Wednesday, November 21, 2007


Targeting the wandering workforce.

A laptop, cell phone and a grande latte are all you need to set up a mobile office at any Starbucks. When it’s time for lunch, McDonald’s and Panera Bread offer burgers and paninis along with wi-fi hot spots. But most professionals in search of a quieter, more business-like setting—perhaps with meeting space and classier food—have to settle for hotels or pricey executive centers.

Enter the Corporate Café. “It’s a niche no one else was filling,” says Brian Boeger, founder of the Olathe, Kansas-based concept, “kind of a merge between Starbucks and Applebee’s, complete with full business services.”

Corporate Café’s business theme includes TVs displaying streaming stock quotes and business news programming. Patrons can hook up laptops to plasma screens at every booth and view polished Powerpoint presentations while they enjoy NYSE Biscuits and Gravy or AmEx Steak. A private room offers space for large meetings and an on-site business center features free computer stations, copying, printing, faxing, mail and even notarizing services so contracts can be signed and sealed on the spot. While there’s a full bar on the premises, customers also come for the “executive blend” coffee roasted by a local company and a chef-driven menu at breakfast, lunch and dinner.

These perks are music to the ears of the work-from-home crowd, which numbered 20.7 million at last count, according to 2004 figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Add to that the throngs of road warriors who carry their offices with them, and you have a solid customer base.

Boeger says that groups are now booking meetings five days a week months in advance and a second Corporate Café is under construction in Kansas City, Missouri. It will feature more private meeting rooms.

What’s next? “I hope to develop six to nine more locations in the near future and eventually reach 20 to 25 operational restaurants in the next three to five years,” says Boeger. With a flexible prototype that can vary from 1,000 to 9,000 square feet, he can target locations as diverse as airports, urban business districts and suburban lots. That means more choices for hungry workers to meet and eat—wherever their travels take them.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

HHS Unveils Plan to Strengthen, Update Food Safety Efforts

HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt has announced a comprehensive initiative by FDA designed to bolster efforts to better protect the nation’s food supply. The Food Protection Plan proposes the use of science and a risk-based approach to ensure the safety of domestic and imported foods eaten by American consumers.

“America’s food supply is among the safest in the world, and we enjoy unprecedented choice and convenience in filling the cupboard. Yet, we face new challenges to meet both the changing demands of a global economy and consumers’ expectations,” Secretary Leavitt said. “This Food Protection Plan will implement a strategy of prevention, intervention and response to build safety into every step of the food supply chain.”

HHS Deputy Secretary Tevi Troy and FDA Commissioner Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach, presented the Food Protection Plan at a press conference in Washington, D.C.
“FDA must keep pace with this transformation so that the safety of the nation’s food supply remains second to none,” said von Eschenbach. “The Food Protection Plan calls for effective action before an outbreak occurs.”

The Food Protection Plan, which focuses on both domestic and imported food, complements the Import Safety Action Plan delivered by Secretary Leavitt to the President earlier today that recommends how the U.S. can improve the safety of all imported products. This year, $2 trillion worth of goods will be imported into the U.S., and experts predict that amount will triple by 2015. The Import Safety Action Plan lays out a road map with short- and long-term recommendations to enhance product safety at every step of the import life cycle. Taken together, the two plans will improve efforts by the public and private sector to enhance the safety of a wide array of products used by American consumers.

Advances in food production technology, rapid methods of food distribution, and globalization have transformed supermarket shelves and restaurant menus, broadened the tastes of consumers, and challenged the existing food protection framework.

“Although our agency clearly needs to maintain and enhance its response capacity, the primary goal is to prevent contaminated food from ever reaching the consumer,” said von Eschenbach.
The plan is premised on preventing harm before it can occur, intervening at key points in the food production system, and responding immediately when problems are identified. Within these three overarching areas of protection, the plan contains a number of action steps as well as a set of legislative proposals. Taken together, these efforts will provide a food protection framework that ensures that the U.S. food supply remains safe.

