Eat, drink and be merry—but is the food safe?

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Since October, an outbreak of antibiotic resistant salmonella in chicken has left nearly 450 people sick in 23 states. No deaths have been reported so far, but dozens have been hospitalized.

This recent outbreak has put U.S. food safety under the microscope—again—with calls for tougher inspection measures even as the government begins reforming food safety rules.

“Our current approach to salmonella outbreaks is not working,” said Sandra Eskin, director of the food safety project at the Pew Chairitable Trust.

Pew released a report last week citing “serious weaknesses” in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s oversight of the country’s poultry plants.

“We have old statutes that govern meat and poultry, like not being able to mandate a recall of a product,” said Eskin. “The laws don’t take what happens to public health into effect.”

The fact that antibiotic resistant bacteria caused the outbreak is a source of concern.

“It’s the most alarming issue,” said Emelie Peine, a global food economist at the University of Puget Sound.

“It’s a crisis of food and health coming together,” she explained. “We have the overuse of anti-biotics in animals and then the result of contaminated food.”

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3,000 deaths a year

An estimated 48 million Americans get sick from foodborne illnesses every year—roughly one out of every six people, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

Of those, nearly 128,000 people end up in the hospital for treatment, resulting in 3,000 deaths.

In a move to make consumers healthier, Congress passed and President Obama signed into law the Food and Safety Modernization Act of 2011. It’s the first sweeping reform in food safety in more than 70 years.

The law came out of recalls of tainted produce and peanuts in 2008 and 2009. It gives the FDA more power to monitor domestic and international produce with tougher inspections and to force recalls of tainted vegetables and fruits.

But there’s a big difference in who inspects which food in the U.S. The FDA’s domain is produce, while meat and chicken is monitored by the United States Department of Agriculture.

Because of the dividing lines, the USDA is not subject to any rule changes from the FDA.

“We don’t necessarily call for the two agencies to become one but the rules for the USDA need to be updated,” said Pew’s Eskin.

New rules for food safety

The Food and Modernization Act itself is a work in progress. It won’t go into full effect until 2015. Just last week, the FDA said it was holding back on some regulations that were set to be implemented this year.

Those changes included sections about standards for water quality and use of raw manure and compost, and provisions for mixed-use operations like farms with food-processing activities.

The rules for produce farms would prevent 1.75 million foodborne illnesses at a cost of $460 million a year for domestic farms and $171 million for foreign growers, according to the FDA.

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However, farmers expressed major worries about the proposals and the FDA said it’s allowing until the spring of 2014 to make any plans permanent—as the agency keeps its public comment process open.

“We think the FDA did not figure in accurately the true cost of the new rules to farmers,’ said Kelllie Ludlum, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau.

Those costs included the mandatory cleaning of tools used in the field, which were likely twice the figure the FDA came up with, said Ludlum.

“They counted one tool per worker, but we know most workers use more than one,” she said.

Another issue was that small farmers were exempt from the new FDA regulations. The size of a farm is not an indicator of the risk from contaminated food, Ludlum said.

Anti-biotic use in animals

What may be left for consumers to sort through is the growing use of antibiotics in animals, and the subsequent creation of drug resistant bacteria—leading to more infections of humans.

A survey from Consumer Reports, released the same day as Pew’s study and funded by Pew, found that more than half the raw chicken breasts it tested in U.S. stores were tainted with fecal contaminants and contained at least one multi-drug resistant bacterium.

Antibiotics are often used in animal feed, whether the animals are sick or not, to promote growth. There are strict guidelines on how much antibiotics to use in animals, but farmers and feed manufacturers are self-regulated at this point, on compliance for the rules. 

“The science in this may not be perfect but I’d like to see a ban on the antibiotics,” said Tim Richards, a professor of agriculture at Arizona State University’s W. P. Carey School of Business.

“We do need some heavier regulation of it,” he said.

But the farmers, who eat the same food as the rest of the county said AFB’s Ludlum, have an economic incentive to use antibiotics correctly

“If a farmer uses too much, they will get found out by the processing plant and won’t get paid,” she said.

Tracing the food chain

Most food analyst will tell you that the U.S food supply can’t ever be completely safe, but is arguably the safest in the world.

That’s why even the delay in the FDA’s new rules doesn’t have critics too worried.

“It’s good that they’re slowing down to make the regulations right,” said University of Puget Sound’s Peine. “Not one rule can fit all farmers. I think they’ll get the correct rules in place.”

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What has to be done is making sure the food is the safest it can be. And we’re not there yet, said ASU’s Richards.

“We need to be able to trace food completely and we don’t do that now,” argued Richards.

“If we know we can trace the food chain from start to finish if there is an outbreak, we can fix the problem faster and help avoid it next time,” he said.

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