Why there aren’t enough cooks in the kitchen keeping our food supply safe.
There seems to be a new food scare every day. Headlines blare: Multistate outbreaks of Salmonella associated with raw tomatoes! Chili sauce linked to botulism cases! Local stores recall beef patties in fast-food restaurants!
Food-borne pathogens cause about 76 million illnesses among unsuspecting Americans each year, leading to 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths (Mead et al. 1999). Extensive outbreaks are exposing huge flaws in the U.S. food safety check-and-balance system. Recent high-profile cases illustrate the nation’s vulnerabilities in areas ranging from how our produce becomes infested with E. coli and other contaminants to the risk posed by foods imported from other countries or tainted by terrorists.
A combination of outdated laws, questionable oversight and potentially deadly consequences has made food safety a hot-button issue. Even one of the agencies responsible for food safety recently issued a report saying it could no longer perform its mandate owing to woefully inadequate resources.
So what is a consumer to do to avoid food-borne illness when purchasing, preparing or eating food at restaurants or at home? One way is to stay informed about the dangers and know how to minimize the risks for you and your family.
America’s Food Safety Risk
In the United States, the weighty job of food safety oversight is split mostly among three agencies: the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which regulates meat products; the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which oversees produce and seafood; and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which monitors and controls outbreaks of food-borne illnesses.
However, many other agencies play some role in food safety: according to the National Academy of Sciences, “at least a dozen federal agencies implementing more than 35 statutes make up the federal part of the food safety system” (Institute of Medicine and National Research Council 1998). Food safety threats stem from abroad and from home, further straining the government’s regulatory and oversight capabilities.
The Import Safety Net
The U.S. imports $2 trillion worth of goods each year (Merle 2007). The FDA, tasked with overseeing the importation of seafood, fruits and vegetables, inspects only about 1% of incoming shipments (Merle 2007). Total imports from China, a country well known for its toxic food products, were expected to reach $341 billion in 2007, up almost 25% from 2006 (Merle 2007). That means a lot of potentially tainted food is now entering the U.S. food supply.
When the FDA perceives a risk to be particularly high, it issues an “import alert,” meaning every food shipment is supposed to be held until it passes a laboratory test. For example, the FDA issued such an alert about Chinese seafood because of the high risk of contamination from banned drugs and chemicals. Unfortunately, the Associated Press discovered that 1 in 4 shipments of the suspect seafood got to grocery store shelves and dinner plates without having been tested (Pritchard 2007). This shows that even when the risk is high, gaping holes exist in the nation’s safety net.
Consider the vulnerability of produce imports. Consumer demand for year-round access to fruits and vegetables has contributed to increased importation of these items. Research from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) indicates that about 13% of food-borne illness outbreaks and 21% of food-borne illnesses result from contaminated produce, such as lettuce, salads, melons, sprouts and tomatoes (DeWaal 2007b). While some of the contamination comes from domestic produce, fruit and vegetable imports from areas with substandard hygiene practices have sickened thousands of Americans—notably, those who ate Cyclospora-contaminated raspberries grown in Guatemala or strawberries infested with hepatitis A from Mexico.
The Risk at Home
Not all food safety risks stem from foreign countries. Last year, a Consumer Reports study found that 83% of fresh, whole broiler chickens purchased throughout the U.S. were contaminated with Campylobacter or Salmonella (Consumer Reports 2007). That was up from 49% in 2003. It didn’t matter if the chickens were organic or raised without antibiotics; in fact, those chickens were actually more likely to harbor Salmonella.
USDA inspectors are supposed to check animal carcasses at each plant and reject those with visible fecal matter, defects or any signs of illness. Meat and poultry are supposed to be inspected daily. But still, too much infected meat gets through these safety checks (Consumer Reports 2007).
Despite numerous recent domestic-produce “outbreaks,” the industry is still mostly unregulated. In the wake of 14 outbreaks linked to lettuce and tomatoes in 2004, the FDA sent a letter to firms that grow, pack or ship the implicated products and asked them to “review their current operations.” After yet another lettuce outbreak, the FDA targeted its letters to California lettuce growers “recommending” actions to ensure safety (DeWaal 2007b). Clearly, the FDA lacks the authority (and now admits it lacks the resources) to mandate changes. Thus, as long as recalls are voluntary, companies are allowed to continue selling suspect produce.
