No more botulin in olives, please

Preserved olives (“Organic Olives Stuffed with Almonds”) made in Italy have apparently caused a tragic death in Finland, because of botulism. They are being recalled across Europe (in the UK, in Ireland).

At the time of writing, I firmly hope that there is no further exposure to the product, no further illness, and that a totally preventable death does at least help stave off pain from other lives and families.

The tragic event relates to some lines of reflection relevant to our current research and consulting work.

First, one will note that the recall (which concerns currently all batches of the product) is now clearly mentioned on the firm`s website. Starting on October 28, the news had some traction in Italy too. Informing the public of own recalls through their own websites is considered best practice, though only a minority of companies appear to do so on either side of the Atlantic; apparently, on that day the company sent a Press Release to Italy’s leading news agency, ANSA.

Italian authorities, who are certainly taking action in the field, have also been silent about the issue, including whether the same product is distributed locally (it turns out it is), till today, October 31 (the Ministry of Health seems to confirm that the olives were on sale in Italy too, and that the plant has been shut down). Normally Italian authorities go public when botulism is suspected, unlike when other foodborne disease is (Listeriosis, Salmonellosis, etc), or when there is no illness. Italian authorities generally believe that they are capable of controlling risks, and that information to consumers would not reduce the risk to consumers but would result in undue alarmism, with unwarranted losses to the relevant food sector. This is in line with the attitude in Germany and other EU countries, and contrasts sharply with the US/UK approach, though in principle the UK has the same regulatory system (a lay-man reading of the EU General Food Safety Law would support UK`s practice). However, botulism is an exception, and in this case there was lots of media pressure, and a tragic death to confirm the need to go public.

Generally, however, even beyond botulism, we expect more food recalls to be publicized in Italy and other previously shy EU countries, because of several reasons.

Consumers are becoming used to nonfood recalls (for example, those of IKEA are common place), even if they see very few food-related ones. Moreover, when a food recall has in fact been made public and there were no illnesses, the media impact has been nihil or benign. Therefore, the brand damage of issuing a press release in case of a recall can now be estimated with some confidence. The cost of not going public early, on the other hand, is also becoming clearer: consumers are coming to expect public recalls as part of a company`s social responsibility. In this case, the delay has further tarnished, or probably killed, the brand reputation – when the issue was clearly too large to remain silent.

There also seems to be more willingness of international companies to apply best practice across the EU, even against national norms. Carrefour went recently public with a recall.

Also, some online media blogs and magazines are increasing their attention to this topic, and put pressure on firms (and authorities).

Leaving communication aside, organic, or home-made style, preserved olives have caused recurring botulism problems in Italy and elsewhere. This is striking. We have understood botulism for almost two centuries, and there is is strong food technology to keep the toxins out of our food. Preserving food requires knowledge, process and controls: food safety is not a malicious invention of multinational funded, greedy, positivist tradition haters. Most organic or home-made style food businesses may accept the anti-science rhetoric, but refrain from practicing it. Nevertheless, a few, smaller ones may not realize the need for skilled staff; more do not realize that validation of processes is not auditors`latest oddity. How much this applies to the present case it is early to say, though we know for sure that botulin should not have been there, and that the technology to prevent it is available.

In this respect, the organic food industry should be bold, and use its means, without excuses, to rid us of the hazards, least this tarnishes the organic brand (through certification they have strong tools). There is certainly a place for auditors, and official control staff to just say no when preserving can`t be done properly.

In summary, we advise to review recall plans under the communication header and make sure not to make, or stop making, preserved foods (my steadfast advice to all agriturismi is not to do it) or, if you do, that you can make it properly (for every recipe).

And let`s hope nobody hears, or dies, of botulism and olives again.

Luca Bucchini, Managing Director

Update:  on Nov 1st, the FDA made the recall (which is of a voluntary nature) public.

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Food firms on the continent should prepare for the nutrition information challenge

Having just returned from the UK and having stopped at McDonald’s to enjoy their free WiFi, I was greatly helped in making my food choices by energy content information displayed along the product list. They have chosen the more common kilocalories over more rigorous kJ, which also was helpful. Regardless of choices available in my energy target for lunch, I found the numbers very useful for eventually picking a grilled chicken salad.

What struck me is that, in Italy, there is no such information on display. As in the UK, at local McDonald’s, they have clear and complete nutrition facts on the back of the paper that covers your tray, but consumers have access to the information only after buying the product. I also dined in a small, independent restaurant (Valerie’s), and they also had energy content in their menu (other places did not: it is clearly voluntary).

I am not singling out the fast food chain; they are just following the national norm. Rather, it is interesting that the nutrition societal debate in the UK prompts caterers to provide that information, and that, bar very few exceptions (e.g., Wok at the Rome Termini Station does have it, if I am not mistaken, though their website is oddly silent), the nutrition culture climate in Italy does not have the same effect.

My point is that, though we have a great dietary culture, Italy is doing too little on nutrition and nutrition information. Some companies are rather active, but the nutrition culture is still lagging behind what is clearly an ever stronger need. I am not advocating specific solutions here, but calling for awareness.

Indeed, food companies, large and small, should be aware of the nutrition challenge which the obesity epidemic has generated, and, if smart, anticipate and find opportunities in the cultural shift that will eventually reach the Peninsula as well.

