Concerns Rise Over U.S. Food Safety
THURSDAY Oct. 11, 2007 -- In the last week:
- Topps, which billed itself as the leading U.S. maker of frozen hamburger patties, declared bankruptcy after the company recalled 22 million pounds of beef due to E. coli contamination.
- Sam's Club issued a nationwide recall of 840,000 pounds of a brand of beef patties believed to be responsible for four cases of E. coli poisoning.
- ConAgra Foods asked stores to remove its popular Banquet Chicken and Turkey pot pies after they were linked to at least 139 cases of salmonella in 39 states.
- 145 cases of food poisoning were reported in the United States.
A coincidence? Or is there a larger -- and worrisome -- problem with food safety in the United States?
Experts say the events of the last week owe to a combination of heightened public attention as well as significant flaws in the nation's food-safety system, including both production and oversight.
"This is just all an indication of the problems we have in the system," said Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at Consumers Union. "There's a heightened awareness about it, because the media is picking up on things. The [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] data shows an uptick of food-poisoning cases. And, in a heightened environment of attention, the government acts more."
These problems are just the latest in a long line of mishaps. For example, ConAgra, which made the questionable pot pies, also made the peanut butter tainted with salmonella that sickened 625 people in 47 states earlier this year.
What's going wrong?
For one thing, it's likely that given the current environment of heightened sensitivity to food safety, consumers -- and patients -- are connecting the dots more frequently.
"I think with the media attention over the past couple of years, people are more careful when they go to physicians to make a connection between some event, especially when they have a gastrointestinal-type disorder, and physicians are quicker to make a connection," said Dr. Philip Tierno, director of clinical microbiology and immunology at New York University Medical Center.
But part of the problem is also the food production and distribution system.
Any one beef patty will contain meat from several different animals. "One contaminated animal can screw up a big batch of ground beef," said Dr. Helene Andrews-Polymenis, assistant professor of microbial and molecular pathogenesis at Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine.
And it's not that easy to spot which animals really are sick, because those carrying potentially harmful germs in their intestines don't have any symptoms, Andrews-Polymenis said.
"Obviously sick animals get removed from the slaughterhouse, but these animals aren't sick," she said. "We have to find better ways to figure out what's going on. One of the ways is doing basic microbial testing on carcasses. The more public money spent on research and food-safety issues, the less we're going to have these problems."
Hansen added that supplies of meat used for hamburger patties will often be used from one day to the next. If it's not kept under strict conditions, it's a recipe for growing bacteria.
Then there's the larger issue of the industrialization and centralization of the nation's food system.
"The  spinach recall was Natural Selection foods. They packed spinach for how many different brands? Dozens and dozens," said Hansen. "When you start concentrating things, a little problem can become quite a big one."
Globalization of food production also plays a part. "We're getting products from all over the world more frequently now than ever before," said Tierno, author of The Secret Life of Germs and Protect Yourself Against Bioterrorism. "The diarrheal disease in the Third World experienced last week may visit your house tomorrow."
Combine these trends with regulatory shortcomings, and the problems are magnified. Experts such as Hansen say there aren't enough inspections of food plants in general. And that's because there aren't enough government inspectors to go around.
In fact, inadequate inspections are just one of a number of problems plaguing the government's food-safety system, experts say.
Another problem is the lack of a mandatory recall authority. All product recalls are voluntary on the part of the company. "The government not having mandatory recall authority is just absurd," Hansen said.
Some have proposed that a centralized food "czar" be put in control of all food-safety issues, rather than the current fragmented system, which is divided unequally -- and many say inequitably -- between the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"They had been talking about making this a cabinet-level position," Tierno said.
Obviously, much of the burden for remedy lies with big business and the government, but there are things consumers can do.
"Consumers can cook things to higher temperatures if they're concerned about killing bacteria," Hansen said.
Also, be careful not to cross-contaminate surfaces. If you've chopped a chicken on a cutting board, clean the board and the knife before using it on salad or vegetables.
"People can focus on things more locally and go to farmer's markets or join a CSA [Community Supported Agriculture]," Hansen said.
Visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for more on food safety.
Posted: October 2007