PIRG report indicates more work needed on food safety

12/17/13 Seán Kinane
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Tags: food, food safety, PIRG, FL PIRG

photo by WMNF File Photo 2012

Two years ago Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act and the president signed it into law.

But a new report indicates more work is needed to protect Americans from unsafe food.

We interviewed Dalyn Houser, a program associate with the Florida Public Interest Research Group (FL PIRG). It's a consumer advocacy organization.

"We analyzed data from the Center for Disease Control, the CDC, just for one year between October 2012 and 2013. We found that 48 million people get sick from eating tainted food each year. And that despite trying to put new regulations in place, such as the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011, that the food borne illness incidence rise is essentially remaining stagnant and it's potentially even getting worse. So we found that a number of food has been causing significant illnesses. I can throw some numbers out there to show you how significant it is so just in one year alone 1494 food borne illnesses were linked to multi-state outbreaks. 335 hospitalizations occurred. 615 incidences of salmonella. 2 deaths from food borne illness in just one year, and 643 incidences of cyclospora which is also a food borne illness. These are very significant, high numbers. Another issue with this is that these can turn into chronic issues so women are miscarrying who develop these problems. One of the foods that was recalled was Trader Joe's peanut butter so many children were sickened by that. These illnesses can cause chronic issues like kidney failure, if a woman is pregnant carrying a child then it can lead to paralysis, blindness, things like that in their child if they're infected with listeria or other types of food borne illnesses."

How is it that Congress passes new legislation that's supposed to reduce the amount of food borne illness and the level stays steady? Why is that happening?

"There are two problems here with this. The first one is that there is not enough funding in place to do so, so Obama did increase funding to go to the FDA. However, their turnaround time for regulations is extremely slow so companies have 18 months to enact food safety regulation and that's just unacceptable. Also, along with that, they have a period of 5 years where they are allotted to inspect high risk food facilities. 5 years is a ridiculously long time and after that inspection then they don't have to have re-inspection for another 3 years. It's a matter of really lack of funding, there are not enough employees to inspect these facilities, so that's a major issue. Another major problem is that our federal food system is very spread out. The Government Accountability Office basically came out with a quote, a study saying 'our food system is fragmented' here in the United States. Essentially around 15 different organizations and entities are responsible for the regulation of our food safety. So this new act that was passed by Congress, the Food Safety Modernization Act, is only one part of it. They only affect the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration. That's just one entity that regulates things so the Food Safety Improvement Services, which is another entity that regulates our food, such as our meat, poultry and eggs aren't even included in this at all so they do not require the same regulations that were passed in the 2011 act. So, essentially with meat, eggs, and poultry there can be no mandatory recalls, there can be no sort of mandatory inspections, things like that, that were implemented in the 2011 act."

How is the safety of foreign food compared to food that's grown or farmed here?

"I think that definitely there is an issue going on with the safety of foreign food. I think there's also a problem here in the United States, but it seems like it's a more significant issue with foreign food. Especially with the way the food is handled and the hygiene of workers, probably a bigger problem with foreign imports and part of the new act that was passed in 2011 is supposed to address that, so now this act is supposed to put forth regulation which would require food companies in the United States who purchase from foreign companies to actually test the food and be accountable for the food that they're selling through these foreign companies."

What should Congress or the President do to make food more safe? What can people do to encourage that?

"I think that there are a number of things that need to happen. Firstly, Congress needs to give the FDA sufficient funding it needs to enact these regulations and make sure that food safety is a priority. We do not have the funding in place or the manpower employees to make sure that food is being inspected carefully. That's a huge problem. Another thing is that the FDA needs to insure timely implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act regulations so instead of taking months to come back from these programs and put them in place, we need to do it a lot faster since this is a really huge issue affecting, severely affecting people's health. Also we need to have more frequent and unannounced inspections of high risk food facilities. Like I said earlier, there's a five year time window that requires inspection. That needs to be significantly increased, I would say. Also, this is very important, we need to make sure that there's better connectivity between the 15 or so different entities that regulate our food system. Since we have the USDA, the US Department of Agriculture, the FSIS, the Food Safety Inspection Services, and also the Food and Drug Administration, these are just some of the key players, there are also others, we need to make sure that these people are held accountable and work together and that we don't have a fragmented system like this any longer. I think that's a key point."

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