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Letter From the Editor: A Year After Bill Keene’s Passing

It was a year ago that we lost Dr. Bill Keene, Oregon’s senior state epidemiologist, to acute pancreatitis at age 56. We missed him in 2014. He was posthumously awarded the 2014 NSF Food Safety Leadership Lifetime Achievement Award last April in Baltimore.

Keene was a guy who did his job with passion and humor. He was never limited by somebody else’s expectations. He was a dogged and determined investigator who was usually thinking outside the box.

We shared an interest in history. He had a foodborne illness museum in his office. When I published a list of the deadly foodborne illness outbreaks in history, he began helping me fine-tune it.

I was invited to speak to the California’s environmental health officers in Sacramento, and, as I was being introduced, my phone went off. It was Keene, who had discovered that we had overlooked a deadly outbreak that occurred nearly 100 year ago in Chicago. My audience did not mind waiting a moment so I could make the addition, and more than one explained it to others by saying, “Bill Keene’s talking to him before we get started.”

Bill traveled and was both known to his colleagues and open with the media. It got me thinking about where we are with state health departments. Because of the late Bill Keene and the extraordinary efforts of “Team Diarrhea,” conventional wisdom for several years was that Oregon and Minnesota were tops in capacity to combat foodborne illnesses.

Well, maybe it’s time to re-think the conventional wisdom. The second National Health Security Preparedness Index, a project of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO), is out. The index measures how prepared state health departments are to handle emergencies, but it looks at the capacities in such detail that it can also be used to compare specific items for many functions.

For example, many of the items that we think are important to food-safety investigations fall under the Index’s “health security surveillance” section. That’s where they note the number of state epidemiologists per 100,000 population and whether state public health labs are tied into certain data and management systems.

On these surveillance measures, the top performers for 2014 were South Carolina, New York, Michigan, Massachusetts and Hawaii. There are several other parts of the Index, including incident and information management, healthcare delivery, national preparedness level, countermeasure management and community planning and engagement.

When I first learned of the Preparedness Index, I thought it might be one of those designed to give every state a star for something, but it does end up with a range of performances and there is a lot of information for comparing one state to another. When all measurements are tallied, the Index has Utah, New York and Virginia on top.

It’s not the end-all, or even enough to cause me to think that Oregon and Minnesota are not still the best. That’s because being the best is not just about the assets kept in the barn, but the experience that’s available once the fire alarm goes off.  That’s why Bill Keene was so good at what he did.

What’s good is that ASTHO is willing to come up with measurements and come up with a way to spur more competition by the states. We’d like to see future reports specifically address outbreaks of disease as just as much of a preparedness challenge as a storm or a plane crash.

And what would be especially nice to see following my musings on the new Index report would be your thoughts on the subject. Which one or two states do you think are best at investigating foodborne illness outbreaks and why?

Food Safety News

Canada’s Food Inspection Agency Given Lowest Passing Grade in U.S. Audit

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) received an “adequate” rating – the lowest passing grade – in the latest audit by the U.S. government to determine its equivalency on food safety standards, according to documents recently released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

According to the audit, the CFIA needs to improve oversight of practices at meat facilities related to hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP), as well as sanitation and humane handling of animals.

The CFIA is said to have taken immediate corrective action after being informed of sub-standard issues with establishments and oversight. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) conducted the audit from October 22 to November 9, 2012, but did not release the audit report to the public until December 2013.

The audit aimed to verify the ability of the CFIA to regulate red meat, poultry and egg products in a way that ensured an equivalent level of safety when compared to U.S. products, the report states.

As part of the audit, FSIS personnel visited two red meat slaughter establishments, four meat processing establishments producing ready-to-eat meat products, and one egg processing facility. U.S. inspectors also visited five Canadian government food safety agencies and two private laboratories conducting food testing for microbiological and chemical contaminants.

