Foodborne Illness Investigation Exposes Weakness in Meat and Poultry Inspection System
A recent outbreak of multi-drug resistant Salmonella Newport has drawn attention to fatal flaws in the nation’s meat and poultry inspection system. The outbreak has resulted in at least 60 hospitalizations and two deaths so far. Weak regulations hamper authorities’ ability to identify and protect consumers from the pathogen and others like it.
A new report issued last month by the CDC described the ongoing investigation into the outbreak. Unlike most Salmonella, the outbreak strain is resistant to azithromycin and ciprofloxacin, antibiotics commonly used to treat salmonellosis. CDC estimates that one in three victims of the outbreak received an antibiotic that was ineffective.
To avoid getting sick, authorities are recommending that consumers avoid undercooked beef and soft cheeses made with raw milk. But consumer advocates warn that more fundamental reform of the nation’s meat and poultry inspection system is needed to protect consumers.
- First, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) does not consider beef harboring the dangerous pathogens associated with the outbreak to be adulterated and thus does not prohibit it from being sold to consumers.
During rulemaking that culminated in 2014, FSIS rejected consumer advocates’ calls for stricter regulation of foods contaminated with outbreak strains of Salmonella. Instead, the agency has required epidemiological, microbiological, and trace back evidence to determine that a product is “associated with” or “linked to” an illness outbreak. Critics have argued that this policy has resulted in prolonged periods of inaction, even when the evidence seemed to leave little doubt as to the source of the illnesses.
At the time of the report, FSIS had not indicated any plans to revisit its position on Salmonella contamination in meat and poultry. Meanwhile, both outbreak strains and “closely related” strains of Salmonella Newport have been identified by FSIS in samples at three different Texas slaughter and processing facilities. Between June of 2018 and March of 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identified 255 confirmed cases in 32 U.S. states.
- Second, food safety regulators at FSIS do not have the authority to test for pathogens at feedlots and stockyards where these pathogens are most likely to spread.
“The only regulators with that sort of ‘on-farm’ authority have a narrow mandate to protect against the spread of plant and animal diseases,” said CFA Director of Food Policy Thomas Gremillion. “To protect humans, USDA cannot leave the slaughterhouse. The results are tragic.”
In the meantime, consumers bear the burden of protecting themselves. To avoid getting sick, CDC advises consumers to avoid eating soft cheese that could be made from unpasteurized milk, regardless of the source of the cheese. Moreover, it urges consumers to follow the “core four” food safety practices—clean, cook, separate, and chill— when preparing beef.
“Make sure to wash your hands thoroughly after handling raw meat and poultry so that you do not cross-contaminate,” Gremillion adds. “Use a food thermometer to make sure you reach a safe internal temperature. Don’t eat a hamburger unless it’s well-done.”
With the threat of hackers stealing personal information at an all-time high, consumers must remain vigilant and consistently use basic security measures, such as multi-step authentication, to make sure they are safe, CFA warns in a new consumer alert. Another crucial step is to annually check one’s credit report, which is free to do from each of the three credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion).
“Despite the increasing importance of checking one’s credit reports, our recent research shows a disturbing trend: the percent of consumers who believe it’s important to check one’s credit report has declined from 2012 to 2019, from 82% to 67%,” said CFA Executive Director Jack Gillis.
CFA identifies the improving economy and better financial conditions for consumers as a potential cause for the steep decline in credit checks. When CFA started surveying consumers on credit score knowledge in 2012, many Americans faced challenging credit card and mortgage debts, so checking one’s credit score was top of mind. As personal finances have improved, consumers have become less vigilant about checking their credit scores and reports, according to CFA’s research. “The problem,” said Gillis, “is that with the increase in data breaches, it’s never been more important to keep a watchful eye on your credit reports.”
Problematic credit scores can be a burden on consumers’ lives and might affect them in a number of ways, including:
- Denying them access to needed credit’
- Increasing the costs of consumer, auto, and mortgage credit, and
- Increasing deposits required by utilities and cell phone companies to obtain service.
With free access to credit reports, and a multitude of inexpensive or even free credit monitoring services, consumers can stay on top of their personal credit status. Consumers who have been involved in a data breach, can often get free credit monitoring. “There are few things that have more impact on your personal finances than your credit status—staying on top of it needs to be a number one priority for all of us,” said Gillis.
To help increase consumer knowledge of credit scores and reports, CFA and VantageScore Solutions® developed the Credit Score Quiz, an on-line tool for consumers to test and improve their credit score knowledge. By using the quiz, over 230,000 consumers have learned about the damage identity thief can cause and the many ways a credit score can affect one’s life.