To strengthen its efforts to prevent contamination, FDA plans to strengthen support of food industry efforts to build safety into products manufactured either domestically or imported. The FDA will work with industry, state, local, and foreign governments to identify vulnerabilities and will look to industry to mitigate those vulnerabilities, using effective methods such as preventive controls.

The plan’s intervention element emphasizes focusing inspections and sampling based on risk at the manufacturer and processor level, for both domestic and imported products, that will help verify the preventive controls. This approach is complemented by targeted, risk-based inspections at the points where foreign food products enter the United States, including ports.
The plan calls for enhancing FDA’s information systems related to both domestic and imported foods to better respond to food safety threats and communicate during an emergency.

The Food Protection Plan’s three core elements—prevention, intervention and response—incorporate four cross-cutting principles for comprehensive food protection along the entire production chain:

• Focus on risks over a product’s life cycle from production to consumption;
• Target resources to achieve greatest risk reduction;
• Use interventions that address both food safety (unintentional contamination) and food defense (deliberate contamination);
• Use science and employ modern technology, including enhanced information technology systems.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Times Change, Breakfast Doesn’t

According to a recent press release from The NPD Group, Port Washington, NY, the top-10 foods given to children under the age of six by new parents are almost identical to those given 20 years ago. This information comes from NPD’s 22nd annual “Eating Patterns in America” report.

The top-3 foods from both March 1985 through Feb. 1987 and March 2005 through Feb. 2007 are:

1. Cold cereal;
2. Glass of milk;
3. Fruit juice.

Although some rankings have shifted over the last 20 years, other items common to both eras include toast, eggs, fruit, pancakes, hot cereal and bacon. One item new to the 2005 to 2007 rankings is waffles, coming in at No. 7 (offered 36% of the time today, according to the report, up from 17% in 1985 to 1987).

In the press release, Harry Balzer, vice president, The NPD Group, and author of the “Eating Patterns in America” report, notes: “New moms today are asking the same question their moms asked when deciding what to feed the kids, ‘What is the easiest way to get this job done?’ Oftentimes, it’s the way their mom did it.

“Based on what we’ve seen over the past 20 years,” Balzer contines, “it is pretty clear what kids will be eating for breakfast in the year 2027.”

Friday, November 02, 2007

Food inspectors overwhelmed by workload

As alarm bells sounded for the second-largest hamburger recall in history, the nation's top food safety officials were in Miami setting the "course for the next 100 years of food safety."

The fact that so many U.S. Department of Agriculture executives were in Florida studying the future when New Jersey-based Topps Meat Co. was scrambling, very much in the present, to recall 21.7 million pounds of hamburger patties -- a full year's production run--has rankled some USDA inspectors and food safety advocates, who see it as a symbol of the department's attitude toward food safety enforcement.

Several USDA inspectors said in interviews that their workloads are doubling or tripling as they take on the duties of inspectors who have left the department, not to be replaced. The force has been reduced dramatically in recent years as vacancies are left unfilled.

"We've been short the whole time I've been in," said one veteran inspector who asked not to be named. "We don't have enough inspectors, but we have too much management. The inspectors are short all the time and getting spread thinner and thinner."

The crisis began last month, when three consumers in New York and Florida fell ill from E. coli poisoning. Soon at least 32 people were sick. The Topps recall, though, began a full 18 days after the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) first confirmed E. coli bacteria in a Topps hamburger.

The undersecretary of agriculture for food safety, Richard Raymond, later said, "We can do better."

FSIS--which regulates meat, poultry and egg production -- says it had 7,200 inspectors in 1992 and 7,450 today. But Stan Painter, an inspector and a union representative for the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents the inspectors, said the actual number is closer to 6,500.

The difference, he said, are unfilled vacancies that FSIS permanently carries. "There are about 1,000 vacancies," Painter said. "It's steadily gotten worse."

