Listeria outbreak exposes red tape in U.S. food safety system

October 5th, 2011

By Patrick Rose, PhD & Czarina Biton, MPH
The recent listeria outbreak originating in Colorado melons conjures up an important question: why isn’t the issue of food-borne illness a top priority of federal regulators and why are they not doing more? Every year food-related illnesses affect 48 million Americans. That translates to about 1 in 6 Americans who get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die each year from food-borne diseases. What is our government doing to protect us, and what can we do to protect ourselves?  This most recent outbreak has been acknowledged to be the third worst food-borne related death toll in the U.S. So, why are we not putting more effort into saving people’s lives by preventing food-borne pathogens from reaching our kitchens? The answer has three parts: bureaucracy, money, and education.
A recent study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) identified at least 15 agencies that have oversight of the various food safety laws. This disconnect between agencies is so wide that multiple agencies have separate enforcement capabilities on different aspects of the same food type (e.g., seafood), which results in government red tape and ample opportunities for obvious sources of food-borne illnesses to fall through the cracks and make it into our kitchens. Key sources of outbreaks have varied between meat, dairy, vegetables and fruit products and it is the responsibility of the federal government to ensure that manufacturers and the public are educated on all potential sources of contamination. These efforts have also been hampered by a lack of funding because essential programs established in past decades are not being continued. Furthermore public outreach has not garnered the needed effect from the public to augment efforts on prevention and awareness of the issue in order to reduce food-borne related illnesses.
The good news is that efforts are being made to improve protection of our food supplies from contamination. The federal government recognizes the need to support state efforts to enforce food safety laws at the local level and to this end they have taken the initiative by signing into law the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) in January of 2011. The FSMA aims to ensure that the U.S food supply is safe by strengthening the food safety system and provides the FDA with the authority to hold imported foods to the same standards as domestic foods. The FDA is also tasked to develop an integrated national food safety system in collaboration with local and state partners. This law focuses on prevention, inspection and compliance, improving quality of imported goods, improving response to food-related outbreaks and developing partnerships at the domestic and international level. Government agencies are also making progress in streamlining surveillance programs to better identify food-borne illness outbreaks by bringing various agencies to work more closely together. An example includes the recently revised Coordinated Outbreak Response (CORE) Network. It is a collaboration between the FDA, CDC and USDA to improve monitoring and responding to potential outbreaks. Despite these efforts, effective food safety oversight is being hampered by a lack of funding to other important surveillance programs (e.g., the Microbial Data Program). Such programs were established many years ago to improve our capabilities to preempt outbreaks as the recent listeria contamination of cantaloupes.
The GAO has been tasked with identifying areas where the government can save money. To this end, the GAO has suggested that agencies better coordinate and merge functions, including oversight of food safety, into one entity. Most importantly that will allow one entity to regulate the food safety, thereby increasing effectiveness of food safety surveillance. Question is, how long will it take for this to be implemented? The lack of funding has taken some of the bite out of projects such as CORE, but such efforts are making us remain vigilant about food-borne illnesses; but more needs to be done now.
Our food sources have become more diverse. The food travels hundreds of miles and passes through many more hands before reaching ours. Combining that with more government bureaucracy and less funding increases the risk of food-borne illnesses. Yet the government isn’t the only answer to food safety. The public carries some of the blame. The simple remedy of paying better attention to hygiene is not entering our central conscience. Making it a point to wash your produce needs to be the cornerstone when making the public aware of what they need to do to protect on their own initiative. This effort alone can save many lives and maybe yours too.
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