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No Movement on Agriculture Appropriations Bills as Congress Goes on Five-Week Summer Break

Congress broke for the August recess on Friday and won’t be back in the Capitol until Sept. 8.

One of the many pieces of legislative business left at a standstill is the Fiscal Year 2015 agriculture appropriations bill, which funds the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration.

The House of Representatives began debate on its version of the bill on June 11 but has not returned to it on the floor since. One reason is that Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-VA) loss in  his re-election primary race and decision to step down as leader changed the floor dynamics. In addition, there was uncertainty about having enough votes to pass the bill considering the school nutrition provisions that Democrats so vehemently opposed.

On the Senate side, the ag appropriations bill was grouped with the Commerce-Justice-Science and the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development appropriations bills into a “minibus,” which was first expected to be brought up for a floor debate the week of June 16. The minibus has yet to make it to the floor, mainly because of disagreement between Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) concerning amendments.

Fiscal Year 2015 begins Oct. 1, so the House is considering a vote on a short-term continuing resolution in September that would fund the federal government at current levels until mid-December.

After the midterm election on Nov. 4, Congress could vote on a FY 2015 omnibus bill or a second continuing resolution that funds the federal government for the rest of the next fiscal year, or until Sept. 30, 2015.

Food Safety News

Strikes break out once again in San Antonio

Strikes break out once again in San Antonio

Chilean port companies and workers reached an agreement at the to end a 22-day strike — but strikes broke-out once more at San Antonio.

Fresh stoppages late Monday night have threatened an agreement reached between port companies and workers which sought to end three weeks of strikes that hit exporters with multimillion dollar losses. Workers hailed the agreement — which came after 14-hours of government-mediated discussions — as a significant victory. Under the deal, more than 6,500 port workers may be eligible to receive remuneration.

“Finally, we’ve reached an agreement, just as we said we would, now we will raise the movement,” Sergio Vargas, president of the Port Workers’ Front (FTP) told Puertos de Chile. Exporters received the news with enthusiasm, however lamented the losses and delays caused by the extended protest.

Fruit exporters were particularly hard hit — the strikes came at the height of fruit production and much of their produce was spoiled or sold at lower prices in the domestic market. “Considering labour and transportation, lost and devalued fruit, we’ve seen losses across the chain close to US$ 200 million,” Ronald Bown, president of the Chilean Fruit Exporters Association (Asoex), told The Santiago Times. “And to all of this one must add the damage to our image, credibility and confidence among our clients, which will encourage them to seek other suppliers.”

Port companies committed themselves to awarding US$ 2,730 to all workers who met the requirements of at least six months of activity and a minimum of 18 shifts per month, according to Mundo Maritimo. The retroactive payment is intended to remunerate half-an-hour lunch breaks dating between 2005 to 2013.

“This amount will be paid during February,” the port companies stated in their official announcement published in 24 Horas on Saturday.

The dispute over lunch hours lingers, however, in San Antonio — the country’s major fruit shipping port — and Mejillones — a key copper port — and tensions arose due to the alleged firing of workers in the two ports. “A few problems remain. While we are still working all shifts, union leaders are meeting with port company officials,” Jorge Bustos, leader of United Port Workers (TPU), told The Santiago Times, adding that his organization was “looking into” claims workers had been fired for their participation in the strikes. Port workers in San Antonio held a meeting until late Monday on whether they will strike once more, with local media reporting that at least two terminals decided to resume strikes.

During earlier strikes, violent clashes between workers and Carabineros — Chile’s uniformed police — occurred in both Mejillones and San Antonio, among other ports. Injuries were sustained on both sides. According to the Soy San Antonio website, seven San Antonio strikers were detained by Carabineros and held in custody for six hours on Friday.

The port strikes have not only impacted the national economy, but also caused losses in neighbouring Bolivia. The landlocked nation relies heavily on Chilean ports for its exports and is currently challenging Chile in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to regain access to the ocean it lost in the War of the Pacific (1879-1883).

The Bolivian government stated Monday the country has lost an estimated US$ 30 million with hundreds of Bolivian truckers unable to unload cargo due to the strike. “The mistreatment that Bolivia suffered in the port of Iquique because of Chile is indignant and unacceptable,” Bolivian Productive Development Minister Teresa Morales told Los Tiempos.

In the wake of the agreement Chilean Fruit Growers Federation (Fedefruta) President Cristián Allendes said that exporters still faced significant challenges as a result of the dispute between workers and port owners. “For us this is not over, now we will have to explain why, for reasons beyond our control,

Publication date: 1/29/2014

Publisher’s Platform: How to Break a Foodborne Illness Story

Daily, weekly, monthly and yearly, people get sick from eating food. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that at least 48 million of us get sick each year, with 125,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.

Many of those sickened are the “canaries in the coal mine” – people who are the first to become ill in an outbreak.

