Washington Insider-- Wednesday

More Food Safety Problems at Chipotle

Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.

US, EU Plan to Address Differences over Geographical Indicators

Disagreements over geographical indicators (GI) in the ongoing Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) talks will be the focus of a high-level working group that will convene in early 2016 ahead of the 12th round of TTIP talks Feb. 22.

Disagreements between the U.S. and European Union over GI issues are long-running with the EU contending that labels on products sold as parmesan cheese or bologna lunchmeat would need to be reworked to comply with EU regulations. The EU geographical-indicator system requires, for instance, that cheese labelled and sold as parmesan must originate from a defined region of Italy.

U.S. food companies broadly oppose EU GI demands, noting that products bearing GI-controlled nomenclature have been sold as such in the U.S. for years and to make radical changes would risk consumer confusion and unfairly hurt U.S. businesses. A potential compromise might be allowing U.S. products to bear certain names typically controlled in the EU GI system, so long as they don’t also carry logos or identifiers which might lead consumers to think the product is from Europe, such as Italian flags on parmesan cheese packaging.

The GI system may be strengthened in the U.S. if the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal is ratified, as it provides for parties of the TPP to use a variety of procedures to recognize GIs as enforceable. Even so, the TPP language is somewhat ambiguous and it’s not completely clear what effect it would have on EU GI-controlled goods.

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House Will Again Attempt to Nullify WOTUS in 2016

A resolution to again attempt to nullify the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) controversial Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule will be introduced in House in 2016, Matt Sparks, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said.

Voting is planned on a Congressional Review Act challenge to the WOTUS rule next year in the House and the Senate is “in the process of putting the waters of United States repealer on [the president’s] desk,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters.

A resolution to stop the WOTUS rule and prohibit the EPA from pursuing any similar rules in the future passed the Senate on Nov. 4 by a 53-44 vote, but didn’t make it to the President. President Obama has promised to veto any legislation to dismantle or nullify the WOTUS rule, should such a bill reach his desk.

The EPA’s issuance of the WOTUS rule under the Clean Water Act has provoked litigation from over 30 states and concerned organizations, representing agriculture, developers and industry. The rule is currently stayed due to a federal appeals court ruling. Attempts to include a provision in the recently approved Fiscal 2016 omnibus spending till to halt the WOTUS rule were also unsuccessful.

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Washington Insider: More Food Safety Problems at Chipotle

The New York Times said Tuesday that The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is reporting that five more people became sick after eating at two more Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurants. It noted that the news was a further blow to the price of the company’s shares.

While the urban press has been critical all along of the company’s performance, this week’s outbreak is raising new, difficult questions. “All told, almost 500 people have been sickened after eating in a Chipotle in the last half of this year, according to Food Safety News.”

The Times suggests that there is increasing danger that consumers will conclude that the company has not done enough in spite of what they’ve been saying.

Chipotle’s problems appeared to be worsened by the CDC’s observation that while they have been able to identify the restaurants where people ate, “the way Chipotle does its record-keeping” has prevented the CDC from being able “to figure out what food is in common across all those restaurants,” according to Dr. Ian Williams, chief of the outbreak response and prevention branch of the CDC.

Chipotle says it is working to put in place programs to monitor the safety of each of the 68 ingredients it uses, using methods like high-resolution testing and additional food-safety training for its employees. “With all these programs in place, we are confident that we can achieve a level of food-safety risk that is near zero,” Chris Arnold, a spokesman for Chipotle told the Times.

Arnold said Chipotle had expected to see additional cases of E. coli poisoning like those that came to light on Monday. And, he argued that not all of the victims in the earlier outbreak had reported eating at a Chipotle.

The latest infection is the fifth linked to Chipotle since August, according to Food Safety News. Cased began in Minnesota and then surfaced in the Pacific Northwest.

Bill Marler, a lawyer who represents more than 50 victims from the four previous Chipotle food poisoning outbreaks, said he was stunned that the company was having yet another problem with food safety.

Marler also has been critical of Chipotle’s response to the scandal, although he said the steps the company is taking to improve food safety now seem to be good ones. “Even after watching their CEO on TV, I’m not sure they get it,” he said. “You really do have to have a culture of food safety from the top down.”

The Times notes that the market might be losing patience with the company. Chipotle’s stock is down 30% from its high of $757.77 in August.

So, this outbreak seems to be both surprising, considering the company’s efforts, and possibly indicative of some deeper problem. The difficulty tracking the source of the outbreak certainly is not confidence inspiring. The firm’s struggle to find a more reliable contamination control system should be watched carefully as it proceeds, Washington Insider believes.


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(GH/CZ)