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The Food Safety News Nominees for Santa’s 2014 Naughty List

How did the media, our professional associates in corporate and government information, Maine Governor Paul R. LePage, Wisconsin Secretary of Agriculture Ben Brancel, Sheldon Lavin, POTUS (the president of the United States), and FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg end up on the Food Safety News 2014 naughty list?

It’s complicated. Make yourself an eggnog and sit back. (You may need something to stiffen that eggnog.) But here’s the view as we look down on food-safety news land and as we all get ready to enjoy Christmas, or just use this much-needed break to rest up.

We, the media

We, the media, produced the Ebola scare for the U.S. because it generated ratings and readers. We made up stories and sold them to magazine editors who were both gullible and lazy. We helped instigate riots when we presented information we knew was incomplete.

The Ebola scare in the U.S. was so intensely hot for awhile that it was the most searched-for word of 2014, according to Google. Would a foreign army landing on the beaches of the Gulf Coast have gotten more panicked coverage than one man sickened with Ebola got when he landed in Dallas?

The panic ended when no cases originated in the U.S., the White House named an Ebola czar and stopped talking about it, and someone made the merciful decision to stop CDC Director Dr. Thomas R. Frieden from doing anymore TV interviews.

When the scare ended, so did almost all coverage of the real Ebola crisis in Western Africa.

How far back this sent infectious disease reporting remains to be seen. Few American who got that hot shot of Ebola scare reporting were left with any useful understanding of the far greater risks we face on a routine basis, including the foodborne variety. The damage from all that sloppy reporting is outside our wheelhouse, but other than to put paper sacks over our heads, there is not much we can do about it. But we know naughty when we see it, and 2014 was a very bad year for the media. Sorry about that.

Our professional associates in corporate and government public information

We are talking here about the corporate public-relations people and the so-called public information officers (PIOs) we work with daily.

There are some exceptions, we might call them old-school types, who still know how to develop working relationships with reporters based on trust and professionalism. No Christmas presents are exchanged, but these are the folks who still have a human face.

Unfortunately, old-schoolers, including some who are in their 20s, are rare today. We’ve come to find that corporate public relations exists to create an illusion of openness for the company without any intention of ever delivering.

An even more disturbing trend is underway among the government PIOs, whose salaries are paid by the taxpayers. It used to be that PIOs would be driven by the information they could quickly get out from their agencies. The really good ones could be quoted by their bosses.

Today, PIOs are on a mission, which, again with rare exceptions, is to minimize or extinguish the information coming from their agency or department. Anyone doing real journalism is viewed as a threat, and your tax money is now going for those communications tools where the government has total control of the message and is able to meter the real information down to a trickle.

These are not new trends, but the feeling that they’ve reached a tipping point was very much part of the journalistic atmosphere in 2014.

Gov. Paul R. LePage

Moving on to a single individual, Maine Gov. Paul R. LePage falls on the naughty list for a very specific reason.

It’s not that, during 2014, the narrowly re-elected Republican governor let the Maine Center for Disease Control go without the leadership of a director or state epidemiologist, or even the agency’s weird decision to keep secret the name of a restaurant where someone worked while infected with Hepatitis A.

No, LePage falls on the naughty list because he really messed up what might have been a teachable moment regarding when a state’s top public health authority may, or may not, order someone held in quarantine. Everyone remembers the healthcare worker traveling home from West Africa, first to New Jersey and then home to Maine.

LePage took time out from his close campaign to put state police outside the woman’s Fort Kent house, and, for three days, he made one strong statement after another.

“Maine has established protocols for the monitoring of any individual who returns to Maine after traveling from West African regions that have been impacted by Ebola,” he said. “These protocols include monitoring the individual for 21 days after the last possible exposure to Ebola. Twenty-one days is the longest time it can take from the time a person is infected with Ebola until that person has symptoms of Ebola,” he continued, adding, “But we must be vigilant in our duty to protect the health and safety of all Mainers, as well as anyone who may come in contact with someone who has been exposed to Ebola.”

