San Antonio Express, TX 10-13-07 Recalls put spotlight on food safety William Pack Express-News Business Writer A Food Marketing Institute survey of more than 2,000 consumers in January produced troubling findings for retailers: only 66 percent of the respondents expressed confidence that the food they purchased from grocers was safe. That represented a 16-point drop from confidence levels recorded by the institute's survey a year earlier and was the second-lowest reading in the 18-year history of the poll. And since then, little has occurred to repair the reputation of a food industry that strives to be seen as the world leader in safety. On the Web Recalls raise concerns about food safety Instead, the news has been highlighted by recalls of Peter Pan peanut butter linked to a salmonella outbreak, of dog and cat food contaminated by imported food ingredients containing an unapproved industrial chemical, melamine, and of a two-year inventory of canned chili, hash and other Castleberry's Food Co. products because of botulism risks. Outbreaks of a potentially deadly strain of the E. coli bacteria resulted in ground beef recalls by the United Food Group in June, Topps Meat Co. in September and Cargill Meat Solutions earlier this month. Just last week, ConAgra advised consumers not to eat Banquet chicken and turkey pot pies because of a possible salmonella contamination. At least 152 cases in 31 states are under investigation. Topps, a 67-year-old New Jersey company that was one of the country's largest frozen beef patty suppliers, closed its doors on Oct. 5 after recalling 21.7 million pounds of beef patties — a year's worth of production. Incidents like that add fuel to a fiery debate over the effectiveness of the nation's food safety network and what should be done to improve it. Critics contend the network is outdated, is understaffed and often lacks the will to demand the performance from companies that the public expects. "It needs a major overhaul in modernization," said Jean Halloran, director of the Consumers' Union's Food Policy Initiatives. Others agree that the network needs more resources, particularly for research. But they argue that safety has improved considerably in recent decades and that existing safety standards governing businesses could eliminate most problems if they were followed. "We're doing a lot of things better than we used to," said Jim Dickson, an Iowa State University professor associated with the university's Institute for Food Safety and Security. The food industry and regulators can and should work harder to improve the safety record, said Dickson, but bacterial outbreaks are not the result of an industry that does not care. "The food industry generally is making a good-faith effort to address the foodborne pathogen problem," he said. Tom Wenning, general counsel for the National Grocers Association, said the industry will take necessary steps to resolve a food safety problem when there is scientific evidence of the cause. He cited the activities of spinach and lettuce growers in California as evidence. They took steps to address water concerns after runoff from a cattle ranch was identified as a likely source of an E. coli outbreak in California spinach fields last year. That outbreak killed three people, sickened hundreds and inflicted economic losses of $37 million to $74 million, estimates have indicated. San Antonio-based H-E-B always has made food safety and quality assurance a top priority, spokeswoman Dya Campos said. It staffs a lab in San Antonio that constantly evaluates quality issues and has a quality assurance team that examines H-E-B outlets, manufacturing sites and vendors for safety. Campos would not divulge what the grocery giant spends on food safety but said "it's important for us to make sure we're on top of things." Food Safety Net Services is a San Antonio-based laboratory that has been certified to perform some of the most complex analyses arising in the food quality arena, and business has been good. Officials did not release revenue figures for the firm, which has grown over 13 years to employ 160 people out of what will be five labs when the newest one in Atlanta opens Monday. Its revenue has grown by about 38 percent a year for the past five years, including the work it does auditing the safety systems of other companies and educating employees at other companies about safety issues. Wendy Warren-Serna, Safety Net's vice president for technical services, said business is driven both by the regulatory demands of government and the industry's own need to know products are safe. But existing safeguards will not guarantee that a problem will be detected and dealt with appropriately. Halloran at the Consumers Union said the Topps recall and subsequent closure was evidence of that. The E. coli strain detected there is a recognized threat to the ground meat industry and should have been tested for earlier by either the company or the U.S. Department of Agriculture official who inspected the plant daily, she said. She said the Topps case reflects how lax the Bush administration has been in enforcing food safety regulations. The USDA, which regulates meat, poultry and processed egg products, has more resources than other regulatory agencies, but, at least in the Topps case, lacked the will to get tough about oversight, Halloran said. She and other critics would like to see a single agency responsible for food safety enforcement with broader powers than currently are provided to the 15 agencies involved in monitoring the food supply. They also call for greater staffing and more money devoted to the quality-control effort so all food products, including the growing number of imports, are examined regularly. Halloran said the existing system does not recognize that the nation's food supply is now global and increasingly dominated by mass-production techniques that can make outbreaks spread farther and faster than before. The cost of the reform effort could stretch into the hundreds of millions of dollars. But Halloran said with risks growing, the cost makes sense.