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By Jonathan Safran-Foer
Everyone has a mental image of a farm, and to most it probably includes fields, barns, tractors and animals, or at least one of the above. I doubt there's anyone on earth not involved in farming whose mind would conjure what I'm now looking at. And yet before me is the kind of farm that produces roughly 99% of the animals consumed in America.
This Californian turkey farm is ¬surrounded by barbed-wire fencing and set up in a series of seven sheds, each about 50ft wide by 500ft long, each holding in the neighborhood of 25,000 birds. Adjacent to the sheds is a massive granary, which looks more like something out of Blade Runner than Little House on the Prairie. Metal pipes spiderweb the outsides of the ¬buildings, massive fans protrude and clang, and floodlights project weirdly discrete pockets of day.
FORUM FOR THE FUTURE
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Over the weekend, The New York Times broke the news that internal FDA reports question the safety of Avandia – a controversial (and explosively popular) diabetes medication. The confidential report details how:
…if every diabetic now taking Avandia were instead given a similar pill named Actos, about 500 heart attacks and 300 cases of heart failure would be averted every month because Avandia can hurt the heart.
The article spells out how the issue has created great debate within the FDA. However, one author of the 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 successfully blew the whistle on Vioxx several years ago. That arthritis drug caused some 40,000 fatal heart attacks in America alone.
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When meeting yesterday to discuss possible changes to its system for approving moderate-risk medical devices, the FDA said that it lacks substantial power over the industry and may ask Congress to approve more authority.
The FDA currently has limited power to recall and oversee medical products such as orthopedic knee and hip replacements. Under the current system, called the 510K system, devices can be approved quickly and cheaply if they are based on a product already on the market. The system is popular among manufacturers, but has been criticized for too quickly approving risky devices.
Many concerns over the medical device approval process have existed for years. For example, under the current system, the FDA is not told when one company sells the rights to their products to another company. In one instance, a company sold the ownership of more than a dozen medical devices to another. However, while reviewing the devices, the purchasing company found that "all of it was fraudulent" and reported the fraud to the FDA. However, the FDA would not have found out if it wasn't for the vigilance of the purchasing company.
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Anyone Can Whistle: The Essential Role of the Whistleblower in American Society
Presented by GAP, Participant Media, and The Paley Center for Media
7 p.m. EST
25 West 52nd St., New York, NY 10019
Dear GAP Supporters:
GAP is proud to announce a major event honoring and showcasing whistleblowers this coming Wednesday, February 17, in New York City. This entertaining evening will feature celebrities and legendary whistleblowers whose heroism has put criminals behind bars and saved countless lives. It will provide an uplifting message of what is needed for whistleblowers to continue safeguarding the public, and what actions you can take to support pending corporate whistleblower legislation.
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Last week, a former lawyer for both the agribusiness industry and the FDA, Michael Taylor, was named deputy commissioner for foods for the FDA
. Taylor will be responsible for putting new laws into action aimed at preventing food-borne illness before it occurs, as the FDA has long been criticized for being solely a reactive agency when it comes to food safety.
Taylor's work experience has come under scrutiny. As an agribusiness lawyer, he represented companies that pioneered bovine growth hormone (BGH). After that time, during a stint working at the FDA, he was partially responsible for a controversial policy that allowed milk from BGH-treated cows to go unlabeled as such.
Taylor’s plate is quite full – as multiple pressing issues face the food safety. Here are only some of the stories that have come out over the past three months about food safety:
- This article explains how after long being criticized about being too slow to disclose drug safety issues, the FDA is launching a new website to explain its operations to the public
- This NYTimes masthead editorial argues that after the NYTimes investigation of the safety of ammoniated beef, officials at the Department of Agriculture and the National School Lunch Program need to communicate more effectively and look for quality over price.
- This article explains that while Chinese authorities announced last week the closing of a dairy company that was producing products tainted with melamine, investigations into the dairy began nearly a year ago.