“We commend all healthcare workers for their humanitarian work in West Africa and other regions of the world, and we are proud that they are always ready to help others,” LePage went on. “Upon the healthcare workers’ return home, we will follow the guidelines set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control for medical workers who have been in contact with Ebola patients. Additionally, we will work with the healthcare worker to establish an in-home quarantine protocol to ensure there is no direct contact with other Mainers until the period for potential infection has passed. We will help make sure the healthcare worker has everything to make this time as comfortable as possible.”

The quarantined nurse went bicycle riding and hired an attorney, who went to a lower state court and got her sprung short of her 21-day quarantine period. LePage then just said he did everything he could, but the judge had lifted the restrictions and he’d abide by state law.

Maybe his campaign polling showed he was on the wrong side of the issue. Governors usually don’t accept lower-court decisions, and they can get their appeals heard all the way up to the state supreme court pretty fast.

State quarantine laws have not been used much in recent years, but, a generation or two ago, people commonly accepted orders to stay put until some infectious disease was brought under control. One thing is for certain: Such laws were never intended for use just to make a politician look tough during a campaign — or not.

Ben Brancel

Wisconsin Secretary of Agriculture Ben Brancel, himself a dairy farmer for 22 years and who still runs Angus and Hereford cattle, took over the helm of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection in January 2011, six months before an outbreak from contaminated raw milk at a Racine elementary school. He makes his way on to our naughty list because he managed to keep the name of the dairy farm associated with that outbreak secret for 3.5 years.

Brancel, who now serves at the pleasure of WI Republican Gov. Scott Brown, is representative of those state departments of agriculture which sometimes put their mission to protect and promote their farm and ranch sectors ahead of food safety.

When state health departments or state agriculture departments attempt to hide such basic information — such as who, what, and why — from the public, they are only harming themselves by generating ever more reason to distrust government. Brancel certainly should know that. He also headed Wisconsin’s agriculture department under former WI Gov. Tommy Thompson.

After another school-related outbreak occurred in Wisconsin last September, causing numerous illnesses, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel decided it had had enough. The newspaper enlisted open-records advocates and used state law to force the release of the names of the involved raw-milk farms.

“It’s outrageous. The public has the right to this information. Who is the state of Wisconsin trying to protect, the public or bad operators?” said Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.

Naughty, Mr. Secretary.

Sheldon Lavin

With $ 6 billion in worldwide revenue, OSI Group Chairman and CEO Sheldon Lavin could not have gone into 2014 on a higher note. He’d just been inducted into the Meat Industry Hall of Fame. He was introduced in November 2013 to the elite gathering at the Drake Hotel in Chicago by McDonald’s President Jeff Stratton, who spoke of Lavin’s connection to the “McFamily,”a reference to OSI’s meat-supplying relationship with McDonald’s going back to the legendary Ray Kroc.

Then 2014 dawned and brought an international food-safety crisis that landed Lavin on this year’s naughty list. That’s a bit of a step down from the Forbes 100 list of largest privately owned companies.

OSI Group in 2014 spanned the world, with the company supplying meat in China and Japan to McDonald’s, Yum! Brands’ KFC and Pizza Hut restaurants, and many others.

Then last summer, Dragon TV struck with a report that OSI’s Shanghai Husi Food Co. Ltd. was selling meat to these fast-food outlets that was past its expiration dates and that production facilities were far from sanitary.  The Chinese public reacts strongly to food-safety threats, especially where American companies are involved.

Almost immediately, contracts were cancelled and the Shanghai unit closed down except for staff to deal with the investigation. Levin was forced into crisis mode. OSI continues to have expansive operations in China, but the cleanup from that Dragon TV airing will continue well into 2015.

POTUS

More than a year ago, Dr. Elisabeth Hagen left government service, leaving open the position of Under Secretary for Food Safety at USDA. According to the law, the position shall be filled by presidential appointment and confirmed by the United States Senate.

Leaving this position open is not an option. And it’s enough to put President Barack Obama on the naughty list, no matter how meritorious his overall record on food safety.

When USDA was reorganized by Congress in 1993, the added currency of the agency’s top food-safety officer being a presidential appointment with Senate confirmation was recognized as being in the public interest.