CFA is also continuing to look into the solutions for those who have thin or non-existent credit files. “It is important to continue to urge consumers to stay on top of the information contained in their credit report and equally as important that we look at the implications for those who face restrictions because of credit invisibility. These consumers can face significant difficulties when finding housing, financing education or other important life milestones,” stated Leandra English, CFA Director of Financial Services Advocacy and Outreach.
Eleven national medical, public health, and consumer organizations, including CFA, sent a letter to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) last month urging them to take swift enforcement action to remove from the market dangerous liquid nicotine products lacking the child-resistant packaging and flow restrictors required under the Child Nicotine Poisoning Prevention Act of 2015.
Liquid nicotine is a highly toxic product that poses a serious risk of negative health effects and death for children. Liquid nicotine products often contain high concentrations upwards of 36 mg of nicotine per milliliter of liquid, or over 500 mg of nicotine in a small 15 mL dropper bottle. Given that the estimated lethal dose of nicotine is 1 to 13 mg per kilogram of body weight, a bottle of liquid nicotine at this size and concentration would be enough to kill four toddlers. Since liquid nicotine can be quickly absorbed through the skin, flow restrictors are a critical protective measure to reduce the risk of child nicotine poisoning.
Nearly four years ago, in response to this hazard, Congress passed the Child Nicotine Poisoning Prevention Act. The law requires the CPSC to enforce a mandatory child-resistant packaging standard for liquid nicotine containers, including the use of flow restrictors. “Concrete CPSC enforcement measures to remove noncompliant products from the market are long overdue and swift action is needed to protect children from this urgent public health danger,” said CFA Legislative Director Rachel Weintraub.
The Department for Housing and Urban Development is proposing to weaken protections against discrimination in housing, residential leases, and mortgage lending, CFA warned in a public statement issued last month. The HUD proposal, sent to Congress on July 29, would significantly undermine long-standing legal protections against housing discrimination.
The Trump plan would require a new and overly complex five-part test to show housing discrimination through disparate impact. In contrast, under current law, victims of housing discrimination may prove Fair Housing Act violations by showing that, even in the absence of a discriminatory intention, a housing practice has a disproportionately negative impact on a protected class.
“The Trump proposal erects evidentiary barriers for consumers suffering from unintentional housing discrimination. Instead of addressing America’s housing challenges, the President is trying to make it easier for landlords and lenders to discriminate on the basis of race, gender or other protected classes,” said Chris Peterson, CFA Director of Financial Services.
Today, consumers can win a discrimination action by showing that, even if a discriminatory practice serves a “substantial, legitimate, nondiscriminatory interest,” that interest could be served by a practice with a “less discriminatory effect,” meaning that consumers can successfully argue that lenders and landlords should take actions that lead to the least amount of discrimination, Peterson explained.
Even as the Federal Trade Center (FTC) touts its “record-breaking” $5 billion settlement with Facebook over privacy law violations, the Electronic Privacy Information Center challenged the settlement in court, arguing that it was a big win for Facebook and a bad deal for consumers. CFA joined with some of the nation’s top consumer privacy organizations in urging the court to consider public comments before finalizing the settlement.
Many of the organizations taking part in the effort have also filed detailed complaints with the FTC, alleging that Facebook has violated privacy laws, including the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Additionally, a Freedom of Information Act case revealed that there are more than 26,000 complaints against Facebook currently pending at the Commission.
Typically, in a proposed FTC settlement, the public would be provided an opportunity to provide comments to the agency before finalizing the deal. But no such opportunity was provided in the Facebook settlement, according to the groups’ complaint. In other consumer privacy cases, such as a similar 2012 case in which the privacy group Consumer Watchdog challenged an FTC settlement with Google regarding the Safari hack, courts have created opportunities for interested parties to file papers and be heard prior to a final determination on a proposed settlement.
Under the terms of the settlement, Facebook will pay a record-breaking $5 billion fine to the United States Treasury, but there will be no significant changes in Facebook’s business practices and the FTC will release all pending complaints against the company.
“Allowing Facebook to decide for itself how much information it can harvest from users and what it can do with that information, as long as it documents its decisions, is akin to robbing a bank and leaving a note that you did it,” said Susan Grant, CFA Director of Consumer Protection and Privacy. “This settlement fails to adequately protect Facebook users’ privacy or hold the company accountable and should be revised.”