FSIS did not respond to written questions submitted by this article. In an Oct. 4 teleconference with reporters, Raymond said, "We are looking into the FSIS inspection activities in this plant in order to ensure that our inspection workforce has the tools, the training, the data and the oversight to ensure public health protection."

Under the federal Meat Inspection Act, USDA inspectors are required to examine animals that are "prepared at any slaughtering, meat-canning, salting, packing, rendering, or similar establishment," and intended for use as food. Inspectors put a USDA stamp on products that pass inspection, and reject items that don't pass.

USDA inspectors visit about 6,000 food production facilities, but some are so large that they require several inspectors. From April to June of this year, inspectors examined 34 million "livestock carcasses" and condemned 54,546 of them, according to FSIS records. For poultry the numbers jump to an astounding 2.3 billion carcasses inspected and 11 million condemned animals.

Inspectors: Goals not met

The legal requirements for inspections, combined with a reduced force, mean that the inspection goals have not been met for years, according to inspectors.

They say the workload is unrealistic, reducing their duties to cursory checks of company records, not the physical examination of meat, poultry and eggs.

"Inspectors are not ... in the vast majority of processing plants full time," said Felicia Nestor, a senior policy analyst for Food & Water Watch, a Washington-based food safety group. "For the most part, inspectors at processing plants are on patrols, meaning they cover a number of plants." Thus, she said, the patrols are counted as an inspection because of the possibility that inspectors could show up.

Questions about the size of the inspection force have come amid a sharp increase in E. coli-related ground beef recalls over previous years, a phenomenon that has baffled USDA officials. In the wake of the Topps case, they are devising a food safety checklist that each of the nation's estimated 1,500 meatpacking plants must complete.

Industry representatives point out that incidents of E. coli had declined for several years before increasing this year. E. coli has actually "declined something in the order of 72 percent over the last five years," said Jim Hodges, president of the American Meat Institute Foundation. "It's still at a very low rate, statistically."

Hodges said the meat industry has adopted safety measures, such as steam and vinegar washes, to rid carcasses of E. coli.

Topps had 1 inspector

At Topps, a single USDA inspector was assigned to the Elizabeth, N.J., plant, which produced more ground beef patties than any other U.S. meat processor.

But that inspector in recent years has also been given responsibility for five meat processing plants, according to Nestor. That means spending one hour and 36 minutes each day in each plant, she said.

"This is a problem we've been pointing out to them forever," Nestor said. "There are vacancies and shortages all over the country. In a lot of places, the patrol assignments are doubled and tripled up."

For FSIS, the problem isn't a new one. Following the E. coli contamination and recall of 19 million pounds of ground beef made by ConAgra in 2002, the Department of Agriculture's inspector general conducted an investigation at the request of Congress.

The resulting September 2003 report concluded that it was "FSIS policies that effectively limited the documents the inspectors could review and the enforcement actions they were allowed to take." The agency, the inspector general found, "needs to be more proactive in its oversight."

It was a tragic case of E. coli contamination in 1993 that led to reforms that inspectors today say their agency is reluctant to enforce. The regulatory changes occurred after E. coli poisoning in Jack in the Box restaurant hamburgers killed four children and sickened many others.
Escherichia coli, a bacterium that lives in some cattle's intestines, can find its way into meat during the slaughter process, usually when fecal material comes in contact with a meat carcass. In humans, poisoning of this strain of E. coli can cause bloody diarrhea and urine, severe stomach cramps, and kidney damage and failure that can lead to death.

After the Jack in the Box case, the USDA required each meat plant to adopt a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point plan. The plans allowed companies to design their own food safety measures, usually around the need to process beef quickly.

The hope was that meatpacking plants would adopt better practices. But inspectors today say their jobs have been reduced to monitoring a company's hazard analysis plan, instead of enforcing USDA's own inspection regulations.

"They [meatpacking companies] write their own plan," said one inspector, who asked to remain anonymous. "They write everything for themselves. We're 'monitoring' that now.
"It's just a joke. We mostly check paper now. You can put anything you want on paper."