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How safe is our food? According to an new investigation by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, not as safe as it could be.
The report highlights a number of ways that our food safety system could improve. It also notes that the number of food recalls in the United States has risen dramatically since 2017. This could be because our technologies for detecting pathogens have gotten better, and the techniques that investigators use to examine and connect said pathogens to one another have also gotten more precise. More recalls, after all, isn’t necessarily a bad thing: it could mean that the system is working better and more effectively weeding out foods that are unsafe.
“It is true that the ability to link infections together and trace them back to the source has improved significantly in the last decade through new technology such as Whole Genome Sequencing,” the report reads. “This may explain some of these findings. But whether we’ve always had a food safety problem and now we can see it, or the problem is getting worse in recent years, misses the point. Americans should be confident that our food is safe and uncontaminated from dangerous bacteria like E. coli and Salmonella.”
The authors of the report identify several different areas in which our food safety could improve. Although the increase in recalls might be attributable to better techniques and more vigilance from our food safety regulators, the CDC estimates that one in six Americans will be affected by foodborne illness each year. That translates to 128,000 hospitalizations and thousands of deaths that could theoretically be prevented by a better system.
One of the deficient areas identified by the report is source and production safety. Sometimes, the raw ingredients used in production of food products have already been contaminated with pathogens. That was the case in several recent high-profile food safety incidents, several of which are cited by the report. The 12 million pounds of beef processed by JBS Tolleson was contaminated will salmonella; in the United States, processing plants can legally sell beef even if tests indicate that it’s contaminated with salmonella. In Yuma, Arizona, 200 people fell ill and five died after eating romaine lettuce that had been irrigated with dirty water that infected the plant with salmonella. The whey used in the production of three million packages of goldfish that were later recalled by Ritz was contaminated with salmonella too.
Another area in need of improvement identified by the report was the recall system. In various cases, despite recalls being issued in a timely manner, products remained on store shelves and people continued to get sick. Such was the case with Honey Smacks cereal, which remained on store shelves after an initial recall announcement despite two additional notices from the FDA. Sometimes, as was the case with the recent recall of Caito pre-cut melons, the products are perishable and thus move from shelves quickly. Despite a quick recall in response to information that the melons were contaminated with salmonella, 77 people ended up getting sick.
Luckily, it’s not all bad news from the PIRG. In addition to identifying cases in which both production-side safety measures and recall mechanisms failed to prevent foodborne illness, they make a set of recommendations as to how food safety policy can be improved so that we don’t see so many of these incidents in the future. On the production side of things, they’ve called for two major changes that have been the target of food focused consumer-interest groups for some time now. The first is pathogen testing for water that’s used to irrigate produce, something that isn’t currently mandatory under federal law. Such requirements could theoretically have prevented the Yuma lettuce outbreak.
Secondly, they call for specific limits to be set on the load of bacteria that’s found in agricultural water. These limits would be established based on health data and applied to water that’s used to irrigate crops. If the water is unusually rich in bacteria, there’s a higher chance that it could serve as a vehicle for pathogens to contaminate plants. Limiting the load that’s allowed might prevent that.
The report also calls for changes to how inspection and monitoring is handled at food processing facilities. They recommend that plants “identify most common pathogens associated with meat and poultry products as hazards likely to occur and address them in their safety plans.” Additionally, they call for consequences to be put in place for plants who violate those food safety plans, and for the plans to be updated at least every three years.
Another big idea that could make a difference: declaring salmonella an adulterant in meat and other animals products. That would prevent plants from selling meat that had previously tested positive for salmonella, and lay the legal groundwork for prosecuting those companies that still might try it.
For recalls, the report recommends full disclosure of retailers selling a product at the point that the recall comes down. They also recommend mandatory recall authority for contaminated food that’s dealt with by the USDA (the FDA didn’t have mandatory recall authority until recently). Finally, they recommend penalizing companies that continue to sell food after a recall goes out.
Some of these recommended changes represent more work or investment on the part of companies that are making or selling food, which means that they’ll be met with a certain amount of resistance. By our lights, however, they’re commonsense and necessary changes that would change our food system for the better and create an environment where consumers were considerably more safe. That’s worth the additional cost.
By: Sean McNulty, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)