Monthly Archives: February 2016

Can You Believe Front of Package Claims?

Have you ever wondered what exactly “natural” on a food label means? Not only food technologists, but other consumers have wondered as well. In response to questions by consumers, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has decided to explore the use of the term “natural.” The agency is asking the public to provide information and comments on the use of this term in the labeling of human food products.

The FDA is taking this action in part because it received three Citizen Petitions asking that the agency define the term “natural” for use in food labeling and one Citizen Petition asking that the agency prohibit the term “natural” on food labels. FDA also notes that some Federal courts, as a result of litigation between private parties, have requested administrative determinations from the FDA regarding whether food products containing ingredients produced using genetic engineering or foods containing high fructose corn syrup may be labeled as “natural.”

Although the FDA has not established a formal definition for the term “natural,” it does have a longstanding policy concerning the use of “natural” in human food labeling. The FDA has considered the term “natural” to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food. That seems like a reasonable definition. However, the FDA policy does not address food production methods, such as the use of pesticides, nor did it explicitly address food processing or manufacturing methods, such as thermal technologies, pasteurization, or irradiation. The FDA also did not consider whether the term “natural” should describe any nutritional or other health benefit.

The FDA is now seeking public comment on questions such as: Whether it is appropriate to define the term “natural;” if so, how should the agency define “natural;” and, finally, how should the agency determine the appropriate use of the term on food labels.

The FDA started accepting public comments in Nov. 2015. To electronically submit comments to the docket, visit and type FDA-2014-N-1207 in the search box. Comments on the rule must be received by Feb. 2016.

In this issue of the journal, a group of researchers analyzed front of package (FOP) claims to determine if they are good indicators of the nutritional quality of a food product. The goal of the research was to examine if the presence and number of all FOP nutrition claims seen in the market can differentiate between products of various levels of nutrition quality among U.S. breakfast cereals and prepared meals.

From Journal of Food Science:


Escherichia coli Infections Linked to Chipotle Mexican Grill Restaurants

Since the primary obligation of food technologists is to ensure a safe food supply, it is instructive to understand and determine what lessons can be learned from foodborne illness outbreaks. With this in mind, I followed the multistate foodborne illness outbreaks linked to Chipotle Mexican Grill in 2015.

Some of the details of the case can be found in the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) website, “Multistate Outbreaks of Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli O26 (STEC O26) Infections Linked to Chipotle Mexican Grill Restaurants” at

As of December 22, 2015, the CDC was tracking two different outbreaks of STEC O26 linked to Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurants. The most recent was an outbreak in three states: Kansas, North Dakota, and Oklahoma. The Kansas and North Dakota cases ate at the same restaurant in Kansas. The three separate Oklahoma cases all ate at the same Chipotle restaurant. In the earlier outbreak, 53 people were infected with a different strain of STEC O26 across nine states. Twenty ill people have been hospitalized. There have been no reports of hemolytic uremic syndrome and no deaths. The majority of illnesses have been reported from Washington and Oregon during October 2015.

At this time, the epidemiologic evidence suggests that a common meal item or ingredient served at Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurants in several states is a likely source of the outbreak. The investigation has not identified what specific food is linked to illness. In the earlier outbreak, of the 52 ill people interviewed, 46 reported eating at a Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant in the week before their illness started. In the second outbreak, the Kansas and North Dakota cases ate at the same restaurant in Kansas. The three separate Oklahoma cases all ate at the same Chipotle restaurant.

Chipotle Mexican Grill chain is assisting public health officials with understanding the distribution of food items served at locations where ill people ate, and this work is ongoing.

Separately, Chipotle is under investigation by federal authorities concerning a norovirus outbreak at a California location in August 2015 that sickened 234 people, including 17 employees.

Such a large number of illnesses and problems at different locations indicate a serious issue. According to a press release from Chipotle, the company is updating their food safety program and doing a comprehensive assessment of their practices. The company is partnering with a Seattle-based food safety testing and consulting group called: IEH Laboratories and Consulting Group.

The food safety steps they are taking include: enhanced safety testing of ingredients using a series of DNA-based tests on ingredients before they are shipped to restaurants; a thorough review of how each ingredient in the restaurant is handled and prepared; enhanced employee food safety training; and more frequent food safety audits, including third-party assessments.

More information on Chipotle’s food safety measures can be found at the company press release here: = 1.178807140.156192303.1451321491

Also, here is the website of the IEH Laboratories and Consulting Group:

Recently, the U.S. Justice Dept. has increased its enforcement of food safety laws, including several with record fines and prosecutions. The past year included a case where a former owner of a food company, Peanut Corp. of America, was sentenced to 28 years in prison. A prison term was also given to a QA manager in the case. Another recent example is that the Justice Dept. launched a criminal investigation of Blue Bell Creameries LP over listeria contamination that was linked to three deaths and multiple illnesses.

The  Journal of Food Science has a regular section, Food Microbiology and Safety, featuring studies on food safety. One example highlighted here is on microbiology of par-fired potatoes. Other studies highlighted this month include a study on consumer acceptance of soymilk; the use of MSG, and successful sensory testing.

From Industrial Application Briefs: