Why Do We Hear So Much About Food Safety and Recalls?

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Foodborne illness is a common and costly public health problem, says the Center for Disease Control (CDC), but it is also preventable. The CDC estimates that one in six Americans get sick from contaminated foods or beverages each year, and 3,000 die. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that foodborne illnesses cost more than $15.6 billion each year.

These are significant figures. However, when a food safety breach occurs, it seems media outlets quickly jump on food producers, processors, distributors, food service providers or restaurants.

More likely than not, food safety issues are caused by improper handling of uncooked food.

“Bacteria are ubiquitous, says Jacek Jaczynski, professor of food science and muscle food safety in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design at West Virginia University. “They’re all around. You may see them in dust, soil and water, but if they get into food and grow in numbers that are high enough to cause infection or intoxication, that’s how contamination occurs.

‘Local’ Food May Not be Safer
It’s popular to buy food at farmers’ markets or roadside stands, because many consumers feel they’re minimizing their carbon footprint by lowering their food miles (which may not be the case, in reality), or buying environmentally friendly products (also not necessarily true).

However, foods that consumers buy from local sources often don’t meet the same strict standards required by large companies. They’re washed, delivered and handled differently.

“To protect ourselves, it’s really simple: Cook your food well and wash your hands for two minutes,” Jaczynski says. “In food safety, we always say, ‘When in doubt, toss it out.’ If you think somehow food seems suspicious to you, just don’t eat it. Don’t treat yourself as a lab experiment. People have done it before and that’s how we learn how dangerous foodborne pathogens can be.”

Could Regulations be a Culprit?
West Virginia University expert Simon Haeder says the massive increases in food recall over the last five years-- 92.7% for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and 83.4% for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (according to a study by the Stericycle Recall Index)-- could be attributed to alterations in agency regulations, a news release from West Virginia University stated.

Haeder says that based on research on “regulatory politics at the federal level, these numbers are to be expected.” He says the Office of Management and Budget “serves as the ultimate arbiter when it comes to issuing regulations, [and] we found that business interests, including agricultural interests and food producers, overwhelmingly out-lobby public interest groups at OMB. We also found that OMB is more likely to alter agency regulations in their favor.”

Business interests are more likely to look at food safety as a whole, and at processes that may be cumbersome or outdated and need to be revised through regulation. It makes sense, then, that rules from liberal agencies were altered more often than those from moderate or conservative agencies, and that’s what Haeder’s research found. Those findings were evident under both Republican and Democratic presidents, according to Haeder.

Challenges Remain
The CDC believes food safety issues will continue in the future, due to changes in food production and supply; more imported foods; new and emerging bacteria, toxins, and antibiotic resistance; and unexpected sources of foodborne illness, such as flour and meal replacement shake mixes.

To address these potential issues the CDC is working to make food safer. An article on the CDC website says it is accomplishing this task by:

  • Building state and local capacity to improve surveillance and investigation of foodborne illnesses through PulseNet, the Integrated Food Safety Centers of Excellence, and other programs.
  • Working with local, state, and federal partners to investigate outbreaks, and to implement systems to better detect, stop, and prevent them.
  • Using data to evaluate and revise foodborne disease prevention strategies and policies.
  • Working with other countries and international agencies to improve surveillance, investigation, and prevention of foodborne infections in the United States and around the world.

Take Responsibility
It boils down to making good decisions and taking a defensive approach to protect yourself and loved ones, says Jaczynski.

“We need to remember that from farm to table we have several events happening including manufacturing, including transportation, including retail sales, including your own house – and all these events can contribute to foodborne illnesses,” Jaczynski says.