Friday, November 13, 2015
Goal of New Produce Safety Rules: Prevent Illness Outbreaks
By Mary Clare Jalonick
WASHINGTON – New produce safety rules from the government Friday are intended to help prevent the kind of large-scale outbreaks of foodborne illness that occurred over the past decade linked to fresh spinach, cantaloupes, cucumbers and other foods.
Under the rules, the government soon will have new oversight of the farms that grow Americans’ food. That means, for example, making sure workers are trained to wash their hands, irrigation water is monitored for harmful bacteria and animals do not leave droppings in fields.
The majority of farmers and food manufacturers already follow good safety practices, but the rules are intended to give greater focus on prevention in a system that has been largely reactive after large outbreaks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 48 million people — or 1 in 6 people in the United States — are sickened each year from foodborne diseases, and an estimated 3,000 people die.
The Obama administration has said it wants people to eat more fruits and vegetables, so it is essential to ensure produce safety.
The regulations are tailored to cover foods and growing methods that pose the greatest risk, and they target produce such as berries, melons, leafy greens and other items usually eaten raw and more prone to contamination. A farm that produces green beans that will be cooked and canned, for example, would not be regulated. There are also exemptions for smaller farms.
The Food and Drug Administration has haggled over how to write the rules since Congress approved them in 2010. The agency has tried to find a balance between food safety and regulating farms with safety measures already in place.
The rules are new territory for the agency, which has never before had such broad authority to oversee how food is grown on farms. The FDA originally proposed the produce rules in 2013, but rewrote them last year after some farmers said they would be too burdensome. The final rules largely follow that rewrite.
The rules require farmers to test irrigation water quality, regularly train workers on the best health and hygiene practices, and monitor wildlife that may intrude on growing fields, among other measures.
Compared with the original proposal, the final rule requires less stringent standards for irrigation water quality and reduces the frequency of testing, in some cases. The organic industry had expressed concerns about the rules, especially because many organic farmers use raw manure as fertilizer and try to treat irrigation water with fewer chemicals.
Advocates for food safety laws have cited the pressing need after several high-profile foodborne illness outbreaks. In 2006, E. coli in fresh spinach was linked to several deaths, including a 2-year-old. A 2011 outbreak of listeria linked to cantaloupes killed 30 people. This year, four people have died in a salmonella outbreak linked to Mexican cucumbers.
Also on Friday, the FDA released new rules to ensure the safety of food imported for the U.S. market.
These rules could help prevent against outbreaks such as the salmonella in Mexican cucumbers or cyclospora illnesses linked to Mexican cilantro. The FDA said the cilantro was grown in fields where American investigators found toilet paper and human feces.
The FDA issued separate rules aimed at food manufacturing facilities in September. The 2010 food safety law also authorized more inspections by the FDA and gave the agency additional powers to shut down facilities.
Follow Mary Clare Jalonick on Twitter: http://twitter.com/mcjalonick
Ballot proposal would divert high-speed rail money to water
By Juliet Williams
SACRAMENTO – Two well-known Republican state lawmakers submitted language Thursday for a ballot initiative that would ask California voters to redirect about $8 billion in bond money from the state’s high-speed rail project to build water storage.
Board of Equalization member George Runner and Sen. Bob Huff of San Dimas, the former Senate minority leader, said they filed language for the initiative with the attorney general’s office.
The ballot proposal would also authorize shifting $2.7 billion in unspent water bond money to water storage construction and amend the state constitution to give drinking water and irrigation priority from California’s limited water supply. Although neither Runner nor Huff are based in the central San Joaquin Valley, their ballot measure strikes themes that have been frequently sounded here.
“This initiative secures our water future by building long-overdue expansions of existing facilities and new projects to store, deliver and recycle water for our families, farms and businesses,” Huff said in a statement.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Voters in 2008 approved selling $9.9 billion in bonds for the project to link Northern and Southern California by high-speed trains, but many have now soured on it and have questioned whether it will cost the $68 billion that has been projected. Project leaders have faced criticism for its planned route, engineering proposals and insufficient federal funding dedicated to it.
Bullet-train plans are also facing legal challenges, including one from the Kings County Board of Supervisors, Hanford resident Aaron Fukuda and farmer John Tos, who allege the project violates key provisions of the 2008 bond vote, Proposition 1A. The Kings County case is due to have its next hearing in Sacramento County Superior Court on Nov. 23.
A March survey by the Public Policy Institute of California found residents were about evenly split on whether they support the rail project.
Whether the Runner-Huff initiative actually makes it to the ballot depends on how much money supporters can generate to collect signatures.