The CSPI has urged the FDA to adopt mandatory restrictions to improve produce safety. Suggested restrictions include the following:
- manure control to prevent contamination of crops
- regular assessment of water quality at food-processing plants
- strict hygiene practices
- mandatory sanitation procedures
- clear marking of packaging so the sources of fruits and vegetables can be easily traced in an outbreak (DeWaal 2007b)
A sparse budget limits the FDA’s ability to enforce such suggestions. Inspections by the agency have declined 81% since 1972; the number of field staff has decreased 12% since 2003; and inspections are down 47% since 2003 (DeWaal 2007a). Processed-food facilities may see an FDA inspector only once every 5–10 years. And it’s really no wonder considering the agency’s scant resources.
In 2006 the FDA experienced a funding shortfall of $135 million, equivalent to about a 24% budget cut (DeWaal 2007a). While the agency oversees about 80% of the food supply, it gets about 20% of the funding for food safety. And it’s not projected to get better: the 2008 budget allows for only $10.6 million in new food safety dollars for the FDA, whereas the USDA, which oversees about 20% of the food supply, is allocated $104 million for food safety (DeWaal 2007a). Drastic changes in FDA food surveillance in 2008 seem highly unlikely.
The Risk of Terrorism
Beyond the threat of unintentional contamination, the U.S. faces the risk of food terrorism. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “the malicious contamination of food for terrorist purposes is a real and current threat” (WHO 2002). Acknowledging that risk, in 2003 the FDA evaluated the nation’s vulnerability to a terrorist act against our food supply. According to the agency’s report, U.S. troops had discovered hundreds of pages of U.S. agricultural documents translated into Arabic when searching caves in Afghanistan. The FDA concluded that there was a high likelihood the U.S. would face an act of agroterrorism (FDA 2003).
A separate study by the RAND National Defense Research Institute noted the following U.S. vulnerabilities:
- highly crowded breeding and rearing conditions for livestock, which heightens the potential that an epidemic could spread and which limits ability to recognize unusual behavior in an individual animal
- overuse and misuse of antibiotics, which increases livestock susceptibility to disease
- insufficient farm and food-related security and surveillance
- inefficient reporting of disease by livestock producers
- lack of veterinarians trained to recognize and treat unusual livestock diseases (RAND 2003)
The RAND study authors recommended several measures to decrease the impact of an agroterrorism attack, including modification of vulnerable food and agriculture practices; education and training; monitoring programs to track disease; intelligence measures; public awareness and outreach programs; stockpiling of vaccines and pharmaceuticals; and early-containment procedures (RAND 2003).
No matter whether the risk comes from outside or inside the United States, the WHO suggests that measures for managing both intentional and unintentional outbreaks of food-borne illness be the same: sensible precautions and strong surveillance and response capacities (WHO 2002).
Current Food Safety Laws
The U.S government recognizes that changes are necessary to improve food safety. It recently created a panel to review import safety and called for federal agencies to do a better job of coordinating oversight and sharing information. Although the government recommended an increased focus on identifying risky imports, it fell short of suggesting any of the sweeping changes currently under debate in Congress.
Looking forward, the pending Safe Food Act of 2007 is a House initiative that would establish a Food Safety Administration to administer and enforce food safety laws. The Act would require the administration to take these steps:
- Implement a national food safety program with particular focus on the hazards associated with inherent risks and processing of particular foods.
- Establish standards for food processing and food establishments.
- Establish a certification system for foreign governments.
- Create requirements for tracing animals from point of origin to retail sale.
- Maintain an active surveillance system.
- Establish a system to monitor contaminants in food.
- Rank and analyze hazards in the food supply.
- Establish a national food safety public education campaign.
- Conduct research pertaining to food safety (GovTrack.us 2007a).
Unfortunately, the Safe Food Act has been held up in the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry since February 15, 2007. The Senate introduced a somewhat similar bill in September 2007, in an effort to ensure produce safety. At press time, the Senate’s bill has been referred to the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry (GovTrack.us 2007b).
According to Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, professor of nutrition, public health and food studies at New York University and author of Safe Food (University of California Press 2003), it is unlikely that any of the recommended changes will be passed anytime soon. “Government safety rules are mired in laws passed in 1906 long before current hazards came into existence. Every time some government agency tries to update the laws, the industry screams bloody murder and nothing much gets done,” Nestle told Slow Food USA (Slow Food LA 2004).
