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?
Sanjay--

We Americans and our food! The opportunities for us to become sick abound in the U. S. food supply. I think of how often I drive through the local "grab a burger" and watch from my van as the high school age cooks are preparing my meal. SCARY!!! I see lots of things going on in those restuarants that wouldn't on in my bathroom at home. The hair slinging, nose swiping, ear scratching, nail biting and the list goes on. What ends up in our food from these actions is bad enough let alone what the unpredictability factor serves up. Enviornmental sabatoge of our food supply is totally out of our hands. We think nothing of ingesting things from local markets and groceries that make be quite harmful to our health.
As far as government agencies trying to help---I think that would be about like the Hurricane Katrina fiasco. One agency can't do their job because the other agency prevents them from being effective. There are no easy answers to keeping our food supply safe. America is a country well blessed with an abundance of food. Therefore the opportunities for our food to be tainted with one thing or another is just going to be greater than normal I would think.
I've spent nearly 3 decades managing food quality and safety programs. The complexity of the issue is staggering. Economic necessities require longer and more convoluted supply chains. New methods of food preparation and packaging are tested, but don't have years of documented safety. Science discovers new pathogens and better testing methods.

With all of this, the food supply becomes safer every year. Billions of servings are produced and consumed without incident, and when incidents occur, many are rooted in human error (most often at the point of consumption).

So how to lead the charge you ask? Divide the Food and Drug Administration in two. Combine ALL responsibility for food safety from ALL agencies (USDA, state, and local) into the new Food Safety Administration. Steer this group with a combination of political appointees, industry leaders, scientists, educators, and consumer advocates. Give the FSA teeth AND a leash. Make their workings as public as possible.

Most food companies try to do the right things for the right reasons. Many need assistance in knowing what to do and how to do it. They also need a level playing field. It is expensive to run world-class food safety programs. We should not allow foods produced in other countries with lower standards to be sold here unless a tariff raises the cost to parity. The tariff can be used for research, education, and (where needed) enforcement.

Remember that most food poisoning comes, not from a package, but from the handling the food gets by us consumers.
Hi Dr Gupta,
I'm like most people, pardon the pun, but I'm sick and tired of being frightened by the food I eat. I think we should stop importing so much of our food supply. I think we should also make it a crime to cause food poisoning and real consequences be imposed on those that are found to be the culprit. Is food poisoning happening because of stupidity or trying to save a buck? I can't believe our country can't solve this, if we really wanted a solution. In the meantime, I guess my next meal will be a true game of hide and seek. Take Care
Hi Dr. Gupta,

I'm currently a student studying sanitation and I must agree with Tim. People tend to overreact to breakouts, but the chance of contamination is so small it's practically 0. The number of laws centering on food safety are so vast that it's disappointing that people think it isn't taken very seriously. Enforcement is not a huge issue, but the proposed FSA would certainly streamline this process. America has the largest and safest food supply in the world, including imports, and even though recalls are voluntary, there are other paths (injunctions, etc.) that the FDA may take if it believes a food supply is unsafe. Like any other industry, nothing can be perfect, but simply because of its nature I believe the food supply comes as close as possible to it.
Dr. Gupta,
I have been watching your reports on CNN, but I am surprised that like every other part of society, you too never covered Congenital Heart Disease and the problems infront of people living with these. I see that people with congenital heart disease mostly form there own groups (Like ACHA.ORG) with some (very limited) doctors, and still cannot get Life Insurance, Health Insurance and live with a lifetime of issues with no special privileges from society or the government. Still there is no permanent cure, leave apart prevention. People who get operated not necessarily get back a healthy lifestyle and are not considered insurable even after that.

As a respected figure in the field of medical science as well as in the society, would you please help these people in there struggle?
well it just shows how unorganized our governtment really is. what happened to common sense? doesn't seem like our government understands the meaning. there should be one agency regulating our food & i can't believe there still isn't. it doesn't take a genius to figure this out.
Americans are very spoiled by the cheap foods that are presented in our mass distribution store, fast food establishments and supermarkets. If you want cheap food, the health of you and your family will pay the price. Overprocessed food that provides questionable nutrition, creates diet induced diabetes and heart disease, or even contains food borne illness dominates almost everyone's pantry/fridge. Why? Because it was cheap. Americans spend less for food as a percentage of income than anyone in the history of the world (but more on healthcare, hmmm). We pay dearly through the poor health of our environment and ourselves. Buy food from local sources where you know who grew the animals or vegetables or fruits your family eats. Nothing guarantees the safety of your food more than the eye to eye transaction between a food producer, who's livelihood depends on your business, and you the buyer, who can ask questions and see for yourself how the food is grown and packaged. It may cost a little more, but the long term investment in the health of your family is worth it.
For over twenty years I was a long haul trucker.and 80 % of this time was spent in delivering food .Both fresh and processed.In 1982 I brougt a load of meat cuts from Montreal to Boston to be made into sausage. A USDA inspector was in the trailer stamping the boxes as they were unloaded.I stayed in the trailer the entire time and not once did the inspector open a box.I told him that as aconsumer I would no longer look ae a USDA inspection sticker the same way and he was doing the American people a great disservice.
Processed food is often loaded on a trailer within minutes of production and the drivers are given instructions to run the reefer"refrigerator unit " at 20 below .Product is not going to freeze totally in the 1 to 3 days it is in transit.
Produce is taken from the field and ran under cold water,boxed and loaded.They call the process pre-chilled.
I could go on but most of you get the message.I am not shocked at the problems with the food supply but I am glad we have not had more problems.
DuPont has a company named Qualicon that is selling some cutting edge food safety screening tests. I was googling food safety and their page came up. They sell an instrument called the BAX. check qualicon.com
I would be remiss not to point out the glaring political dichotomy regarding food inspections.

Under the Republican congress between 1994 to 2004, food safety inspections have consistentl gotten more and more lax, coincident with the increase in donations from industry lobbyists to Republican congresspeople.

It is no secret that conservatives cater to business interests, in this case, clearly overriding the health interests of the nation.
It Doesn't matter what the government legislates or what the people want, a government agency has by its very nature the economic impulse to be inefficient in doing the job that needs to be done. If they do a bad job they can claim that they didn't have enough money and can then get more money and therefore more pay. Forcing the private sector to police themselves instead of allowing them to claim that it was the governments fault would be a much better solution to the problem. If they were legislated as being the responsible party for the inspection, as in they had to pay the FDA for inspecting them, the responsibility would move to the producers, who have a huge incentive to be seen as being safe and reliable such that if forced to they would certainly pay whatever was needed to do be inspected. Also if the responsibility of the recall and any resulting damages was tied directly to the producer of food then we could be sure that very few incidents would occur. It makes sense to me to not waste more of my money but instead make those with a vested interest be forced to pay, both for the inspection and whatever mistakes happen.
I'm glad you're investigating food safety. A couple years ago, I got what seemed like food poisoning after eating a salad at a fast food restaurant. After about a year and a severe weight loss and chronic diarrhea, it was determined by stool testing that I had Giardia, apparently a fairly common intestinal parasite. Why are most doctors so ignorant about this?
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