Center for Communications, Health and the Environment
Summer 2010 Vol. 5, Issue 1
GM Crops Proliferate, Raising Global Hopes and Fears

U.S. Food Safety Reform Takes Off

On March 4, 2010, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that thousands of processed foods may contain a flavor enhancer possibly contaminated with salmonella.  Although no illnesses had been reported, as of April 1, manufacturers had recalled 177 products that contain this hydrolyzed vegetable protein. 

Contaminated Food Recalls & Related Health Hazards Abound

The food safety system in the United States is broken. And the above incident is just one episode in a long series of food recalls, many necessitated by already documented, serious illness among hundreds, even thousands, of Americans in recent years. 

Some of the most nutritious foods are among the riskiest when it comes to foodborne outbreaks (Source: CSPI)

To help reform the U.S. food safety system, last summer CECHE joined the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) in its relentless efforts to urge the FDA and the U.S. Congress to reform America’s antiquated laws.  A major impetus for CECHE’s support is that some of the most nutritious foods – leafy greens, eggs, tuna, tomatoes, sprouts and berries – are on a CSPI list of the riskiest foods regulated by the FDA.  In fact, these foods account for nearly 40 percent of all foodborne outbreaks linked to FDA-regulated food, as tracked by CSPI using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Since 1990, some 363 documented outbreaks have been linked to iceberg lettuce, romaine, spinach and other leafy greens, variously contaminated with E. coli, Norovirus or Salmonella, and causing 13,568 cases of illness. Eggs have been fingered in 352 outbreaks and 11,163 incidents of illness; tuna to 268 outbreaks and 2,341 cases of illness, and oysters – despite their limited consumption – to 132 outbreaks causing 3,409 reported illnesses. Outbreaks involving potatoes don’t seem to make headlines, but nevertheless they have been linked to more than 100 outbreaks and 3,600 cases of illness over the last 20 years.  Cheese, ice cream, tomatoes, sprouts and berries round out CSPI’s infamous “FDA Top Ten” list.  Meanwhile, ground beef, pizza, peanuts, and even cookie dough and pistachios, have been linked to food-related illnesses.

The Stakes Are High

Hazards in food cause an estimated 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year, according to the CDC, and most of these are never reported to public health officials. Since 1990, more than 1,500 separate, definable outbreaks were associated with the top 10 riskiest FDA-regulated foods alone, causing nearly 50,000 reported illnesses, CSPI reveals.  Since most foodborne illnesses are never reported, these outbreaks are only the tip of the iceberg.  Yet food-related illnesses cost American taxpayers approximately $6.9 billion annually in medical costs, hospitalizations and lost work time, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

While foodborne illnesses largely occur as isolated cases, outbreaks of food poisoning are clusters of illness that result from ingestion of a common contaminated food. A single outbreak can affect hundreds, or even thousands, of people.  At greatest risk are older Americans, children, pregnant women and their unborn fetuses, and those with compromised immune systems. Bioterrorism also poses a threat to the nation’s food supply.

Manure, contaminated irrigation water and poor handling practices are all possible culprits in foodborne outbreaks. Meanwhile, the FDA does not currently require farms and processors to have written food safety plans, nor does it provide specific safety standards for even the largest growers to meet.

Imported Food Is A Major Culprit

A close-up of contamination (Source: CSPI)

The FDA is responsible for regulating nearly 80 percent of America’s food supply, including produce, seafood, egg and dairy products, as well as typical packaged foods such as cookie dough and peanut butter. But a high and growing portion of this food supply is imported, and multiple agencies share responsibility with the FDA for ensuring the safety of the increasing volume of imported food, including the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service, and Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection division.  In October 2009, however, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that agency efforts are hampered by gaps in enforcement and collaboration, with border inspection providing an important – and sometimes the only – food safety checkpoint. GAO describes a food safety framework for imports that doesn’t keep regulators in the loop to the extent that they can inspect risky products before they are released to the public.  And it emphasizes that the FDA lacks the authority to fine importers who don't comply with regulations.  As a result, importers can ignore rules against selling food shipments before they are cleared by the FDA.

Food Safety Reform Legislation: A Possible Savior

CSPI’s Food Safety Program attempts to ensure that government regulators, policy makers and the food industry work harder to protect American consumers from the threats of food contamination and to reduce the burden of foodborne illnesses. The program urges Congress to strengthen or amend food safety laws to protect consumers. It also petitions and organizes meetings with the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to encourage tightening of federal food safety programs and increased oversight of industry practices. In addition, the program informs the public, policy makers and regulators on food safety issues, and CSPI’s publication, Outbreak Alert!, an ongoing compilation of foodborne illnesses and outbreaks, is used by scientists and policy makers around the world.

Of foremost importance in the struggle to reform America’s food safety laws is the current legislative measure awaiting passage in the U.S. Senate. The Food Safety Enhancement Act was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in July 2009, with broad, bipartisan support. The bill gives the FDA authority to recall products, and it requires more frequent FDA inspections of food-processing plants and better record-keeping by food companies so contaminated products could be more easily traced. It also addresses problems with food imports identified in the GAO report and gives the FDA authority to impose civil fines on violators.  In addition, the bill requires the secretary of health and human services to create a food-tracing system, which would make it easier to find sources of contamination.

Also promising is the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510), co-sponsored by Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).  Similar to the Food Safety Enhancement Act, it was passed unanimously in the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee in November 2009 and would expand the authority of the secretary of health and human services to regulate food and require food facilities to evaluate hazards and implement preventive controls.  The bill is widely supported by a diverse coalition of consumer and health groups, including the American Public Health Association, Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, Safe Tables Our Priority, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and Trust for America's Health. This coalition of Food Safety Advocates is calling on the full Senate to pass the bill before the end of 2010.  CSPI and CECHE’s grassroots efforts support these two bills that could go a long way towards publicizing the precariousness of America’s food safety – and vastly improving it.

Read More:
Lead Article: Risk, Regulation, and Reward
Spotlight Article: Biotech Crops Gain Global Foothold
U.S. Food Safety Reform Takes Off
Also Noted: What Risks Do Genetically Engineered Crops Pose to the Environment?


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