Promptly, but accurately, announcing early illnesses and the cause of those illnesses can help prevent more illnesses from happening. Letting consumers know what products are poisoning them helps the free market work. Simply put, transparency allows consumers to make decisions about what products to avoid based on which manufacturers and products have a history of problems.

But, how, when, or if ever public health officials announce outbreaks and recalls remains a mystery to many reporters who cover food-related pathogen outbreaks.

After practicing in this area for more than 20 years – yes, it has been more than 20 years since the Jack in the Box E. coli O157:H7 outbreak – I think I have learned a few things about how the foodborne illness surveillance system operates and how to get information to consumers that allows them to protect themselves and their families and to make better choices about the food they choose to buy.

Bugs are now reportable.

In November 1992, there was an ominous uptick of E. coli O157:H7 illnesses in the San Diego area. Ultimately, by the end of December of that year, there would be at least 40 sickened and a child dead. However, since E. coli O157:H7 infections were not reportable at the time, no one knew the cause of the outbreak, and the same tainted meat served at San Diego-area Jack in the Box restaurants was shipped to other Jack in the Box restaurants in the Western U.S., eventually sickening several hundred and killing three more children.

That outbreak launched both a legal career and mandatory reporting of the most common foodborne pathogens: E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella, Campylobacter, Listeria and Shigella, to name a few.

Foodborne surveillance operates, but a bit slowly.

Think of the foodborne illness surveillance system as a large funnel. At the opening on top are all of us who eat food and get sick, and at the very bottom are those who get diagnosed, reported and linked to others so that the events become an outbreak.

One thing to remember is that, for every person who gets counted as part of an outbreak, sometimes dozens of others are actually sick, but remain undiagnosed and therefore uncounted. Here are some startling statistics: for every one E. coli O157:H7 case counted in an outbreak, 26.1 go undiagnosed; for Salmonella, that ratio is 1:29.3; for Campylobacter, it is 1:30.3; for Listeria, it is 1:2.1, and for Shigella, it is 1:33.3. That amounts to a lot of uncounted ill people.

If you are uncounted, no one asks you what you ate or drank or when. 

First, why do sick people remain uncounted? Well, in order to be counted, you need to be stool-culture positive for a reportable pathogen.

  • If you are not sick enough to go to the doctor, you do not get counted.
  • If the doctor does not order a stool culture, you do not get counted.
  • If you do not test positive for a reportable pathogen due to lack of testing, there is no reporting requirement.
  • If you are not counted, your local health department will never call you to ask what made you ill.

Without that intervention, whatever made you sick may well remain on the market to sicken others.

Hint No. 1:

Ask your local, state and national health authorities frequently about unusual upticks in reportable illnesses.

When a stool culture returns positive for a reportable illness, that lab is required to contact the local health department in the location where the ill person lives. The length of time it takes for a positive culture to be reported can vary widely, location to location, state to state, potentially slowing the process of local health authorities even beginning an investigation.

Often a state’s Department of Health will become involved. The stool culture isolate will be provided to the state’s lab, which may perform Pulsed Field Gel Electrophoresis (PFGE), or genetic fingerprinting. The genetic fingerprinting allows for comparison between individual isolates (that may also include food samples). PFGE, along with good epidemiology, may well begin the process of finding connections between people and the food they consumed.

Again, this takes time, and time that keeps potentially tainted products on store shelves or allows a bad manufacturing process is continuing to sicken customers.

Hint No. 2:

CDC is important, but most of the real investigation happens at the state and local level.

If a PFGE is performed at the state lab, the digital image (it looks like the bar code on the back of a cereal box) is uploaded to CDC’s PulseNet. PulseNet, along with CDC’s OutbreakNet, are potentially seeing these uploads from a variety of states. If the PFGE patterns are “indistinguishable,” and if patients can be linked in time and by a product, there is likely a multi-state outbreak occurring.

Remember, CDC is compiling the information from the states that are supplying the information. They are leaders among equals, but they are only as good as the information they receive. Again, each state has its own interests and time constraints. These either enhance or detract from the ability of a state public health agency or CDC to move more or less promptly on a potential foodborne illness outbreak.

Once local, state and national health authorities determine that an outbreak is happening, or has happened, what next – Part One?

Here is where transparency may get a bit tricky. My bias is full disclosure, but only after it is clear which product or manufacturer is the likely source of the contamination. In my view, once a public health official determines the likely cause of an outbreak, transparency demands that the public be notified.

At this point, there are no legitimate reasons for nondisclosure, only excuses. That the business may lose business is not a reason. That the product is no longer out in the market is not a reason. The public has a right to know – period.

Hint No. 3:

If a health official refuses to name “nationwide fast-food Mexican restaurant A,” ask them under what legal authority they are making that decision. If they continue to refuse, file a Freedom of Information Act request and do not back down.

