Each year, around 50 million Americans get sick from eating unsafe food, resulting in more than 100,000 hospitalizations, 3,000 deaths and countless days of missed work. 1 There is a one in six chance that you will suffer from a foodborne illness this year. 1
Food should be a source of nourishment, not an opportunity for potential exposure to bacteria that can make you sick, such as Salmonella, Campylobacter, Listeria or E. coli. Unfortunately, our industrialized food system is dominated by a small number of large corporations that are producing food in more industrialized ways. And the fallout of this system can sometimes be measured in sickness and even fatalities.
Recent food safety breakdowns involving peanut butter, spinach, ground beef, eggs and ground turkey have resulted in hundreds of product recalls, thousands of illnesses and widespread media attention, but failed to change the way food is produced, or processed. 2 3 4 Similarly, government regulators initiate recalls of unsafe food products on an almost daily basis but have failed to address the dangerous production and manufacturing practices that cause the problems.
Strengthening government regulation and enforcement of corporate food producers, and breaking up their stranglehold on the food system, are key steps to improving food safety.
Most food-related illness outbreaks are caused by bacteria, viruses and parasites. Salmonella, which was found in peanut butter in 2009, is one of the more common bacteria found in food, responsible for 1.4 million cases of foodborne illness and 400 deaths annually. 5 In 2011, Salmonella was found in products ranging from bologna to hazelnuts. 6 Medical costs and lost wages due to Salmonella poisoning have been estimated at over $1 billion a year.
Another common source of foodborne illness is E. coli. There are many strains of this bacteria, which is found in the intestinal tract of animals and in their waste. Some strains, such as E. coli 0157:H7, are particularly dangerous for humans. This pathogen has often been found in beef products but is now also showing up in fruit and vegetable products, possibly as a result of produce coming into contact with manure or water containing E. coli. One worrisome trend that has been identified as a potential risk for spreading E. coli is large producers who attempt to reduce costs by using a variety of sources of beef in making ground beef, adding the cheapest cuts of beef that are more likely to come in contact with feces containing E. coli. 2E. coli contamination of beef is now commonplace, including more than 200,000 pounds recalled in July 2011. 7
Given the private sector’s desire to push profits at all costs, food safety protections for consumers are dependent on strong government regulations. Unfortunately, government policy and regulations have been unduly influenced by industry, creating lax or favorable rules that decrease the cost of business but put consumers at risk. In many respects, regulators act in a more reactive than preventative manner, using voluntary product recalls to respond to major food safety scandals rather than addressing the underlying problems. For example, little is currently being done to address some of the root issues in food safety, such as the conditions on factory farms and increasingly rapid speeds in slaughterhouses.
Responsibility for the safety of food is split between different government agencies.
• United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) The USDA is responsible for the oversight of all domestic and imported meat and poultry, including processed foods containing meat and poultry products, and processed egg products. The USDA also inspects animals before and after slaughter, inspecting meat and poultry processing plants (domestic and foreign), testing and analyzing samples, and seeking voluntary recalls if products are adulterated or misbranded. 9
• Food and Drug Administration (FDA) The FDA is in charge of 80 percent of the food we eat, including most non-meat products. The agency’s main roles in ensuring food safety are to inspect food production and review food safety for new products. 9 The agency can order a recall of unsafe products.
• Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) The CDC investigates and works with states to track foodborne disease outbreaks. 9
• State and Local Governments work with federal agencies to enforce and implement safety standards for fish, seafood, milk and other foods produced within the state border. State officials are also empowered to inspect retail establishments, dairy farms, milk processing plants, grain mills and food manufacturing plants. States can also stop, or embargo, the sale of unsafe food products within the state. 9 State health departments are also on the front lines of investigating foodborne illness outbreaks and identifying the food making people ill.
Corporate agribusiness is increasingly shifting liability for food safety to consumers, instructing them to wash and cook food thoroughly to eliminate potential food safety hazards. Proper cooking of foods can reduce the impact of some pathogens on human health, but because many foods are eaten raw or with minimum cooking, cooking alone is not a foolproof way to combat the dangerous shortcomings of industrialized agriculture.
