Wednesday, February 21, 2007
Who's leading the charge on food outbreaks?
Over the past few months, we have been doing a lot of reporting about food-related bacterial outbreaks. Most recently, BJ's Wholesale Clubs recalled mushrooms. Turns out E. coli was found during routine testing, and a voluntary recall followed. Many think that's exactly how the system should work. There have been no reported illnesses.
Also, listeria has been found in chicken strips and salmonella in peanut butter. And, of course, late last year, E. coli dominated headlines with outbreaks at both Taco Bell and with spinach. More than 200 people became sick and three died because of tainted spinach.
Each year, more than 250 food-borne illnesses are reported in the United States, causing 76 million cases, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,200 deaths. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the cost of caring for these illnesses is more than $1 billion a year.
What has been most amazing to me, though, is the way these outbreaks are handled. First off, we weren't even sure who was in charge as we started doing our reporting. Was it the Food and Drug Administration or the U.S. Department of Agriculture? It is confusing. The USDA regulates 20 percent of the nation's food supply, while the FDA regulates 80 percent. You could literally have one government agency regulating chicken, while a different agency regulates eggs. And, remarkably, neither agency has the ability to institute mandatory recalls. All the recalls you hear about are voluntary.
No surprise then that there is some push for the Safe Food Act, which would create a Food Safety Administration. Like the Environmental Protection Agency, it would take responsibility for food from the USDA and FDA. Some people say it makes perfect sense to combine all these functions under one agency. Critics charge that, well, it is yet another agency. What do you think? How do we best manage food safety in this country?
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