It Must Have Been Something We Ate: A Look at '91

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sweeping nutrition labeling revisions, new faces at major regulatory agencies and continuing contamination threats were the leading food news stories of 1991, each of which was shaded by the ever-present background of a sinking economy.

As a result of the various controversies, debates and crises, the monolithic food industry--with its agricultural, processing and retailing components--received more scrutiny in the past 12 months than ever before. And consumers were paying close attention and voting with their pocketbooks. Clearly, their guiding principle became health consciousness, bolstered by volumes of growing medical research that links proper diet to improved health.

Eggs and Salmonella

Raw, undercooked or mishandled eggs continue to be linked to incidents of Salmonella enteritidis. Efforts to solve the problem have moved from eliminating the bacteria from egg-laying flocks to educating consumers about proper egg handling. In the meantime, evidence mounts that S. enteritidis cases, confined mostly to the Northeastern United States, will continue. For instance, the CDC issued a report in February stating that the nation's largest outbreak of food poisoning in the last five years--at a Chicago hotel in 1990--was attributed to undercooked, then mishandled, eggs. California also witnessed its first two egg-related outbreaks of S. enteritidis , according to Los Angeles County health officials.

Quote of the Year

In a June speech to the National Broiler Council, Lester Crawford, administrator of the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, stunned the audience by saying: "The American people are tired of seeing one story after another about dirty chicken. They are demanding that you do something different in your process to give them the assurance you now lack. My advice to you is to do it."

Less than eight weeks later, Crawford resigned his position as chief of the nation's meat and poultry inspection programs.

New Faces

David A. Kessler became commissioner of the beleaguered U.S. Food and Drug Administration in January. Almost immediately, Kessler launched a widely publicized crackdown on misleading advertising claims connected to food products. FDA, as required by Congressional legislation, was the lead agency in an ambitious revision of food labels, establishing regulations that would bring clarity to the jumble now found on products. Kessler's activist approach alienated influential segments of the food industry and, by October, Washington observers speculated that the rookie FDA commissioner had been told by the Bush White House to lower his media profile.

An interesting contrast occurred at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which received a new secretary in March when Edward Madigan took control. One of Madigan's first actions was to postpone publication of the Eating Right Pyramid, a controversial graphic meant to replace the government-sanctioned four-food-group eating guide. Madigan said he was caught by surprise by the plans to publish the pyramid, which emphasized consumption of grains, breads and produce at the expense of dairy foods and meat. Others claim the new USDA secretary bowed to pressure from beef and milk interests, who felt that the pyramid disparaged their products. Since then, Madigan has been trying to regain the initiative by bringing in new top-level personnel and by making USDA's labeling proposals for meat and poultry products more similar to those proposed by FDA.

Recession

The nation's troubled economy took a heavy human toll this past year as a record number of people received food stamps through the federally funded assistance program for the needy. Others resorted to cost-cutting measures not seen since the economic downturn of the early 1980s. The public's lack of confidence in the future also slowed manufacturers' manic pattern of introducing new food and household products. Instead, food companies fought to improve market share for existing products.

Price Gouging

At various times throughout the year, Congress questioned whether declines in the farm price of several food commodities--beef, milk and lamb--were being passed on to consumers at the supermarket level. Nothing definitive was determined, and trade groups said that it traditionally takes time for the price reductions at the farm to work their way through the system.

Cantaloupe as Contaminant

A widespread outbreak of salmonella poisoning that was traced to sliced, cut Texas cantaloupe sold in salad bars went virtually unnoticed when it struck in late June and early July. However, when the Centers for Disease Control released a report on the incident several weeks later, the issue was suddenly reignited, and it seriously hurt sales of California cantaloupe, which had not been implicated in the earlier outbreak. The real issue, however, was that in the aftermath of the Texas outbreak, FDA reclassified cut cantaloupe as a "potentially dangerous food," joining the ranks of raw, uncooked animal products such as meat, poultry and eggs. The designation means that grocers and restaurateurs must handle the melons under special guidelines established to limit bacterial growth in foods known to harbor harmful organisms. Health officials speculate that the cantaloupe fields were irrigated with contaminated water. The fruit then carried the bacteria on its porous skin and came in contact with the edible flesh when it was peeled and cut. Left unrefrigerated on salad bars, the bacteria was left to multiply under ideal growing conditions.

Seafood's Troubled Waters

Stepping into the void created when Congress failed to enact a comprehensive seafood inspection program in 1990, the FDA in March unilaterally created its own Office of Seafood, which will be the federal government's center for efforts to ensure a safe and wholesome supply of fish and shellfish. The FDA initiative came after a number of reports that contaminated seafood was reaching consumers. For instance, in February, laboratory analyses conducted for The Times showed that locally purchased fish contained illegal levels of mercury and extraordinarily high filth levels. Residues of DDT, a chemical banned from use in this country more than 20 years ago, were also found in some samples of freshwater fish.

California health officials issued an emergency regulation stating that all retail outlets selling Gulf of Mexico oysters post warning signs because of the presence of Vibrio vulnificus , a potentially fatal contaminant. A joint study by FDA and CDC estimated that one out of every 1,000 people who consume raw or undercooked molluskan shellfish--oysters, clams or mussels--may become ill, some seriously. (The risk of infection from cooked chicken is one out of every 25,000 servings.) Findings such as these prompted a Washington-based consumer group to call for warning labels everywhere molluskan shellfish are sold.

Lead in Wine

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms released the long-anticipated results of its analyses of imported and domestic wine for lead content. More than 600 wines were found to contain lead, some at potentially dangerous levels for high-risk groups. The toxic heavy metal is believed to leach into the wine from the foil capsules traditionally wrapped around the necks of cork-sealed wine bottles. After release of the study, the FDA announced an interim regulation that wines must contain less than 300 parts per billion of lead in order to be sold in this country. Virtually all domestic wines already qualify under the new standard. The state of California also got involved in the issue when the attorney general's office negotiated a settlement with the wine industry over provisions in Proposition 65 that require disclosure of hazardous chemicals. The industry agreed to fund a $900,000 educational campaign urging consumers and servers to wipe bottle tops before pouring; ads for the program have already appeared in newspapers. The domestic industry is now required to discontinue use of lead foil caps, and imported wineries must eliminate the closures by March 31.

Cholera

A massive outbreak gripped parts of South America--principally Peru, Ecuador and Colombia--for much of the year. More than 250,000 illnesses were reported. The debilitating infection forced U.S. officials to begin monitoring food exports from the region for possible contamination. As expected, cholera spread through Central America and into Mexico, which ships huge amounts of fresh food to this country. Again, the FDA had to step up its laboratory testing of Mexican imports to monitor for the potential presence of the cholera bacteria. The outbreak is believed to be spreading again, and U.S. inspections will need to be continued into 1992 as a result. In an unrelated matter, the FDA discovered the presence of cholera bacteria in an oyster harvested from Alabama's Gulf Coast. The area was then closed to commercial and sport fishing.

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