At a beef slaughter facility involved with a large recall in 2010, U.S. inspectors found a lack of compliance with HACCP protocols, as well as concerns related to sanitation and humane handling of animals. Inspectors also found sub-standard sanitation practices at a swine slaughter plant.

In addition, auditors requested further clarification on the CFIA’s ready-to-eat policy and the agency’s E. coli program. Those requests are pending, according to the report.

The CFIA has reportedly implemented a wide-reaching plan to “develop and implement a sustainable internal inspection oversight role that allows for continuous system improvement.”

Because of the audit grade, food imported to the U.S. from Canada will be subject to closer scrutiny than food from countries with food safety systems rated as “average” or “well-performing.”

Lax food safety standards led to an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 and a massive recall at Canadian beef packer XL Foods in September 2012. At least 18 people were sickened in that outbreak – with more likely uncounted – and 8 million pounds of beef were recalled.

A Canadian government review panel blamed the XL Foods incident on food safety oversights by both the company and by CFIA staff working at the facility.

Along with the government of Mexico, the Canadian government is contesting rules for country-of-origin labeling on meat that recently became mandatory in the U.S. Tyson Foods has said it will no longer take Canadian cattle for processing due to the new rules, which require labels on most meat products indicating where the animal was born, raised and slaughtered.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently said the dispute over origin labeling should be settled by the World Trade Organization.

Food Safety News

Specialty crop groups praise House for passing scaled-back farm bill

WASHINGTON —The House narrowly passed, by a 216-208 vote, a stripped-down farm bill for the first time without the nutrition title, an unorthodox move fiercely criticized by House Democrats but praised by specialty crop producers if it gets a five-year farm policy bill into conference with the Senate.

Last month the farm bill suffered a major defeat on the House floor in a battle over food stamps, so House Republican leadership removed that section from the legislation, passing a new farm bill but leaving questions of whether the Senate will accept the bill and move closer to negotiating differences between the two bills. The 2008 farm bill expires Sept. 30, 2013.

“The bill passed by the House today is not a real farm bill and is an insult to rural America, which is why it’s strongly opposed by more than 500 farm, food and conservation groups,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry, said after the bill passed.  “We will go to conference with the bipartisan, comprehensive farm bill that was passed in the Senate that not only reforms programs, supports families in need and creates agriculture jobs, but also saves billions more than the extremely flawed House bill.”

But while acknowledging the path to a farm bill has been unusual, United Fresh Produce Association Public Policy Senior Vice President Robert Guenther said it may be the best chance to move the ball forward.

 “I think we’re happy we now have a product that can go to the Senate,” said Guenther.

These comments were echoed in a July 11 statement by the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance, which has been instrumental in lobbying for Specialty Crop Block Grants, the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, Market Access Program, Section 32 specialty crop purchases and other key programs.

“We are pleased that both the House and Senate bills address many of the critical priorities outlined by the SCFBA and continue the support of specialty crops that was established in the 2008 farm bill,” said the national coalition of more than 120 organizations representing growers of fruits, vegetables, dried fruit, tree nuts, nursery plants and other products. “We look forward to working with negotiators to advance legislation through conference committee and to the president’s desk for his signature.”

The top Republican in the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) praised the House vote and pledged to work with his Senate counterparts to find a path forward.

“Today was an important step toward enacting a five-year farm bill this year that gives our farmers and ranchers certainty, provides regulatory relief to small businesses across the country, significantly reduces spending and makes common-sense, market-oriented reforms to agricultural policy,” he said.  

Guenther said United Fresh supports the Senate-passed nutrition title, and he admits this year’s road to a farm bill has been like no other. “This is unchartered territory,” he said.

It’s unclear whether the Senate will wait until the House votes on a separate bill that contains a nutrition title or accept the bill just passed by the House as a starting point. Either way, there are several procedural hurdles with additional votes required in both chambers before the bill can end up in the hands of a conference committee.

“It’s keeping the ball moving. It’s better than an extension,” Guenther said.

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