- This article explains that nearly 800 restaurants at 10 airports have had hundreds of food safety violations over the past year, including “items such as tuna salad and turkey sandwiches stored at dangerously warm temperatures, raw meat contaminating ready-to-eat foods, rat droppings and kitchens lacking soap for workers to wash hands.” 77% of 35 restaurants reviewed at Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC had at least one serious violation last year.
- This article examines the fact that more than 8,500 schools in America failed to have their kitchens inspected at all last year, and another 18,000 fell short of a requirement in the Child Nutrition Act that calls for cafeteria inspections at least biannually. This is despite the fact that many food safety threats have been shown to begin in the kitchen.
- In this masthead editorial, the Los Angeles Times discusses the overwhelming need for an overhaul of the US food safety system, soon. The Senate’s dedication to health care reform has kept it from considering the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act.
- This article examines the two-day meeting the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (the two bodies that share responsibility over the food supply) to discuss how to increase the speed and accuracy of investigations into food-borne illness and recalls.
- This article examines an investigation that discovered that much of the beef and poultry provided by the national government to schools would not meet the standards for use at fast-food chains. In many cases, the school lunch meat is not tested as often for food-borne pathogens as is fast-food meat and poultry, and the United States Department of Agriculture, which oversees the program, has much less stringent limits on the amount of bacteria that is allowed to be present in meat than do many fast-food restaurants.
- In this op/ed, the author argues that an increasingly centralized food production process has led to an increase in food-borne illness.
- This article examines a beef company's recall of thousands of pounds of ground beef contaminated with a drug-resistant strain of salmonella. It is the company’s second major ground beef recall this year. The company is a major contributor to the national school lunch program, although it has not contributed to the program since July.
- This article examines the introduced the Processed Food Safety Act, introduced by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), which would prohibit the sale of any processed poultry or meat that has not either undergone a food-borne pathogen reduction treatment, or been certified to contain no traces of pathogens.
- In this article, the Food and Drug Administration cited a Tyson seafood plant for “serious” food safety violations yesterday. The plant produces seafood soup and sauces. Tyson is claiming that the problem was paperwork related, and did not actually involve threats to food safety.
- This article examines a study in which a consumers group said that two-thirds of the almost 400 broiler chickens they purchased were infected with one or both of the top two bacteria that cause food-borne illness.
- This article talks about a facility in New York that recalled more than 500,000 pounds of ground beef last month after it was linked to an outbreak of food-borne illness that killed two people and sickened 500 more. However, it has come to light that the company stopped testing its beef for pathogens years ago under pressure from suppliers.
- This article details a new report that examines the long-term damage, including kidney failure, paralysis, seizures, hearing or visual impairments and mental retardation, that can be done to the body by the five most common food-borne illnesses.
- This article examines a report by the United Nations that states that climate change will have a widespread effect on food safety. Increases in temperature, for example, will increase the prevalence and virulence of common food borne illnesses like salmonella and E. coli.
- This article examines reports that the FDA plans to ban the sale of oysters harvested from the Gulf Coast during warm water months. The warm-water oysters account for nearly all deaths caused by eating raw oysters. The FDA said that processes such as pasteurizing or freezing the oysters make them safer.
- This masthead editorial argues for a review of the entire United States school lunch program to ensure that children are being adequately protected from food-borne illness.
- This article examines how victims and relatives of those sickened by salmonella nearly a year ago are upset that the corporation involved, the Peanut Company of America, is not yet facing charges for the outbreak, which sickened hundreds of people and killed nine. Analysts believed that while often food companies and executives do not face criminal liability after an outbreak, the actions of the Peanut Company of America were egregious enough to warrant criminal charges.
- This article examines how the Centers for Disease Control said that common strain of E. coli bacteria was involved in 2 deaths from E. coli contamination in beef, as well as 28 cases and 16 hospitalizations.
