
Incidents of this type of fraud have been on the rise. Examples include a store was selling expensive "sheep's milk" cheese that was actually made from cow's milk; cheap, common fish being passed off as expensive catches; and “100% Honey” being made with sugar beets or corn syrup. Food fraud seems to pose a special risk to the fish industry; the National Seafood Inspection Laboratory randomly tested seafood between 1988 and 1997 and found that 34 percent had been sold as a different species.
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On March 25, 2010, Senator Jon Tester introduced the Meat Safety and Accountability Act or Traceback Act. The bill can largely be attributed to years of advocacy by former GAP client and whistleblower, John Munsell, who has steadfastly demanded that mega-slaughterhouses be held accountable for distributing tainted products to downstream grinders, retailers, and processors.
The Traceback Act requires the USDA to “trace back” harmful foodborne pathogens, namely E.coli and Salmonella, to the slaughterhouse of origin. Current USDA testing detects most of the positives at destination facilities (retail stores, restaurants, cafeterias, etc.); however, the vast majority of the contamination actually occurs upstream at the slaughterhouses as a result of fecal contamination associated with the slaughter process.
Munsell, a small grinder and owner of the family business Montana Quality Foods, Inc., sought GAP’s assistance in 2002 when the USDA failed to act on evidence that ConAgra foods was shipping beef to his facility that was contaminated with E. coli. Regrettably, not only did the USDA fail to regulate ConAgra, the Agency actually blamed Munsell for accepting the beef, had him re-write his HACCP plan 14 times, and suspended his meat grinding privileges. Instead of following up on Munsell’s evidence of wrong-doing by an industry giant, the USDA responded by harassing Munsell’s small meat packing company out of business.
GAP authored a report in 2002 based on Munsell’s experiences.
Munsell is one step closer to protecting both the public’s health and small business from the grips of industry giants. With any luck, Tester’s bill will take on the mega-slaughter plants that have had a stranglehold on the industry. The Meat Safety and Accountability Act is proof that the tenacity of one whistleblower can upset the balance of power between small business and the powerful meat lobby. GAP continues its support of Munsell and looks forward to the passage of the Traceback Act.
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The new federal advisory board for tobacco regulation, run by the FDA, is set to examine the issue of menthol flavoring in cigarettes when it convenes for the first time today.
Many members of Congress and seven former secretaries of health argue that an outright ban on the flavoring is necessary, because they say it disguises the offensive taste of cigarettes and serves as bait for young and black smokers. The issue is racially charged, as research has shown that among black smokers, 82.6 percent used menthol cigarettes, compared with 32.3 percent for Hispanic smokers and 23.8 percent for white smokers. While studies have shown that blacks smoke fewer cigarettes a day than other groups of smokers, they have greater rates of lung cancer, heart disease and stroke.
Last year Congress approved the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which established the Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee at the FDA. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the act would reduce youth smoking by 11 percent and adult smoking by 2 percent over the next decade. Many hailed the new law, with the director of the University of Michigan Tobacco Research Network calling it "a historic step changing the nature of tobacco in society forever." The World Heath Organization has previously estimated that half of long-term smokers ultimately die of smoking-related diseases.
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The recently passed health care reform bill will require all restaurant chains with more than 20 outlets to post calorie information on their menus and drive-through signs.
The new law also requires the restaurants to supply information on how many calories a healthy person should eat in a day. In addition, calorie information will be required for food items in vending machines.
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Late last week, a worker at the Umatilla Chemical Depot was apparently exposed to mustard agent, causing a blister. It is believed to be the first time that a worker at the plant, against which GAP has been involved in numerous lawsuits, has been exposed to the dangerous chemical agent. (Seattle Times story)
While GAP has not focused on worker safety concerns at the Depot, we do have a history of fighting against the Army and Oregon agencies running the plant, who have decided to utilize the controversial method of incineration to destroy the mustard agent. GAP’s position is that this method of agent destruction is clearly not the “best available technology” for doing so (as state law requires). Rather, a water neutralization method has been used at other chemical depots around the country to glowing praise. This neutralization method would truly minimize any risk of outside contamination – whereas GAP believes the incineration method would release dangerous levels of mercury into the atmosphere.