Once local, state and national health authorities determine that an outbreak is or has happened, what next – Part Two?

Traceback – once a product has been identified as the source of illnesses, a potentially complex agency process begins. Side note: the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is generally in charge of all meat – cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys and lamb. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) deals with fish (except catfish; FSIS does that), dairy and all other food items. FDA now also does eggs. There is joint jurisdiction on meat pizzas with cheese.

Depending on the food involved, FSIS or FDA (sometimes both) will take the outbreak information from CDC and/or state health officials and attempt to trace the outbreak to the source or “root cause.” The idea is to both stop the outbreak and to learn the cause to prevent the next outbreak. Again, transparency becomes paramount. Of course, state Departments of Agriculture will be involved in partnership with FSIS and FDA as “boots on the ground.”

If the outbreak is local in nature – a local restaurant or church picnic, for example – CDC, FSIS or FDA may never be involved. Local health and environment health professionals will likely do all the real work.

Food that causes an outbreak seldom tests positive for the pathogen that caused the outbreak.

Simply put, the victims ate the evidence. That is why they became ill and why leftovers did not test positive for the same pathogen. Although there have been some successes – the spinach E. coli outbreak of 2006 and the peanut butter Salmonella outbreak of 2009 – most often there is no food left over to test.

Even if there is food from the same lot available to test, pathogens are not uniformly spread throughout a lot, or, by the time food is tested, other bacteria may have out-competed the pathogens.

Bottom line, even without a positive food sample, the good work of epidemiologists can link people locally, nationally and even internationally to a common pathogen and the food on which it hooked a ride.

Hint No. 4: 

Develop relationships with local, state and national public health and environmental officials. Do the same with people at FSIS, FDA, CDC and state Departments of Agriculture. Help them tell the story about how important what they do is to the health of the public.

Hint No. 5:

Develop relationships with reporters who know what they are doing. Talk to the good people at Food Safety News, Lynne Terry of The Oregonian, JoNel Aleccia at NBC and Elizabeth Weise of USA Today. Spend a few moments with the experts.

Food Safety News

Israeli biopesticides give chemicals a ‘break’

Israeli biopesticides give chemicals a ‘break’

As a type of pesticide, biopesticides, of course, are supposed to kill bugs, or, preferably, keep them off crops, by using natural, organic methods, instead of chemicals. However, the field is relatively new, and as of now there are no biopesticides strong enough to handle the entire growth cycle. There are various technologies to produce biopesticides, such as using plant extracts to develop organic chemicals that can be applied to plants and crops, along with microbial biopesticides based on using bacteria, fungi and yeast extracted from plants (Stockton uses both, said Ziv Tirosh, CEO of Israel’s Stockton Group).

Though promising, wide-scale, cost-effective production of genetically engineered biopesticides is years away. “A lot more research is needed, and the small start-ups that generally work on these projects don’t have the money or resources needed,” he said. The infrastructure – from the marketing and sales channels to the methods of application – is all geared towards chemical pesticide treatment, so replacing it is a non-starter.

However, Tirosh said, biopesticides can – and already do, thanks to Stockton – play a crucial role in assisting chemicals do a better job. “If, for example, a cucumber crop will be sprayed ten times, we could replace two or three of those chemical pesticide sprayings with biopesticide sprayings that will have an important impact on the final results.”

Timorex, Stockton’s main product, has been feted not only by the EU, but by industry as well. The company won this year’s Agrow Award (given out by agriculture industry information giant Informa Agra) for the best new biopesticide.

“The statistics on population growth and the need for more food are well known,” he said, pointing to studies that say there will be as many as 8 billion people in the world within 25 years. “Chemical pesticides are by far the most effective way of keeping infestations out of crops and ensuring that there is enough production to feed the world.” As such, he said, biopesticides will not replace chemical pesticides anytime soon. “They just cannot be used as effectively, cheaply, and on as large a scale as chemicals. But in a supporting role, biopesticides can greatly enhance agriculture.”

One clear use case for biopesticides, he said, was towards the end of the growth cycle. When a fruit or vegetable is sprayed with chemical pesticide, some of it is absorbed, but most of it washes away. “Growers are reluctant to use chemicals at that point because they don’t want any residue when they being the crops to market,” Tirosh said. At that point, many farmers prefer an organic solution – like Stockton’s biopesticides – which, if not as effective as chemicals, are still quite effective, and do the job of protecting crops as they make their way to the dinner plate, with fewer chemicals.

“There are use cases for using biopesticides in other parts of the growth process as well,” Tirosh said – for example, replacing one or two of the chemical sprayings just to keep bugs from having access to them and building up a resistance. Thanks to biopesticides, chemical pesticides can have a longer, more effective life cycle in agriculture.


Publication date: 1/2/2014