Meanwhile, in just 2 months last year (early September to the end of October), the federal government issued more than 20 food recalls. Several products contained unlabeled ingredients such as nuts, milk and eggs—potentially fatal mistakes for the millions of Americans with food allergies. The other recalls resulted from random testing that revealed a list of common foods harboring contaminants, such as baking-chocolate squares with Salmonella; tofu and raw cream infected with Listeria; Mexican cheese high in Salmonella and Staphylococcus; salad and ground beef laced with E. coli 0157; and canned meat infected with the botulism toxin (www.recalls.gov). For a look at some of the “riskiest” foods, see the sidebar “Most Commonly Contaminated Foods.”
Consequences of Contamination
The health consequences from exposure to contaminated food range from pesky inconveniences like indigestion to serious injury or death. Special populations most at risk include pregnant women; infants and young children; older adults; and people with compromised immune systems.
Salmonella, Campylobacter and Shigella are the most likely contaminants, according to the FoodNet surveillance system, which tracks food-borne illness in 10 states (CDC 2007). Most infections are self-limiting and resolve without need for antibiotics or treatment other than aggressive replacement of fluids lost through vomiting and diarrhea. However, E. coli 0157 poses a particularly severe risk to children, who may contract a serious condition called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) following exposure to the pathogen. When HUS develops, red blood cells are destroyed, kidney function worsens and platelet count drops substantially. Blood transfusions and kidney dialysis are often required. HUS can be life-threatening and is usually treated in an intensive care unit. With intensive care, the death rate for HUS is 3%–5% (CDC 2007).
For more information on food contaminants, their symptoms and how they are usually treated, see the sidebar “Common Food-Borne Illnesses.”
Alternative Methods to Keep Food Safe
While it is tempting to blame the government for its failure to protect the food supply, there are other deserving targets. Time after time, bureaucracy, turf wars, politics and funding prove to be major barriers to timely food safety reform. Alternative safety methods, such as food irradiation, are promising but have been slow to gain public acceptance.
Food irradiation is the process of using high-energy rays to destroy organisms with the intent to preserve the nutritional value, taste and texture of the food product (it should be noted that these characteristics are altered to varying degrees depending on the amount of irradiation and the type of food). Importantly, no radioactivity is involved during food irradiation, and all the evidence suggests that the process is entirely safe. In fact, the CDC predicts that if irradiation were used on half of the meat and poultry consumed in the U.S., there would be 900,000 fewer cases of food-borne illness and 352 fewer deaths (Osterholm & Norgan 2004).
Numerous government agencies, scientific and health-related organizations (national and international) and food-processing groups support the safety of irradiated food. Researchers who have studied consumers’ reasons for being wary of irradiated food theorize that the reluctance to embrace the technology is caused by the dubious terminology (i.e., it sounds scary, as if it’s linked to radiation), a lack of understanding and a lack of knowledge (Osterholm & Norgan 2004).
Opportunities for large-scale implementation of food irradiation are emerging, but until the average consumer feels comfortable with the technology, experts say that few irradiated foods will be available on store shelves.
How to Keep Your Food Safe
While no consumer can fully protect his or her family from exposure to food-borne illness, several simple precautions can reduce the risk. From choosing wisely at the grocery store to safely preparing and storing your food, there are ways to exert some control in safeguarding against food-borne contamination.
Here are some tips for you and your clients to keep in mind when selecting foods:
- Check produce for bruises, and feel and smell for ripeness. Sometimes bruises and other imperfections are signs of a brewing infection.
- Look for a “sell-by date” for breads and baked goods, a “use-by date” on some packaged foods, an “expiration date” on yeast and baking powder or a “pack date” on canned and some packaged foods. Most foods that have passed the sell-by date can be safely consumed up to a few days after the marked date. However, foods with a marked expiration or use-by date should be consumed by the stamped date to minimize risk of food-borne illness and to ensure optimum quality. Play it safe by choosing products with the latest dates. The pack date is useful only if you know how long a particular food remains fresh. Generally, canned foods are good for a year after the pack date, whereas frozen foods are best used within a few months of the pack date.
- Ensure that packaged goods are not torn and cans are not dented, cracked or bulging. Dented cans provide a breeding ground for botulism. Bulging cans indicate the food is probably already fully infected with the organism.