Runner said the campaign would have sufficient money to fund a robust signature-gathering campaign. He said the initiative would offer voters a “decision point” on how they want to spend state money.
“To me this is no different than a family trying to decide its own priorities. A lot of times in a family you have conflicting priorities, but you have a limited budget,” he said.
A number of other initiatives, from proposals to raise income and sales taxes to legalizing recreational marijuana, are also expected to compete for attention on the November 2016 ballot.
Contra Costa Times
El Niño still on track to deliver deluges, new report says
By Josh Richman
Bone-dry California remains on track to get a drenching this winter from the weather phenomenon known as El Niño, federal scientists said in new projections released Thursday.
The experts still believe “that this El Niño could rank among the top three strongest episodes” on record, bringing average or above-average rains to the entire state. Pacific Ocean temperatures driving the phenomenon aren’t expected to return to normal until late spring or early summer, adds the report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center and Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society.
“We expect it to remain strong through the winter,” Mike Halpert, deputy director of the Climate Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland, said Thursday.
El Niño is a disruption in the Pacific’s ocean temperatures and weather patterns over the Pacific.
“This is about 7 or 8 million square miles of overheated ocean directly south of us. That’s about two and a half times the size of the continental United States,” said Bill Patzert, a research scientist and oceanographer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. “And that very, very large pool of warm water is pumping tremendous energy into the overlying atmosphere and changing all the pieces on the weatherboard across the planet.
“If you’re doing long-range forecasting, in your career this is as close as you’ll ever get to a sure thing,” Patzert said. “It’s totally unanimous now: This thing is a monster and it’s here, so fasten your seat belt.”
Seasonal outlooks will be updated next week, Halpert said, and “my guess is that we still will give the best chance to see a wet winter in the southern part of the state, but we will probably still favor a wetter-than-average winter in the northern part.”
That’s important because most of California’s big reservoirs are in the state’s northern half, and they remain at only a fraction of their normal levels after four years of devastating drought.
For example, Lake Shasta is at half its historic average for this time of year; Lake Oroville is at 46 percent; Trinity Lake is at 31 percent; Folsom Lake is at 29 percent; and the New Melones Reservoir in the foothills near Jamestown is at 20 percent.
The rain the Golden State has seen since Oct. 1 has put a few Bay Area locales — including San Jose, Mountain View and Livermore — ahead of their normal precipitation levels while most of the region remains behind. Elsewhere around California, cities such as Salinas, Stockton, Fresno, Modesto and San Diego are ahead of normal for the past six weeks, while the Los Angeles area remains behind.
The Sierra Nevada’s snowpack, melt-off from which provides nearly a third of the state’s water, fell this year to its lowest level in at least 500 years, according to a study published in September by Nature Climate Change, a peer-reviewed British journal.
That’s just starting to change. Moderate to heavy precipitation fell recently in the mountains, and now the “snowpack is well above normal for this time of year in the Sierra Nevada and parts of Nevada where drought has seemed intractable,” according to a U.S. Drought Monitor report issued Thursday. But “areas where drought was more entrenched will need abundant precipitation to continue much farther into the wet season before any notable improvement could evolve,” the report added.
The recent rain and snow was due to a storm looping down from the Gulf of Alaska. So El Niño has yet to truly rear its head in California, and Halpert said the state should be careful what it wishes for.
“I do have some concerns that if we see the types of extremes we saw in ’97-’98 and ’82-’83. …there’s going to be a downside to it as well,” he said — and that means flooding, landslides and other weather-related chaos. “The rain probably won’t all fall gently enough to refill the reservoirs without causing some havoc.”
Josh Richman covers politics. Follow him at Twitter.com/Josh_Richman. Read the Political Blotter at IBAbuzz.com/politics, firstname.lastname@example.org
San Jose Mercury News
Delta purchase is a Metropolitan Water District water grab
For the better part of the past century, the primary interest of Southern California’s mammoth Metropolitan Water District has been to secure water from whatever source possible to satisfy the region’s thirst for growth.
It boggles the mind that Metropolitan Water general manager Jeff Kightlinger thinks anyone will believe him when he said last week the agency’s interest in purchasing four Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta islands is because it is “intrigued with the potential environmental benefits.”
It’s a $200 million water grab, pure and simple, aimed at jump-starting the controversial Delta tunnels project to send as much water as possible from the Delta to 19 million people in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino San Diego and Ventura counties.
