Food Safety De-prioritized

In one of the few pieces of good news, it appears that COVID 19  has little spread because of surface contamination. This seems like a small thing but the spread of Avian Influenza across farms in 2015 was dependent upon surface spread (fomites). Aerosols and droplets carrying the COVID virus seem to be the main form of transmission.

So thankfully the consumer has little COVID risk from the food supply.  In the ‘before-time’ the CDC estimated that  48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from foodborne illnesses each year. This is in a normal regulatory environment. The federal government has made many  decisions and rulings since the onset of the pandemic changing the regulatory regime. Here are some examples:

  • In March FDA suspended routine surveillance facility inspections and relaxed compliance requirements for food production plants. This included meat plants which have been a vector for viral spread. The federal government did however offer liability protection to plant owners while the states made sure that the workers had to return by denying unemployment claims. OSHA was also dissuaded from intervening in worker safety issues.
  • The FDA allowed egg producers to relax labeling requirements, allowing eggs normally going to restaurants to be sent to supermarkets to help with shortages. In the short term this helped fill the pipeline of product but also allowed producers and food service distributors to re-pack eggs that were older – even at end of code – into consumer packaging. This is problematic if temporary but I have seen nothing from the FDA about reinstating the rules. My experience in the egg industry tells me this will soon be abused, if it isn’t being done already.
  • A ruling in May relaxed labeling requirements on allergens,  using the pandemic as justification. As long as the change was less than 2% of the weight of the finished product, manufacturers are no longer required to change labels. If  that percentage seems arbitrary, it is.  The FDA recognizes 8 main allergens but there are others, celery, avocado, banana, sesame, etc. that do not require listing. Labeling is the way that people avoid specific allergens; this change obscures that and can endanger people.

One can ponder which of these rules are good, temporary policy and which are opportunistic as the administration pursues its agenda of deregulation. But my searches show no plans or announcements to reinstate the previous guidelines.  It is hard for me to believe these changes won’t lead to further outbreaks and illnesses. There is currently a ‘mystery’ outbreak of salmonella Newport spreading around the country .

Then again, we live in a world where people have to be told not to kiss their chickens, what do I know?

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