Both the White House and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack have shown their flexibility and creativity in keep the food-safety shop in good hands. They’ve done it with an “Odd Couple” pairing. Brian Ronholm, who was Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety under Hagen, then named Acting Under Secretary after she departed, recently assumed the Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety title again.

Then, in late September, FSIS Administrator Al Almanza was also named USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety. In other words, there are now two deputies at the agency, but the president did not make an appointment to the top job.

Only POTUS (the president of the U.S.) can move this one off the dime. It would be unfortunate if his food-safety legacy is scuffed by leaving the appointment of the next Under Secretary for Food Safety to whoever follows him into the Oval Office. Mr. President, the clock is ticking, and you shall not pass this way again.

Margaret A. Hamburg

Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg. Perhaps you’ve heard of her. But, if you are involved in food safety, even if you attend a lot of the various conferences and seminars held throughout the year, chances are you’ve never laid eyes on the commissioner.

It’s not unusual for the FDA Commissioner to spend most of his or her time on the drug side of the house. Approval of drugs and medical devices is where the glamor and big bucks can be found once you leave public office. Besides, when you’ve got talent like Mike Taylor holding down the food side, why not just let it be?

Still, we’ve been watching from afar for a long time and could not help but notice the only published remarks Hamburg made before a food group in 2014 were to the World Spice Congress in Cochin, India, last February. To be fair, she did also speak in Washington, D.C., last February on the nutrition facts label.

We understand favoring one kid over the other. We’d just like to see her around campus sometime.

Food Safety News

Letter From the Editor: Naughty and Nice Nominations Now Due

Traditions mean more to us at Food Safety News than the town of Waging, Germany. You may have read about it. It’s the town in the Alps where the gentleman who long played Santa just decided to retire with no obvious successor.

The town decided to take this opportunity to dump Santa. It held a contest for teenage girls who competed to be the German town’s new Waging angel. Their hope is that the young angel will attract more holiday shoppers and tourists than their old, reliable St. Nick did.

During each of the five previous Christmas seasons that Food Safety News has been around, we’ve established publishing “Naughty and Nice” lists as one of our traditions. We’ve used the annual Naughty and Nice lists to call for extra recognition for those individuals who’ve done more or less for food safety than might be expected.

A lot about the Santa Claus story has evolved over the years. His bright red-on-white dress first appeared in a Coca-Cola advertisement that brightened up a Great Depression-era Christmas. Before that, Santa’s colors were blue, green, brown and gold.

Like Santa adopting those colors from Coke, he picked up the Naughty and Nice list from Nordic folk stories about a magician who rewarded good children while punishing the bad.

What this teaches us is that you don’t want to make wholesale changes in your Christmas traditions, but tweaks are acceptable. For our first five years, nominations for both the Naughty and Nice lists came entirely from the news and editorial staff of Food Safety News.

Either because he’s grown weary of our humor, or because he truly is a populist man of the people and friend to all, our publisher has suggested we open the nomination process to all Food Safety News readers.

So here’s the deal: If you wish to make one or more nominations to the Food Safety News Naughty or Nice lists for 2014, simply email me at [email protected]

We publish the lists on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, so the sooner you send me your suggestions, the more likely they will be included. The key consideration is how the individual (preferred) or organization helped or harmed food safety during the year.

For reference, here are the Naughty and Nice lists from last year.

We wish Waging’s new town angel all the best. We just would never go that far.

Food Safety News

The Annual Food Safety News Christmas Eve ‘Naughty List’

Editor’s note: One of our Food Safety News Christmas traditions is to annually recognize those who have been “naughty” and those who have been “nice” – from a strictly food safety perspective, of course. This year, we’ve opted to split the lists so that we could devote all the attention that each list deserves. Check back here on Christmas Day for the “nice” list.

Without further ado, here are 10 people who were “naughty” in 2013:

Stewart Parnell, the former Peanut Corporation of America CEO, who said some swear word that had to be deleted right before ordering peanuts known to be contaminated with Salmonella shipped to his customers, was back and just as naughty in 2013. Indicted and awaiting trial on federal felony charges of fraud and conspiracy, Parnell helped push off the trial to 2014 with motions to get his passport back, to separate his trial from his brother’s (who is also charged), and, finally, to rely on his recently diagnosed ADHD as a defense. And Stew shows no signs of chilling out.

