Once Again, Food Safety is an Urgent Concern

BlogHer Original Post

Let's get one thing straight; I love a good, juicy, flame-grilled burger, preferably with cheese. But I'm not dying for one. 

Unfortunately, a story in today's New York Times reveals that after years of industry self-regulation, tens of thousands of people are sickened every year by E. Coli. a bacteria commonly found in animal feces. In a small percentage of those cases, people are sickened to the point of paralysis or death.

The Times story focused on the story of Stephanie Smith, a 22-year-old dancer from Minnesota, who spent weeks in a coma and became paralyzed from the waist down after eating a grilled hamburger in 2007. They traced the patty that Smith ate to a meat processor, Cargill, and three separate suppliers, in Nebraska, Texas and Uruguay. While they were unable to pinpoint the precise source of the contamination, they did find that both Cargill one of its suppliers have been accused of failing to follow proper safety procedures. What's worse, the Times reported, at the time of the 2007 outbreak that injured Smith, USDA officials found "serious problems" 55 out of 224 meat processing plants that were subjected to impromptu inspections.

Xeni Jardin at Boingboing captured what a lot of readers most likely felt:

"Ground beef is not a completely safe product," one food safety expert in the article is quoted. Well, no s***."

Why is that -- and how serious is the problem of meat contamination? A 2002 PBS Frontline docmentary found an array of experts who agreed that despite disturbing incidents such as the E. coli outbreak that paralyzed Stephanie Smith, the meat supply is basically safe. Preliminary 2008 data from the Center for Disease Control indicates that the rate of contamination by E Coli and other food-borne pathogens hasn't changed much in the last three years.

Since 1998, meat suppliers have been required to subject their products to scientific examination in order to detect microbial contaminants. This system of industry self-regulation, known as HACCP, was part of the response to the fatal 1993 E. coli outbreak that killed several children who ate Jack-In-the-Box hamburgers.  However, while experts agree that HACCP is an improvement over the old system that depended primarily on the eyes and noses of USDA inspectors, it's basically up to suppliers to decide how closely they want to examine their product.

The Times story quoted the food safety director at Costco as saying that some suppliers won't sell them meat because they insist on inspecting the product. While Costco's vigilance is commendable, a 2008 study by the Food Safety Inspection Service found that it's especially important to inspect for contamination when the animal is slaughtered.

Connecticut Congresswoman Rosa de Laura has been arguing for years that we need to strengthen and streamline federal oversight of the food supply, In a 2007 speech, she argued for passage of her Food Safety Modernization Act:

Today, there are 15 different agencies currently responsible for administering 30 laws related to food safety.  It is time to consolidate many of these functions and provide a regulatory structure that takes full advantage of the great work being done by the scientists at the FDA and state laboratories as well.

It is possible, through a streamlined regulatory structure to require regular inspections of all food processing plants, increase oversight of imported foods, provide for outbreak surveillance, require the tracing of foods to point of origin, and ensure effective public communication.

According to Govtrack.us, De Lauro's Food Safety Modernization Act was re-introduced in February, 2009, awaiting consideration by three House committees. Critics have unleashed such vigorous attacks on the bill, Snopes.com put up a page to debunk outlandish claims that if passed, the bill would outlaw organic farming.

 

In March, Pres. Obama announced the creation of a Food Safety Working Group, led by the Secretaries of the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services. He also sought a $1 billion increase for food safety inspectors. Food safety, Obama argued, "is one of the things government can do." At the time, Huffington Post writer Paula Crossfield warned that instituting meaningful reform won't be easy:

For food policy advocates, the Food Safety Working Group is cause for a huge sigh of relief. It appears that food safety was the way to get the public's attention on the issues facing our food system all along, as its plays right into our inherent ability to respond to fear. Everywhere you look these days the talk is e. coli, salmonella and now MRSA contamination via pigs. As a result, people are reading labels and questioning the food supply more than ever before.

Read more at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paula-crossfield/will-obamas-food-safety-w_b_175032.html

In July, the Administration announced several policy initiatives that it said would improve the safety of the food supply, including, "stepping up enforcement in beef facilities."  It remains to be seen how effective that stepped up enforcement will be. 

For now, though, consumers are worried. Southern Liberal feels safest buying "local ground beef that is grass-fed." JanieC52 is buying local too, and reminding everyone to cook their meat to the proper temperature.

As for me, I'll lay low on the burgers for a while. I need to eat more veggies anyway.

Related: 

Is your food safe? 2007 BlogHer post on the difficulty of tracking the source of our produce.

FoodSafety.gov Federal portal with food safety information

Hamburgers, Food Safety and Network Economics A roundup of scholarship on the economics of making food supply chains more transparent and accountable.

E Coli blog Law firm blog tracking incidences of contamination and litigation

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