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The Salmonella Outbreak in Sushi: A One-Off or Something to Worry About?
by Neil Canavan
From the end of January through the end of April 2012, 435 people from 28 states and the District of Columbia were infected with Salmonella Bareilly (410 cases) or Salmonella Nchanga (15 cases); although 55 of these individuals were hospitalized, no deaths were reported. The toutbreak was traced to a frozen raw yellowfin tuna product known as Nakaochi Scrape, produced by Moon Marine USA Corporation.
Stakeholders in the food safety industry generally agreed that the scale of the outbreak was rare in the seafood industry, so rare, in fact, that it may be unclear what can be learned from this incident. “This was an anomaly,” said Doug Brinsmade, a director of business development at Sea Delight, a seafood company based in Miami. “I’ve been in the business 25 years, and I’ve never heard of a such a widespread food safety issue in seafood. This was a one-time thing.”
Brinsmade attributed this recent lapse in safety oversight to the unique market pressures created by the weather phenomenon known as “La Niña,” which greatly disrupted tuna migrations globally and stymied the efforts of associated fishing fleets. “The bottom line is that in [the first half of this year], the tuna business has been very short of product,” he noted.
To make up for the shortage, seafood distributors resorted to using “scrape” tuna—back meat that is scraped from the bones of the fish—and purchased scrape from producers who were unaccustomed to processing this kind of tuna. In this case, that company was Moon Fishery (its U.S. distributor is Moon Marine USA Corp.) based in the state of Kerala, India. “This is not a place that we normally do a lot of importing from,” Brinsmade said.
The pressure of a tuna shortage may have also exacerbated the outbreak, Brinsmade believes, by encouraging rapid distribution of the product once it was imported to the U.S. (Sea Delight did not receive any product from Moon Marine, he noted.) “One of the reasons this incident received so much attention was that so many states were affected.”
Brinsmade pointed out that once the outbreak became apparent and was traced to its source, Moon Marine reacted quickly with a national recall and destruction of 58,000 pounds of product. However, Brinsmade said that despite the rare nature of the event and the efficiency of the recall, broader damage has been done.
He pointed out that the industry at large, and Sea Delight in particular, imports from tuna-producing countries all over the world: Sri Lanka, China, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia, but thanks to industry standards set in place in the late 1990’s, concerns about broader contamination are unwarranted. He criticized the FDA’s response to this isolated incident as too overbearing.
“The FDA kind of threw the baby [out] with the bathwater,” said Brinsmade, noting that the agency is characterizing the entire seafood industry with one broad brush. “It’s one thing to go after a supply company that’s never imported this product in their life, but it’s another thing to go after importers that have been doing this for 10, 15, 20 years…. In my opinion, if the problem occurred in India, the problem is there—deal with it there. The problem is not the product, it’s not the tuna.”
“The history of Salmonella prevalence in ready-to-eat (RTE) seafood demonstrates that it is a reasonably common occurrence, and anyone sourcing such products should be aware of that fact,” said Douglas Marshall, PhD, chief scientific officer for microbiology at Eurofins Scientific, the world’s largest laboratory testing company.
Having said that, Dr. Marshall noted that outbreaks are not going to go undetected. “What has to happen is to have conditions that encourage the growth of the initial contamination so that the population levels of Salmonella grow (to exceed safety thresholds).”
“The FDA inspection report for the facility in question detailed numerous HACCP, as well as manufacturing, practice issues,” said Dr. Marshall, adding that lab results indicated a gross contamination of product. In other words, “This was not a low-level event.”
Because the FDA cited multiple violations of industry standards, Dr. Marshall said he couldn’t determine which specific safety precaution was the culprit. In fact, he said, the outbreak may have involved a combination of missteps.
Dr. Marshall offered some sage advice to help prevent future outbreaks, but he also expressed concerns about one particular issue. He said it was important for food companies to regularly consider the “pillars of food safety.”
- GMP. “It’s fun to think about all these high-tech innovations that might improve food safety, but if the manufacturers aren’t really doing the fundamentals, it won’t matter,” he added.
- Sanitation SOPs.This means codification of procedures and having records of performance of sanitation.
- HACCP. “I’ve gone in to many manufacturing facilities that have beautiful laminated HACCP plans, yet they’re not actively monitoring control points,” he noted. A robust environmental monitoring program. For the companies truly concerned with controlling pathogens, deploying a simple $40 Salmonella or Listeria food contact surface test would detect a lot of these problems before a contaminated product is released.
And the concern? “If you step further down the supply chain, I would bet that no one who handled or purchased this (tuna scrape) product did any testing at all on it,” Dr. Marshall said. “So much of what is done in the industry is based on trust, so very few people see the need to do verification. I hope that this outbreak serves as an example where verifying your suppliers would have been very beneficial in reducing the risk profile.”
And, given the global nature of the market today, Dr. Marshall encouraged importers to do a bit of homework as well. For instance, one study claimed that 52% of the seafood supply from the Kerala state in India (home to Moon Fisheries) is contaminated with Salmonella.
“So, if I am out there hunting for seafood and I have the opportunity to source some RTE from southeast India, I might want to ask the question ‘Does it make sense for me as a prudent business person to want to source product from a region that has that kind of history?’” Dr. Marshall asked.
Neil Canavan is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Reach him at email@example.com.