Ron Foster, chief executive officer of Foster Farms, showed his power to turn a food safety incident into a potential company disaster when he opted to damage the brand his grandparents built by voluntarily recalling product associated with an outbreak. It’s difficult to tell just how much the privately held Foster Farms was hurt, but the story has not gone away since Oct. 7 when USDA issued a public health alert about raw chicken sickening 389 people with seven strains of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella Heidelberg. The role of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) in the Foster Farms mess came in for criticism by the Food Safety Project of The Pew Charitable Trusts in a late December report.

Hamdi Ulukaya, the Turkish-American founder and sole owner of Chobani, Inc., had to buy a house near his $ 450-million Twin Falls, ID, yogurt plant this year after he also tried to avoid a recall when his yogurt developed a mold problem. After first just quietly removing Chobani yogurt from stores shelves beginning in late August, customer complaints and media inquiries brought a full-blown recall in September. Ulukaya moved into his Twin Falls house to personally work on the problem. He told the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce that, when the mold struck, his company had no top food safety executive or a plan for dealing with a crisis. It does now.

Vernon Hershberger, Wisconsin’s raw milk outlaw, was found not guilty of operating a food establishment, dairy farm, and dairy plant without the necessary licenses. And, in the aftermath of the celebration of his jury trial in Baraboo, Republican State Sen. Glenn Grothman introduced legislation to make licensed raw milk sales legal in Wisconsin. And what did Hershberger do? He showed up to testify against the raw milk bill because – to paraphrase here – he doesn’t need no stinking license! (The latest version of the Grothman bill comes up for a vote in the Wisconsin Senate in January.)

U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek (R-MI) tacked an amendment on to the House-passed version of the Farm bill to prevent the Secretary of Health and Human Services from enforcing “any regulations promulgated under the FDA Food Safety Moderation Act” until various extensive and extraneous scientific and economic analyses are completed and reported back to Congress. Not likely to be included if a conference committee version of the Farm Bill ever happens in 2014, but it still makes us remember how much we miss U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI), the former chairman of the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, who used to represent that Benishek’s district.

Jimmie Shearer, CEO of Sunland, Inc., kept secret the pending Oct. 7 bankruptcy of the country’s largest organic peanut butter processing company from Texas and New Mexico Valencia peanut growers, the local economic development authority, and just about everybody he did business with. Peanut growers were left in the lurch, and the latest economic development loan of $ 150,000 was just more good money after bad. Others on the Sunland board of directors also knew since April that the economic disaster was going to strike, but they, too, kept the City of Portales, NM (where Sunland was the largest private employer) in the dark.

U.S. Rep. Steve King (R-IA), sponsor of a Farm Bill amendment to override those state laws on cages and crates, claims he is out to protect interstate commerce and not harm food safety. King says his amendment stops states from imposing higher standards or conditions on food produced or manufactured in any other state. The Iowa Republican says that if his amendment harmed food safety, we’d be hearing more from USDA or FDA. Maybe, but, then again, maybe not.

Bian Zhenjia, assistant minister of the China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA), is currently the most visible food safety official for the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The PRC is currently demanding the right to do more on-site inspections in foreign countries, and U.S. requires inspection by both USDA and FDA of China’s food industry. But reports that China is going way too slow on processing visa requests for American food inspectors are not generating confidence. It’s very naughty and unnecessary. Did Zhenjia and other CFDA directors meet with Linda Tollefson, associate commissioner of the U.S. FDA, when the parties met in mid-December?

Ty Brookover and Earl Brookover, Jr., the top dogs at Brookover Feed Yards, Inc., in Garden City, KS, were not very neighborly to two out-of-town visitors who were hang-gliding this past summer over their agricultural operations. Instead, when local sheriff’s deputies found the car that transported the hang glider used by National Geographic photographer George Steinmetz of Glenn Ridge, NJ, and assistant Wei Zhang of Beijing, China, the Brookovers allowed the pair to be arrested for trespass. There is a big difference between being naughty and being neighborly.

Food Safety News