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Editor's note: Dr. Riedel sent us the letter and we published it in verbatim.
December 14, 2006
Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton
United States Senate
476 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
Phone: (202) 224-4451
General Fax: (202) 228-0282
This is an open letter:
Dear Senator Clinton:
I am a retired food microbiologist and would like to make a preliminary comment on your call for a food safety task force. For once we should get real before we start such an undertaking. I recently received my copy of the October/November copy of Food Quality (US). As always I enjoyed reading it. I was however astonished to read the following in the editorial on page 8: "Consumers have the right to take for granted that their food is safe." I have published a number of letters where I make the following observation: I can say with confidence that the food supply has not been safe in the past, is not safe at present and will most likely not be safe in the future. Those who label the food supply as safe must be using a funny definition of safe and it seems to me that they give a false sense of security to consumers. It seems to me they are also giving an implied warranty which could/should make them liable under certain conditions or could be used to question their credibility. The item below elaborates some on this. Also, if we accept that the US has 76 million cases and Canada between 11 to 13 million cases of microbial food borne disease annually then North America has as many as 89 million cases annually or 243835 cases daily - a funny definition of safe!
With reference to contamination of vegetables I recently made the following observation: The authors are clearly out to lunch when they write: "that the (microbial) risks associated with fresh produce have only been recognized in the past decade". Let me provide some evidence: "Melick mentioned a number of instances where vegetables have caused disease" (1917. J. Infect. Dis., 21, 28). "Another outbreak occurred in Philadelphia where 18 out of 19 persons who ate water cress sandwiches became ill with typhoid fever" (1917). There are many other examples in chapter 15, Microbiology of vegetables and vegetable products, The Microbiology of Foods, F.W. Tanner, 1944, Gerrard Press, Champaign, Ill., USA. My motto has always been that one can't discover what is already recorded in text books and having studied Tanner's book while an undergraduate and teaching assistant at the University of Alberta in the late 50's to mid 60's I became distraught in the mid 70's when some of my colleagues talked bull poop about having discovered various food microbiological problems. To make sure that there would be a copy of the Tanner book I advertised with The American Society for Microbiology and got a copy. My first act when a food microbiological problem is "newly discovered" is to look at what, if anything was known before 1944. It may surprise some folks that the possibility of Salmonella being transmitted by chocolate, a current problem that has resulted in chocolate recalls in U.K. and Canada, was studied as long ago as 1915. Just like phage therapy is an old-new-again subject being rediscovered by researchers - so poop has been happening for a long time in barns and public health/regulatory offices as well as academic and industry laboratories when people don't read references more than 10 years old!
Let me further illustrate just how little progress has been made in food safety microbiology in the last 100 years:
Re: Salmonella forces Hershey to recall 25 products, Ottawa Citizen, Nov. 13, 2006, D1
Research reported in 1915 concluded that there was a possibility of disease caused by Salmonella being transmitted by infected chocolate. Thus it is clear that Salmonella in chocolate is not a new topic and is not a subject in search of new research initiatives. Information on the topic is voluminous as can be shown by performing Internet searches with the string, "Salmonella in chocolate." A search using google Scholar gave 2,420 hits - these should be mainly peer reviewed papers and include references written by Health Canada experts such as Dr. JY D'Aoust; a google search of the entire web gave 642,000 hits; while googling pages from Canada only gave 72,600 hits. It is obvious that information on the topic is widely and easily available and spokespersons on the subject should take this into consideration. Cute or evasive communication strategies will not suffice.
It is obvious from the literature that this is not the first case of Salmonella in chocolate and it will not be the last! We must stop telling North Americans that the "food supply is safe" - it is a lie as is obvious when the website of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency also declares that "public health experts estimate that there are 11 to 13 million cases of food borne illness in Canada every year" or as many as 35000 cases daily. There is some risk in almost everything we do and the risk associated with manufacture and consumption of chocolate has long been studied to death. Surely we can expect that the scientific representatives from regulatory agencies, industry and academia will deal with outbreaks, which have and will inevitably occur, honestly, professionally and effectively. In my humble opinion this has not to date been the case with the current Salmonella in chocolate outbreak. Salmonella has demonstrated a tenacious love for chocolate and the two have a long history together. While one can not and should not disregard the problem it is equally important to put the issue into proper perspective. According to my literature collection scientists have been trying to get salmonella out of chocolate for almost 100 years; however, there have been periodic outbreaks.
What I have said about Salmonella in chocolate can be largely applied to the contamination of field grown vegetables; however, getting pathogens out of vegetables is perhaps even more difficult considering that they are grown in fields where they may be subject to contamination from pathogens found in soil, irrigation water and faecal material from wild as well as domestic animals and birds as well as other contamination sources. My point is that: first, we should have an honest foundation of what we have known for a long time; second, we should not make promises that we know we can not keep; and third, we should stop telling consumers that the food supply is safe - it is a lie!
Should you or one of your representatives wish to talk to me I can be contacted as indicated below. Should your task force hold hearings I would be willing to appear to bring some reality to such proceedings that can only come from a retired microbiologist. I consider the food supply of Canada and the US essentially identical and have a great deal of respect for the US food microbiology regulatory system.
G.W. (Bill) Riedel, PhD
42 Richlin Cres.
Ottawa ON K2B 8K4
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