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What Poisoned Pomegranates Tell Us About Food Safety

Aug 1, 2013
Originally published on August 1, 2013 5:48 pm

Imported food is getting the kind of attention these days that no product wants. Health officials in Iowa and Nebraska are blaming salad greens for making hundreds of people sick with a parasite called cyclospora. That parasite usually comes from the tropics, so it's likely the salad did, too. Earlier this summer, pomegranate seeds from Turkey were linked to an outbreak of hepatitis A.

Last week, the Food and Drug Administration announced a plan to prevent such problems. Michael Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods, said that the hepatitis outbreak showed exactly why new rules are needed. "That sort of incident is exactly the sort of problem that this new system is intended to address," he said.

But the case of the poisoned pomegranates actually teaches a more complicated lesson: That safety systems, however helpful, are not foolproof.

The outbreak began in the spring and mainly affected consumers in Western states. Michael Walters, who lives in Foxfield, Colo., first felt symptoms while visiting Yellowstone in late May.

Walters had been on a health kick. He was eating superfoods: smoothies made from spinach, kale and avocado. To add a bit of sweetness, he added some frozen berries — a product called Organic Antioxidant Blend — that he picked up at Costco. "I was really loading up on what I thought were very healthy, natural kinds of foods," he says.

The disease hit with a feeling of overwhelming fatigue. Walters didn't know it yet, but more than 100 other people were getting it, too. And investigators found a link between them. They'd all bought that frozen berry mix.

Costco recalled the product. Walters' daughter saw the warning on the Internet and called her sick father. "We went online to the Costco website. They had a picture of the product," recalls Walters. "We went to our freezer. There was the bag!"

Walters ended up in the hospital for four days. Today, two months later, he's still trying to get his strength back.

In that bag of frozen berries, only one thing came from a part of the world where you find this strain of hepatitis A: pomegranate seeds from Turkey.

So how will the FDA's new rules try to prevent this sort of thing? FDA officials describe their proposal as a fundamental shift in approach. Instead of just trying to catch contaminated food at the border, they'll require safety checks throughout the supply chain, all the way back to the fields and orchards overseas.

If the rules go into effect, U.S. companies that import food will be legally required to show proof that their foreign suppliers are operating just as safely as suppliers in the U.S. "It really boils down to expecting our importers to know their supplier, to know the food and its potential hazards, and to verify that preventive steps had been taken to minimize those hazards," says the FDA's Taylor.

But here's the twist in the pomegranate story: The companies that imported the pomegranates apparently were doing exactly this already.

Costco requires that its suppliers are audited for safety by outside experts. So does Townsend Farms, the Oregon company that actually packed the berry mix. And the Turkish processing plant that handled these pomegranates was following the rules of an international code of safety called GMA-SAFE.

Les Bourquin, a professor of food science at Michigan State University, has encountered GMA-SAFE frequently while working with food companies in foreign countries, helping them to develop food safety systems. He says that this certification generally satisfies the FDA's demands. "It may not hit all the points of the new requirements, but it would be close," he says.

Bourquin says we don't know yet exactly how this contamination happened — whether the safety rules weren't good enough or whether somebody broke the rules.

But it's a reminder that it's really hard to guarantee safety in a system that stretches from pomegranate orchards in Turkey to your local grocery store. "Failures do occur, even in good companies that are doing a very good job," he says.

Still, Bourquin says, the FDA's proposed rules will have a big impact, especially on companies that have not been insisting on safety audits at their foreign suppliers. "There are companies that don't do this," he says. The FDA rules "will make some companies take it much more seriously." Even companies that are carrying out safety audits and testing, Bourquin says, like the plant in Turkey, can always find ways to do it even better.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

The next story is about pomegranates and how they relate to a new plan from the Food and Drug Administration. Earlier this summer, pomegranate seeds from Turkey were linked to an outbreak of hepatitis A. The FDA is trying to avoid such outbreaks by strengthening its safety standards for imported foods.

NPR's Dan Charles has been looking into whether the FDA's plan could have prevented the poisonous pomegranate.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Michael Walters in Foxfield, Colorado, was on a health kick earlier this year. He was eating super foods: smoothies made from spinach, kale and avocado. Also, organic antioxidant blend: frozen berries from Costco.

MICHAEL WALTERS: I was really loading up on what I thought were very healthy, natural kinds of foods.

CHARLES: Then in late May, he suddenly started feeling really weak, overwhelmingly fatigued. He was coming down with a disease you don't find much in the U.S.: hepatitis A. He didn't know it yet, but other people were getting it, too, more than 100 of them across the country. And investigators found a link between them. They'd all bought that frozen berry mix.

Costco recalled the product. Mike Walters' daughter saw the warning and called her sick father.

WALTERS: We went online to the Costco website. They had a picture of the bag. We went to our freezer. There was the bag.

CHARLES: Walters ended up in the hospital for four days. Today, two months later, he's still trying to get his strength back.

Now, in that berry mix, only one thing came from a part of the world where you find this strain of hepatitis A: pomegranate seeds from Turkey. Last week, the Food and Drug Administration proposed its new rules to improve the safety of imported food. And when it announced the rules via teleconference, the FDA's deputy commissioner for food, Michael Taylor, said this outbreak of hepatitis shows why the rules are necessary.

MICHAEL TAYLOR: That sort of incident is exactly the kind of problem that this new system is intended to address.

CHARLES: FDA officials describe their proposed rules as a fundamental shift in approach. Instead of just trying to catch contaminated food at the border, they'll require safety checks throughout the supply chain, all the way back to foreign fields and orchards, in this case, in Turkey.

If the rules go into effect, U.S. companies that import food will be legally required to show proof that their foreign suppliers are operating just as safely as suppliers in the U.S.

TAYLOR: It really boils down to expecting our importers to know their supplier, to know the food and its potential hazards that they're bringing into the country and to verify that preventive steps had been taken to minimize those hazards.

CHARLES: But even these new rules probably cannot guarantee safety. For instance, the companies that imported the pomegranates, apparently, were already doing what the FDA wants. Costco requires that its suppliers are audited for safety by outside experts. So does the company that actually packed the berry mix, Townsend Farms in Oregon. The Turkish processing plant that handles these pomegranates was following the rules of an international code of safety called GMA-SAFE.

LES BOURQUIN: GMA-SAFE is a standard that I've seen commonly used in the industry.

CHARLES: Les Bourquin is a professor of Food Science at Michigan State University. He's an expert on food safety, and he's worked a lot with food companies in foreign countries. He says this GMA-SAFE certification pretty much satisfies the FDA's demands.

BOURQUIN: It may not hit all the points of the new requirements, but it would certainly be close.

CHARLES: Bourquin says we don't know yet exactly how this contamination happened, whether the safety rules weren't good enough or whether somebody broke the rules. But it's a reminder that it's really hard to guarantee safety in a system that stretches from pomegranate orchards in Turkey to your local grocery store.

BOURQUIN: Failures do occur, even in good companies that are doing very good jobs.

CHARLES: Still, he says the FDA's proposed rules will have a big impact, especially on companies that have not been insisting on safety audits at their foreign suppliers.

BOURQUIN: It'll make some companies certainly take it much more seriously. There are companies who don't do this.

CHARLES: And even the companies that are doing it, he says, like the plant in Turkey, they can always find ways to do it even better.

BLOCK: Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.