There’s little that can be done to prevent Metropolitan Water from buying the 20,000 acres of land on four islands in San Joaquin and Contra Costa counties from a private company, Delta Wetlands. But Northern Californians should demand a public vote before the state moves forward with the massive $15 billion, 35-mile-long, twin-tunnel project. As crazy as it sounds, water districts across the state, including Metropolitan and Santa Clara Valley Water District, can approve the funding of the project without asking California voters, or even their ratepayers.
The Contra Costa Water District, East Bay Municipal Utility District and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission have all decided they want nothing to do with participating in the twin-tunnel funding.
The four islands include Bouldin Island, Bacon Island, Holland Tract and Webb Tract. It’s no coincidence that Bouldin and Bacon islands are located on land smack in the middle of Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed tunnel project, which is specifically designed to send water from the Sacramento River to Central Valley farms and Southern California cities.
Metropolitan Water general manager Kightlinger is right when he says that converting the islands to wetlands and wildlife habitat would have environmental benefits. But the only way to improve the health of the Delta is to pour more water, not less, through the largest estuary west of the Mississippi River.
Every serious scientific study of the Delta shows that its health is continuing to deteriorate for the simple reason that too much water is being drawn from the estuary. State biologists acknowledged this spring that the Delta smelt, the canary in the coal mine for the Delta, is almost extinct, and salmon runs were horrific this year because of the lack of sufficient cold water to keep them healthy.
California need to search harder for a more secure water source. Tapping the Delta with the ill-conceived twin-tunnel plan isn’t the answer.
Citrus industry will ‘buy time’ until researchers can halt devastating, insect-borne disease
By John Cox
The fate of Kern County’s $900 million-a-year citrus industry may come down to whether costly and potentially controversial efforts will stave off a tiny, winged pest long enough for researchers to find a cure for the devastating disease it has already carried from Florida to Southern California.
Among the touchier existing measures proposed for wider deployment in residental areas are the use of strong pesticides and removal of backyard citrus trees.
Local growers sounded alarms Thursday at an informational meeting focused on a variety of measures for containing the Asian citrus psyllid’s southeasterly march through Bakersfield toward some of Kern’s biggest commercial production areas.
“Basically, the whole strategy right now is to try to buy time,” grower Steve Murray said, echoing the statements of other growers in attendance.
The battle involves not only careful compliance with local quarantines, including the one now comprising virtually all of Bakersfield, but also a veritable arsenal of pesticides ranging from mild to harsh. In Los Angeles County, authorities have even deployed parasitic wasps that feed on the psyllid.
A researcher at the University of California, Riverside, Beth Grafton-Cardwell, detailed the efficacy of various chemicals in use to control or, depending on conditions, attempt to eradicate the pest.
Some of these treatments could become the subject of conflict. While the citrus grower community has supported various efforts being used to fight the psyllid, she said, there is a chance of “public outcry” based partly on environmental concerns.
Despite that risk, Grafton-Cardwell said the pesticides are “essential if we are to stop the disease from spreading.”
She showed photos and spoke of damage caused by the bacterial disease known as Huanglongbing: asymmetric and bitter fruit, gradual defoliation and, within about five years of a tree contracting the ailment, certain death.
Huanglongbing has not been found in California north of Los Angeles County. But the mottled-brown psyllid has recently been identified in many locations in Kern, triggering expansion of quarantines that have imposed special spraying regimens, trapping and fruit transportation restrictions in areas including Bakersfield, Taft and Wasco.
County Agricultural Commissioner Ruben Arroyo said the meeting was a response to growers asking how they can help fight the pest. He said the event was also a proactive step to protect Kern’s more than 64,000 citrus-bearing acres, about 3,500 of which are affected by the quarantine.
Among those hit hardest are nurseries supplying trees to commercial growers and retailers.
Gary Moles, general manager of Edison’s Willits & Newcomb nursery, said compliance with the quarantine has been expensive. Last year his company spent half a million dollars on a greenhouse to shelter half an acre’s worth of citrus trees because of the pest, he said, adding, ”it’s no longer business as usual.“
The cooperation of homeowners may be vital, not only in helping trap the pests and allowing spraying on their property but also abiding by quarantines’ limitations on transportation of fruit.
Authorities estimate about 60 percent of California’s citrus trees live in residential areas. If the disease turns up in backyards, that could require removing whole trees.
”This disease has the potential to change the landscape of California,“ said Grafton-Cardwell, the UC Riverside researcher.
She touched on some of the finer points of anti-psyllid strategy. Pointing to a map of the different quarantines in Southern and Central California, she cautioned against establishing one big quarantine, saying it would permit movement of infected citrus material from one end to another, which could spread the disease from L.A. County directly to Kern.
