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Over the past few years, Americans have grown accustomed to seeing headlines about tainted foods being recalled and pulled off of store shelves. Recent recalls included contaminated cantaloupe, mangoes, papayas, peanut butter, ground turkey and beef, and yellow-fin tuna.
Despite government commitments to address the problem, food recalls are on the rise and our food safety systems are broken. Contaminated food makes 48 million Americans sick every year and costs over $77 billion in aggregated economic costs.
Foodborne illness can be much more severe than a simple upset stomach. It can cause serious chronic health problems and even death. Infection with a certain strand of E. coli bacteria, for example, can cause kidney dysfunction or failure, and certain types of Shigella, Salmonella, and Campylobacter bacteria can trigger the onset of reactive or chronic arthritis. If a pregnant woman is infected with certain types of Listeria monocytogenes, her baby is at risk for developmental delays, paralysis, or blindness.
A new report released by MASSPIRG earlier this month studied foodborne illnesses, specifically related to outbreaks from known pathogens linked to recalls from January 2011 to September 2012. The vast majority of foodborne illnesses are not part of recognized outbreaks that can be clearly linked to a specific food product, and recalled.
The report found that based on a review of the illnesses related to food recalls only, the number of Americans falling ill or dying from contaminated food has increased 44% in the past two years. In Massachusetts, we saw 48 people sick costing the state half a million dollars.
The findings of the report were disturbing, because despite sweeping reforms of food safety laws intended to make what we eat less dangerous, we are still seeing an unprecedented wave of food recalls.
Two years ago, President Barack Obama signed into law the Food Safety Modernization Act, a long overdue piece of legislation giving the Food and Drug Administration more power to improve our food safety programs by prioritizing prevention, increasing company transparency, and creating safer foreign food facilities.
But while some parts of the law have been enacted, the vast majority of the law’s regulatory framework, including improved safety standards and inspection systems, are not fully funded or staffed. There are four produce rules, for example, which are currently in limbo, sitting in the White House Office of Management and Budget. These rules if they had been released on time may have prevented many of the produce-related foodborne illness outbreaks we saw over the past summer.
The task of eliminating the need for recalls and reducing foodborne illness is not an easy one. Many federal and state food safety laws were enacted at the beginning of the 20th century. They are now outdated and unable to effectively protect us from foodborne pathogens, particularly in an environment where more and more foods are imported.
For too long the food industry has lobbied to ensure the status quo and against meaningful food safety reforms. The American Meat Institute for example lobbied against expanding required testing for deadly bacteria in ground beef. And as you can imagine, other nations get upset when the U.S. government demands higher scrutiny of imports.
Despite having jurisdiction over most of the food supply, the Food and Drug Administration, is constantly under-funded, limiting their inspection and enforcement actions – again, thanks to powerful lobbyists who like it that way.
The Food Safety Modernization Act is an important step towards an improved system that can reduce our vulnerability to unsafe food. But its promise has so far remained unfulfilled. Our health and pocket books cannot afford further delays for a much needed and long overdue safer food system.
Deirdre Cummings is the legislative director for MASSPIRG, a non-profit, non-partisan consumer protection organization.
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