The US food safety system was profiled today in an article published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  The article, which is the first in a three-part series, focused on what we know about our food safety system: 

  • Fresh produce is more and more popular, and has become the leading cause of foodborne illness outbreaks.  Spinach, lettuce, sprouts, parsley, basil, tomatoes, and other fresh produce items have been identified as the source of E. coli, Salmonella, and other foodborne pathogens in recent years.

    Bruce Clark, a partner in Seattle-based Marler Clark, commented on the increase in produce-related outbreaks for the story:

The widening of E. coli cases from protein products to fresh fruits and vegetables is related to "the fact that U.S. agricultural commodities tend to be grown in areas that have cattle, which are reservoirs for bacteria," explained Bruce Clark, a partner in the Seattle law firm of Marler Clark, which represents victims of food poisoning. "As soon as you have manure on the ground, and you have birds and wild animals and water, you have all these vectors for transferring bacteria to fresh fruits and vegetables.

And, most of the time, Clark added, produce is not subjected to the "kill step" (usually cooking), which would eliminate the pathogens. In fact, washing may not even help because of the ability of the organisms to cling to food surfaces.

  • Meat, which was previously the most prevalent cause of foodborne illness outbreaks, is back on public health officials’ and food safety experts’ radar, as 2007 brought several recalls due to E. coli contamination.
  • Large food firms have begun purchasing smaller firms, and the consolidation of food resources has resulted in wider distribution of food products by fewer suppliers.  A small amount of contaminated food can now travel greater distances and be more geographically disbursed, thus leading to widespread outbreaks that are not geographically concentrated and are harder to trace.
  • Government agencies charged with the responsibility for ensuring our nation’s food is safe face challenges.  The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) works with 20 percent of the nation’s food safety budget, but regulates 80 percent of food products.  The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) works with 80 percent of the nation’s food safety budget, but regulates only 20 percent of food products.  

The story’s author, who will continue the article series with a piece on imported produce, wrote:

The whole food production system has grown increasingly concentrated, overwhelmingly complex, and — paradoxically — at times fragmented.

At the same time, critics charge, U.S. government oversight is not adequate.

"Our real issue here comes down to appropriate oversight and regulation by our government agencies," said Mickey Parish, chairman of the department of nutrition and food science and acting chairman of the Center for Food Systems Security at the University of Maryland. "They have been cut back so severely in the last six to eight years that, quite frankly, it is more difficult to do the proper inspections that need to be done to ensure that the food is absolutely as safe as it possibly can be."