Just days after the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) unveiled a major study showing serious foodborne bacteria was found in ice cream production plants across 32 states, including New York, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer is making the case for critical strengthening with robust federal investments into the FDA’s food safety program that can help the agency better inspect, detect and do away with bad foods before they wind up on store shelves or kitchen tables. Specifically, and on the heels of the worst year in a decade for multistate outbreaks of foodborne illness, Schumer is pushing a plan to better protect meats, vegetables, and even ice cream from nasty bacteria, germs and diseases like Salmonella, Listeria, E. Coli and other pathogens that can make us very sick—or worse.
“The nation’s food supply, continuously stretched and under heavy demand, continues to see foodborne bacteria and germ outbreaks that know no limits, not even when it comes to sacred foods like ice cream,” said U.S. Senator Charles Schumer. “That’s why the FDA both needs and requires new tools and robust support to better help inspect, detect and do away with contaminated foods at the source. While ice cream is the latest example, the drip-drip-drip of foodborne illness outbreaks are ever predictable and do not discriminate. And the plot of this FDA study on ice cream proves that consumers will be in for a rocky road if the FDA does not continue to get new investments to help provide the latest tools it needs to cone-off contaminated foods.”
Specifically, Schumer’s plan hones in on former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb’s budget request for millions in federal funds to “improve food safety” and reduce the risks of foodborne illnesses. According to the FDA, “…the Budget (2020 request) includes an increase of more than $16 million to improve signal detection of foodborne illness and strengthen the FDA’s response to human and animal food contamination. This will allow the FDA to identify and trace outbreaks of illness to their source and remove contaminated food from the marketplace as quickly as possible to reduce risk to consumers. The FDA added that they “…also need to make sure that consumers are quickly informed when risks are identified, and that the (agency) takes swift action to reduce exposure to food that could threaten peoples’ health.”
Schumer points out that this same budget request details another need for roughly $16 million in federal funds to improve food safety inspections using new technology. The FDA said, “…promising new technologies have the potential to improve human and animal health, animal well-being, food productivity and food security. The FDA will continue to facilitate the safe development of these emerging technologies by investing in continued enhancements to our review capabilities for biotechnology products.”
Schumer explained that many of these increases in critical FDA dollars would help propel the wide use of cutting-edge technological strategies critical to stopping bad food from making its way to store shelves and kitchen tables. For example, the Whole Genome Sequencing Program (WGS) allows the federal agency to reveal the DNA make-up of foods and detect unwanted organisms before they enter the mainstream food supply. According to the FDA, “The most basic application of this technology to food safety is using it to identify pathogens isolated from food or environmental samples. These can then be compared to clinical isolates from patients. If the pathogens found in the food or food production environment match the pathogens from the sick patients, a reliable link between the two can be made, which helps define the scope of a foodborne illness outbreak.”
In all, Schumer is announcing his intention to push for an increase of at least $32 million in federal dollars in the 2020 budget now being negotiated in order to give the FDA additional resources to invest in the latest tools and technology it says it needs to prevent the spread of foodborne illness and beat back this uptick in pathogen spread. Schumer announced today that he will work to include this level of federal spending in the upcoming final budget he is negotiating with Congressional leadership.
“We see the headlines, almost daily, of another foodborne illness outbreak. And the fact is: we should do more to prevent these outbreaks, because they sicken hundreds a year and too many people succumb to far worse. While ice cream calls attention to the issue, the cold, hard truth is that this is about all foods and all consumers,” Schumer added. “Prior to his departure, Commissioner Gottlieb announced that the FDA needed to act, and now Congress has got to follow through and make it happen.”
Schumer said hundreds of people get sick every year from foods that are recalled and pathogens that unknowingly spread post production. From meats, to veggies, and even ice cream, the feds are constantly working to keep pace with a rigorous production pace that can, sometimes, spread serious foodborne illness and germs.
According to reports, the FDA spent 2016 and 2017 inspecting and taking environmental samples from 89 ice cream plants in 32 states, spurred by two foodborne illness facts: There were 16 ice cream product recalls for pathogens from 2013 through 2016, and three people died in the 2015 Blue Bell Ice Cream listeria outbreak.
Schumer said that many everyday food products have been recalled this year, including some in New York. For instance, this past January, the FDA recalled thousands of cartons of fruit shipped to New York grocery stores over concerns of listeria contamination. Additionally, in December 2018, 12 million pounds of beef sold nationwide were recalled due to concerns of salmonella contamination.
The CDC estimates Salmonella causes about 1.2 million illnesses, 23,000 hospitalizations, and 450 deaths in the United States every year and food is the source for about 1 million of these illnesses. Additionally, the CDC estimates that E. coli contributes to 265,000 illnesses, 3,600 hospitalizations and 30 deaths each year. An estimated 1,600 people get sick from Listeria each year and about 260 people die. The CDC says Listeria is most likely to sicken pregnant women and their newborns, adults aged 65 or older, and people with weakened immune systems.