Opinion

This time we’ve been living through reminds me of when I first started going to the movies. A simple technique they often used back then was to start with a blur on the screen that soon became a nice sharp image.

That blur we’ve experienced during these pandemic days also, with time, becomes a  sharp image. Now our focus is improving. It’s become good enough to take a peek around the corner at important events involving food safety that will likely come together in 2022. 

The setup for what will happen next year was attorney Bill Marler’s recent decision on his petition to declare 31 strains of Salmonella as adulterants in meat. He’s giving USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) another 180 days to approve the petition, or he’ll sue.

The Seattle attorney, the publisher of Food Safety News, represents salmonella victims and consumers with Rick Schiller, Steve Romes, the Porter Family, Food and Water Watch, the Consumers Federation of America, and Consumer Reports as plaintiffs in the Salmonella action.

Stop Foodborne Illness, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention also endorse the Marler petition.

Marler’s deadline for FSIS is in mid-2022, and anything can happen. The FSIS is on record saying it wants to work with both the Marler petition and CSPI’s more narrow approach that targets salmonella strains that cause the most illness.

At this point, the meat industry, as represented by the North American Meat Institute, opposes the declaration of any Salmonella strains as adulterated. It gets along just fine with the seven E. coli strains that are adulterants in meat.

In our next peek around the corner, there is the newly formed coalition that wants to reach a modernized, science-based approach” to reducing salmonella and campylobacter illnesses in poultry production.

Four top poultry producers — Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms, Butterball, and Wayne Farms — have joined the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and others to compel the USDA to update and improve outdated food standards and protocols for poultry.

The new coalition brings the four poultry producers together with CSPI, Consumer Reports, Consumer Federation of American, and Stop Foodborne Illness to revamp the poultry food safety system.

In 2022, we will see if the newly-formed coalition can accomplish these game-changing approaches to Salmonella and campylobacter. 

Currently, that contamination sickens about 3 million people annually in the United States and costs about $6 billion a year. Those levels have not improved in 20 years.

USDA has failed to reduce those illness rates from these two pathogens after setting Healthy People 2020 goals targets, and it is supposed to try again for 2030.

This emerging coalition will need the full support of Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Under Secretary for Food Safety Emilio Esteban, and Deputy Under Secretary Sandra Eskin. President Biden nominated Esteban on Nov. 15, but his confirmation remains pending before the Senate Agriculture Committee.

The key player might be Eskin, because of her experience with stakeholder groups during her time as food safety project director for The Pew Charitable Trusts.

But the entire coalition is likely to make news in 2022.

The big court case of 2022 will see former Blue Bell President Paul Kruse go before a jury trial for conspiracy and fraud related to the deadly 2015 listeriosis outbreak.

Slated to start March 14 in Austin, TX, the Kruse trial is the most significant trial involving food safety since the 2014 criminal trial of peanut industry executives.

Peanut Corporation of America produced largely genetic peanut butter and peanut paste products. Blue Bell ice cream is at times, the second most popular ice cream in the United States and nowhere more prevalent than Blue Bell ice cream in Texas, from where the jury will be selected beginning on March 14.

It’s all but certain to be a dramatic trial.  During the next 100 days, the pre-trial maneuvers will begin to reveal the prosecution and defense strategies that will be used. This one will be much more in focus just before trial.

Marler sues USDA, an industry-consumer coalition plans to reform U.S. poultry production, and the federal government takes a top food industry executive to  a jury trial on felony charges — all likely to be among top food safety stories for 2022.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)

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