Based on recent experience, the same advice applies to Central Europe as well, including Germany and Belgium.

On our part, we, as consultants, need to be ready to provide the correct regulatory and technical advice; luckily, there starts to be enough regulation, and science, to give meaningful and robust suggestions.

– Luca Bucchini, Managing Director –

PS: I am not associated with any of the above businesses in any working capacity.

Plant food supplements market show increased sales in the US

An improved risk- benefit assessment of plant food supplements, as investigated in the project  PlantLIBRA (this part of the work is led by Hylobates and Dr. Antonella Guzzon as work package leader), is motivated not only by the needs of better science and regulation in this sector, but also by the clear sales increases worldwide. In 2010, for example, the plant food supplement, or with US terminology herbal dietary supplement (DS),  market in the USA increased by an estimated 3.3 percent in all channels of retail trade, as reported in the HerbalGram Herb Market Report of the American Botanical Council.

The robust growth in the herb market seen in recent years reflects the increasing consumer interest in good nutrition and natural lifestyles. The report discusses this growth and the complexity of doing total sales analysis of this segment. For instance, the degree of increase depends widely on the source of the sales information and the data collection parameters (inclusion of combination herbal dietary supplements with primary ingredients, for example). Sales growth data analysis from the Mainstream Food, Drug, and Mass Market (FDM) channel (drugstores, grocery stores, mass market retailers, et al., but not including Wal-Mart) is lower as when buyers’ clubs and convenience stores, including Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, Costco, et al. are also considered in the FDM channel.

The report includes the 20-top- selling herbal dietary supplements in the Food, Drug, and Mass Market (FDM) channel in the United States in 2010. According to the authors, the list shows the trend of consumer interest in many relatively well known herbs due to a growing body of scientific and clinical research conducted on them. These include, as noted in order of ranking: cranberry, saw palmetto, garlic, ginkgo, echinacea, milk thistle, black cohosh, Asian ginseng, green tea, etc.

This ranking (see table below) also shows several plants that are investigated within PlantLIBRA´s different research groups, and reflect as well some trends in the European plant food supplement market.

– Alejandro Rodarte  –


Plant Food Supplement science and regulation meet up in Brussels

Regulators from 19 European countries, from China and the USA, debated with PlantLIBRA’s (PLANT food supplements: Levels of Intake, Benefit and Risk Assessment) project partners on outcomes and strategies to tackle  priorities in the science of  plant food supplements. The discussions took place during PlantLIBRA’s first Policy Advisory Board (PAB) meeting held last 27th and 28th  of September in Brussels. Francesco Carlucci of the EC Directorate General for Health and Consumers, who attended the meeting, expressed that the DG Health and Consumers is following the research project with interest and that discussions within the Directorate are ongoing on health claims on botanicals. PlantLIBRA is investigating the benefits of botanicals.

Another of the project’s outcomes, a meta-database being developed for plant food supplements, was presented and raised great interest among participants. PAB chairman Mr Joris Geelen of Belgium’s Federal Public Service (FPS) noted the database’s value for experts and policy makers dealing with quality assurance and assessment of risks and benefits of plant food supplements. Furthermore, the board’s members asked for clearer guidelines to interpret scientific evidence on botanicals. Catherine Ecclestone from the EC’s Research Directorate also participated in the meeting.

With this fruitful exchange, PlantLIBRA researchers continue progress to facilitate science-based decision-making in the area of plant food supplements in the interest of consumers. The event was hosted by Belgium’s FPS, and organized in cooperation with the European Botanical Forum, the international food consultancy EAS and Hylobates Consulting, who are partners of the PlantLIBRA’s project.

 

PlantLIBRA (acronym of PLANT food supplements: Levels of Intake, Benefit and Risk Assessment) is a project co-financed in the context of the 7th EU Framework Program. For more information on the project and plant food supplements, please visit http://www.plantlibra.eu/web/

 

– The PlantLIBRA Management Team-

Hylo and PlantLIBRA partners present proposal of risk-benefit approach for plant in food supplements

Hylobates scientist Dr. Antonella Guzzon presented the proposal of risk-benefit approach for plant in food supplements during PlantLIBRA’s first Policy Advisory Board (PAB) meeting in Brussels from the 27th to the 28th of September.  In this event, project partners discussed with policy regulators on the approaches to facilitate science-based decision-making in this area. Dr. Guzzon presented the approach in progress which, based on existing approaches for risk- benefit assessment, proposes to develop a framework for assessing the strength, consistency and biological plausibility of the evidence of the benefits and risks plant food supplements. Within this framework, to each kind of evidence (in vivo evidence, tradition of use, animal and human evidence) related to a specific claimed effect for a certain plant food supplement a category (from convincing evidence to insufficient) would be as attributed.  This should enable the risk assessor to make a statement on the result of the risk-benefit assessment, i.e. whether risks or benefits are dominating, explained Dr. Guzzon. Additionally, the model considers prior beliefs on the existing scientific knowledge on the botanical and how new studies and data can change those prior beliefs. Finally, in order to make the process transparent, all these steps will clearly described, In this sense an open web source accessible to everybody and therefore exposed to open criticism, will be used to develop the model for risk-benefit assessment of plant food supplements.

  The PlantLIBRA Management Team

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