Unfortunately, the Army is proceeding with the incineration method and the Depot is getting ready to run the “trial burn,” which would determine how fast they can incinerate the agent. GAP continues to monitor the situation.
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A new study by the Mayo Clinic shows how since 2007, when concerns were first raised about the safety of the diabetes drug Avandia, 94 percent of experts who provided favorable opinions about the drug have ties to drug companies. Nearly half of the experts had financial ties to drug companies that presented a conflict of interest. From Reuters:
"It was almost three to four times more likely that somebody who had a relationship with a pharmaceutical company had a favorable opinion about the medication," Dr Victor Montori of the Mayo Clinic, whose study appears in the British Medical Journal, said in a telephone interview.
In addition, a quarter of authors did not report their relationship with drugmakers in articles about Avandia.
Last month, Senator Max Baucus and Senator Charles Grassley released a report and internal FDA documents about Avandia. One author of an internal FDA report has a tremendous amount of respect throughout the industry as a drug safety advocate and expert – GAP client Dr. David Graham, who had previously blown the whistle on Vioxx.
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ProPublica presents a list of involved people who are denying any knowledge of Lehman Brothers controversial usage of an accounting trick that allowed the company to hide its financial troubles before eventually filing for bankruptcy in 2008. Included is Lehman Brothers CEO, who claims that he didn't know about the issue because he doesn't use a computer and couldn't open attachments on his BlackBerry. The article has a nice video explaining the accounting trick.
New court filings in the case of Federal Air Marshal whistleblower and GAP client Robert MacLean argue that MacLean's direct supervisor was engaged in “an illicit affair with a female subordinate, on whom he bestowed numerous professional favors.” However, the supervisor was protected from punishment for this violation of agency rules because he made a dirty deal to carry out the director of the air marshal program's instructions to fire MacLean. GAP legal director Tom Devine is quoted in the article, from the Orange County Register:
MacLean’s attorney, Tom Devine of the Government Accountability Project, responded to the government’s response: “The development about Mr. Donanti was not offered to impugn his character,” it says. “It demonstrates that he had a conflict of interest, because his professional survival depended on acting as the agency’s hatchet man against a problematic Federal Law Enforcement Officer’s Association (FLEOA) leader."
The article also discusses the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, which would give whistleblowers many more rights and protections. The act was likely to pass the Senate by unanimous consent last year but two Republican senators (Jim Bunning and Kit Bond) put holds on the bill. Bunning has since removed his hold.
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In public safety news, the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), David Strickland, said yesterday that the proportion of complaints against Toyota vehicles, when compared with other automakers, was “unremarkable.” Strickland also said that until the agency finds a specific cause of vehicle defect, they have little recourse. Strickland will probably face criticism about what the NHTSA should have done about years of complaints about Toyotas, and how it should handle further complaints when he testifies in front of the House Energy and Commerce Committee today. Strickland’s testimony will mark the fourth congressional hearing about Toyota defects. Former NHTSA head Joan Claybrook, who will also testify today, will argue that more needs to be done to protect drivers.
Sherron Watkins, the Enron whistleblower, reviews the new book by Harry Markpolos, the man who tried to blow the whistle on Bernie Madoff, but failed when the Securities and Exchange Commission refused to listen to him.
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In a case reminiscient of the Peanut Corporation of America food safety scandal in 2008, it has been revealed that a flavor additive manufacturer knew its plant equipment was contaminated with salmonella, but continued to ship its food out, apparently without making any changes to the line to address the situation.
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USDA whistleblower and GAP client Dean Wyatt testified yesterday before the House Subcommittee on Domestic Policy (under Oversight and Government Reform). Wyatt, a supervisory veterinarian at the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) reported shocking mistreatment and unsafe butchering of animals at two slaughterhouses. His disclosures raise serious concerns about the state of American food integrity.
For more info on the case and allegations, check out GAP’s press release here, or the USA Today story or Washington Post piece.
Wyatt’s testimony paints a terrible picture of FSIS as being, in many cases, more interested in keeping corporations happy than protecting public safety.
But Wyatt’s isn’t the only major food safety story to appear over the last couple of days (shocking, I know).