- Keep fish and poultry apart from other purchases by wrapping them separately in plastic bags. While fish, poultry and meat products will later be cooked to a safe temperature to kill bacteria, other uncooked contaminated purchases can harbor the infection.
- Choose refrigerated and frozen foods last, right before checking out. Make sure all perishable items are refrigerated within 2 hours of purchase. Freezing or cold temperatures stop or greatly reduce the growth rate of micro-organisms. However, once products start to warm, bacteria rapidly multiply.
Consumers may also want to pay special note to where products were processed and packaged. Generally, foods from countries with lenient food safety requirements—such as China and many developing countries—pose increased risk. The 2002 Farm Bill would have required that all beef, lamb, pork, fish, shellfish, perishable agricultural commodities and peanuts show country of origin on their labels. Unfortunately, President Bush has delayed implementation of this requirement for all these commodities except for fish and shellfish until at least September 2008 (USDA 2007).
Proper Food Preparation & Storage
In a section devoted to food safety, Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 (USDHHS and USDA 2005) offers several simple tips on handling, preparing and storing food safely to reduce exposure to food-borne illnesses. Although it is possible that a contaminated food can enter the marketplace, adhering to these recommendations makes it less likely that microbes will have the opportunity to cause an infection.
- Wash hands often with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds. This is the single most important defense against microbial infection.
- Clean hands and food contact surfaces thoroughly.
- Wash fruits and vegetables before eating or cooking them. Do not wash meat or poultry, as washing can spread infection.
- Separate raw, cooked and ready-to-eat foods while shopping, preparing and/or storing foods.
- Cook foods to a safe temperature to kill micro-organisms (bacteria grow most rapidly between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, or between 4.4 and 60 degrees Celsius).
- If you are pregnant, do not eat deli meats and frankfurters unless they have been reheated to steaming hot, to avoid the risk of listeria.
- Refrigerate perishable food within 2 hours of purchase and defrost foods properly (i.e., in the refrigerator, not on the table counter). Eat refrigerated leftovers within 3–4 days.
- Avoid raw (unpasteurized) milk or any products made from unpasteurized milk; raw or partially cooked eggs or foods containing raw eggs; raw or undercooked meat and poultry; unpasteurized juice; and raw sprouts. This is especially important for infants and young children, pregnant women, older adults and those with compromised immune systems. These groups are also advised to avoid raw or undercooked fish or shellfish.
Wrapping It All Up
Food safety in the United States appears to be mired in a web of politics and a battle for federal funding. Despite a growing number of food-borne illness outbreaks, few large-scale policy changes have been implemented to reduce the risks to our food supply.
As a consumer, you ultimately have the responsibility to minimize your own food safety risk at home and to demand that the federal government do everything it can to ensure food safety within and across our borders.
SIDEBAR: Most Commonly Contaminated Foods
SIDEBAR: Common Food-Borne Illnesses
SIDEBAR: Additional Resources
- Center for Science in the Public Interest, www.cspinet.org. A nonprofit health advocacy organization focusing on food safety, nutrition and alcohol issues. Maintains a database of food recalls and food safety information.
- FDA and USDA Recall Information, www.recalls.gov. Gives the latest on recalled foods.
- Fight Bac! www.fightbac.org. Provides information and resources that can help consumers make smart choices to decrease risk of food-borne illness.
- Food & Water Watch, www.foodandwaterwatch.org. A grassroots environmental health organization working to improve food safety through public and policymaker education, lobbying, media and Internet activism.
- FoodNet Surveillance System of the CDC, FDA and USDA, www.cdc.gov/enterics/. Produces an annual report on the incidence of food-borne illnesses in 10 states.
- Foodsafety.gov, www.foodsafety.gov. Provides the latest headlines, recalls, safety information, alerts and advice related to food safety.
- Medline Plus, Food Safety, www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/foodsafety.html#cat59. Offers links to websites with credible information on various food safety topics.
- Safe Food by Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH (University of California Press 2003). Presents an interesting look at the politics behind food safety in the U.S.
Natalie Digate Muth, MPH, RD, is a registered dietitian and an ACE-, ACSM-, and NSCA-certified fitness professional. She is currently pursuing a medical doctor degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is also an ACE master trainer.
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