Dan Dreyer, a northern Tulare representative of the industry-funded Citrus Pest & Disease Prevention Program, said he shares the view that Huanglongbing’s arrival in Kern is inevitable. Asked whether measures in place are adequate, he said, ”it’s a start.“
”We have some great tools in place,“ he said. ”We just need to continue to emphasize the importance of preventing the movement of psyllids on people and equipment.“
Consumers Behind Accelerated Shift to Cage-Free Eggs in US
By David Pitt
WAUKON, Iowa – Alert and curious, hundreds of hens with bright red crowns and faces strolled out of a large chicken house midmorning into the fresh air and a fenced pasture amid rolling fields of alfalfa, clover, corn and soybeans. They cluck and coo, peck and scratch at the ground.
“They’re obviously much more comfortable without cages,” Iowa organic farmer Francis Blake said of his flock of 5,000 hens, which live a cage-free life.
This existence, by all appearances a chicken nirvana, is what animal rights groups have sought for years and increasingly what consumers want. Already, large chains like McDonald’s, Starbucks, Costco, and, most recently, Panera Bread have begun requiring suppliers to go cage-free over the next decade.
The $10 billion egg industry in care of 270 million hens that lay eggs for food is in the process of figuring out how to overhaul a deeply entrenched, profitable model of raising chickens in cages smaller than an 8 ½-by-11-inch sheet of paper, despite decades of successful growth. Yet, it’s not completely clear what’s best for the chickens themselves — animals that, when uncaged but still cooped up, can be aggressive and sometimes prone to cannibalism or injuring themselves.
It’s one of the largest-scale examples of agribusiness adapting to consumers’ growing sensitivities and anxieties over how their food is treated before it is on their plates and in their stomachs, following other modifications like the dairy industry ending the practice of removing calves’ and cows’ tails and some states banning restrictive gestation crates for female pigs.
“The change is humongous,” said Marcus Rust, CEO of Rose Acre Farms, the nation’s second-largest egg producer that’s building all of its new barns to be cage-free. “When it comes to pure perception you’re never going to convince the general public that we shouldn’t treat our chickens the same way they treat their pets.”
Cage-free doesn’t always equate to problem-free living for chickens, research has shown, and it doesn’t mean free-range. In contrast with federal organic regulations that say cage-free chickens must have outdoor access, commercial cage-free operations keep thousands of hens inside a barn with no outdoor access, which can lead to a death match when chickens try to fly and smash into either one another or barn fixtures. Plus, farmers get up to 10 percent fewer eggs and significantly higher production costs when the hens are freed of the cages.
No matter, the top U.S. egg suppliers — Rose Acre Farms, Mississippi-based Cal-Maine Foods and Iowa-based Rembrandt Foods — are gradually moving to cage-free equipment over the next decade or so, replacing equipment as it wears out or building new barns.
The official egg industry position is that a variety of chicken-housing systems will be used so that consumers have choice of the type of eggs they want to buy, be it cage-free and organic eggs that can cost around $4 a dozen or a dozen caged eggs for about $2.
But with food giants like Nestle and McDonald’s, which serves more than 2 billion eggs a year, committing to full or increased cage-free usage and consumers increasingly buying eggs that come from chickens who’ve had a taste of liberty, millions more birds are being turned loose. As of October, nearly 24 million egg-laying hens were free of cages, twice the number in 2009.
“Nobody’s installing traditional cages anymore,” said Joy Mench, an animal science professor at the University of California.
Earlier this year, researchers at her university published a side-by-side comparison study of different housing systems. They found cage-free barns lost 13 percent of the hens, while caged systems had a 5 percent mortality rate. More chickens suffer from fractured breast bones when attempting to fly inside barns, and cannibalism increases among some breeds in crowded cage-free hen houses, Mench said.
The study also noted that cage-free chickens also produced between 5 percent and 10 percent fewer eggs and that farmers’ operating costs were 23 percent higher.
“My concern right now is how we deal with the problems we have with cage-free systems,” she said, adding that research needs to needs to focus on redesigning the barns.
Rust’s company, based in Indiana, decided a year ago that all of its new barns will be cage-free even though they cost two to three times more to build and are more expensive to operate. The reason: There’s still more profit in cage-free eggs because consumers are willing to pay more.
“Farmers were the first capitalists,” Rust said. “If they can make more money selling cage-free, free-range or organic that’s what they’re going to do.”
Follow David Pitt on Twitter at —https://twitter.com/davepitt