The cooking directions on ConAgra’s frozen potpies failed to keep nearly 15,000 consumers safe from Salmonella lurking in the product, though the company initially blamed consumers for undercooking. 10 11 Because different microwaves have different wattages, cooking time can vary widely—an illustration of how shortsighted shifting liability to consumers is. 11
In a similar fashion, government regulators have been quite enthusiastic about so-called post-harvest food safety interventions favored by industry—using chemical washes or irradiation to kill bacteria, for example. Missing from their push for these attempts to clean up contamination is a thorough discussion of where contamination starts and how to prevent it, or a full accounting of the problems created by injecting meat with ammonia or irradiating it with spent nuclear fuel. 13 14 There are many opportunities to prevent contamination, with slower line speeds in slaughter plants, stronger government inspection authority and more careful work to ensure that feces and other contamination does not come in contact with products in the first place, rather than simply focusing on disinfecting or rinsing contaminants off.
Tellingly, when consumers began falling sick from ConAgra’s pot pies, the company was unable to identify which of the dozens of ingredients in its highly processed product were the cause of the salmonella. 10 As food companies increasingly process foods, adding more salt, sugar and flavor enhancers, they are also introducing more risk. The global supply chain of minor ingredients makes it extremely difficult to trace foodborne illness or keep tabs on production practices of suppliers.
Industry and government alike often scramble for weeks to determine the source of contamination in a food product, a guessing game made all the more challenging by the dozens of different parties that may be involved in producing a single product. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been unable to trace and identify the actual agents responsible for the vast majority of foodborne illnesses that occur in the United States. 1
The global supply chain has been strengthened through a number of trade agreements, notably the World Trade Organization, resulting in a surge of cheap food imports to the United States. For example, today the majority of apple juice concentrate—found in many different juices—comes from China, a country notorious for its food safety problems. 15 16 17
This stands in marked contrast to local or direct markets for food, where consumers can buy food directly from the farmer who grew it.
Pesticides used in fruit and vegetable production, animal feed and even inside factory farms has been linked to poisoning, infertility, birth defects, damage to the nervous system and potentially cancer. 18 Likewise, the use of non-therapeutic antibiotics by factory farms has led to significant concerns about antibiotic resistance , which makes important drugs less effective in treating human disease.
Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or mad cow disease results from the practice of feeding cattle with nervous system material from other cattle that were infected with the disease. Since the disease’s first appearance in British dairy herds in 1986, BSE has affected roughly 200,000 cattle, including several in the United States. BSE in cows has been linked to Variant Creutzfeld-Jacob Disease or vCJD in humans, which is thought to take up to 30 years to manifest and has no cure.
Looking for the USDA organic seal can tell you part of the story of how your food was produced. Organic producers cannot use antibiotics or synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, which should lead to healthier soil and food.
However, the organic standards are not food safety regulations. As organic grows more popular with consumers, international suppliers and larger domestic farms are starting to sell organic produce. This may change the risk profile of these products for food safety, making it just as important to have effective food safety regulations for organic food.
In 2011, President Obama signed a new law aimed at improving the ability of the Food and Drug Administration to ensure food is produced safely. 21 Importantly, the law instructs FDA to do things like develop regulations for how fruits and vegetables are produced and harvested, and compels the agency to ramp up its inspections of foreign food processors, which supply an ever-increasing amount of the food we eat. 21 The legislation begins to address FDA’s limited authority in tackling food safety, but there is still more to do. For instance, the Farm Bill has tremendous influence on how food is grown and processed, and therefore the food safety risk faced by consumers.
Independent family farmers are a sure source for sustainably produced and locally grown food. By buying locally, you can increase your chance of getting a fresh, high-quality product. Local farmers may invite you to visit the farm or talk about any food safety concerns that you may have. Most importantly, if you buy close to the source, you can help create local food systems, which are the exact opposite of the quantity over quality kind of food production that has created many of the food safety problems described above. To find a farmer near you, visit Eat Well Guide.
• In 2007, 3 million broiler chickens were fed pet food containing toxic wheat gluten imported from China, and then sold to restaurants and supermarkets all over the United States. 23
• Medical costs and lost wages due to Salmonella poisoning have been estimated at over $1 billion/year. 24
• Only 90 out of 300 import locations have full-time FDA inspectors on site. 23