- This article examines how a consumer advocacy group's analysis of some canned foods found the chemical additive bisphenol A, or BPA, including in some goods that were labeled "BPA free." The group claimed that children eating multiple servings of some of the food could intake levels of BPA close to those that have caused adverse effects in several animal studies.
- This article examines the effect of secondary infections, which are not uncommon, and occur when children pass a food-borne illness on to another child. In the specific case, a child was sickened from contact with another child who had eaten undercooked taco meet at an elementary school.
- This article examines why school lunch beef was not included in a recall of beef that was tainted with salmonella.
- This article examines how Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has promised better food safety alerts to schools, following a USA Today investigation of how school lunch beef was not included in a recall.
- This article examines how after a study linking a tortilla company with food-borne illness at more than a dozen schools, the FDA issued a warning about their tortillas being a possible food safety threat, but never shared the warning with any school officials anywhere.
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In public health news today, ABC News reports that despite talk of a push for greater drug safety, the number of drugs approved in 2009 was similar to the number approved in years before.
An article from Frank Chiropractic reported that drug research is full of conflicts of interest that threaten drug safety, using GAP’s 2009 report, The ABC’s of Drug Safety, as its main evidence. One conflict, for example, is that while drug companies continue to grow, the FDA continues to experience cutbacks, thus threatening regulation and oversight.
A physician and a community hospital in Minnesota agreed to pay almost $850,000 after another doctor blew the whistle on fraudulently billing of Medicare for "unreasonable and unnecessary" hospitalizations. Under a federal law, the whistleblower received $203,150.
In other news, the New York Times featured an editorial by two members of the 9/11 Commission arguing that the government should examine the entire intelligence and airline safety system to determine if the failures that lead to 9/11 and the failed Christmas Day terror attempt are endemic or fixable. Obviously, despite the commission’s recommendations, major lapses are still apparent.
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A New York Times masthead editorial argues that the while the Obama administration has taken a stance against torture, policy makers are continuing to rationalize it, after the Supreme Court declined to review a case brought by four Guantánamo detainees who were never charged with a crime. The Supreme Court’s decision not to review has deprived victims of a remedy and Americans of government accountability, while further damaging the country’s standing in the world.
The Justice Department is considering asking a federal judge to decrease the sentence of UBS whistleblower Brad Birkenfeld (NYT). Birkenfeld was sentenced to three years and four months in prison after blowing the whistle on illegal offshore banking practices by UBS. Because of his disclosures, the IRS was able to recoup $780 million dollars and thousands of names of tax cheats.
A dairy in China recalled milk products after they were found to contain too much melamine. The recall comes after a 2008 Chinese massive food scare, in which melamine in milk was blamed for killing six children and sickening 300,000. While the new recall is much smaller in scope, it does raise questions about whether or not the Chinese dairy industry has reformed itself.
A Washington Post editorial by science and politics writer Chris Mooney argues that while scientific scandals such as “Climategate” have not proven that science is fraudulent, they have indeed proven that scientists are not well armed with communication skills. Because the media is increasingly cutting back on science-focused journalism, the ability of scientists to communicate their own data efficiently is progressively more vital.
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This serious problem of ammonia-infused beef (which is not required to be labeled as such), was discussed over a year ago in an op-ed by GAP Public Health Associate Amanda Hitt. GAP worked with the reporter on this story.
By Michael Moss
Eight years ago, federal officials were struggling to remove potentially deadly E. coli from hamburgers when an entrepreneurial company from South Dakota came up with a novel idea: injecting beef with ammonia.
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By Helena Bottemiller
The Government Accountability Project (GAP) held a conference yesterday focused on the important role whistleblowers play in protecting the food supply, exploring ways to empower more food workers to speak out against inhumane and unsafe practices in the food system.
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by Karen Hutchinson-Talaski
The attorney for GASP, an environmental group who has filed several legal challenges to the chemical weapons destruction at the Umatilla Chemical Depot, is considering an appeal of Judge Michael Marcus' ruling against the group.