Moms have for decades been able to rely on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as an easy and healthful meal for their kids. But as of last month, more than 325 people in more than 40 states had been infected with Salmonella from contaminated jars of peanut butter. Most troublesome from a food-safety perspective was that the first instances of this outbreak occurred in August of 2006, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) did not confirm the cause and issue a warning to the public until February 2007 - six months later.
Similar delays in detection and public notification occurred in several recent outbreaks involving E. coli contamination of spinach and lettuce. The incidents highlight the need for a reliable information network that can help health officials spot symptom and exposure patterns more expeditiously to speed reaction time. That's just one of the food safety challenges examined in this month's cover story, "How Safe is the Food Supply," by Assistant Editor Joseph Straw.
New developments on Capitol Hill that occurred as we went to press signal that food safety, long bubbling on the back burner, may now be ripe for legislative activity.
One catalyst for action was a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) singling out federal oversight of food safety as one of three newly identified high-risk federal programs in need of attention. The GAO noted that a hodgepodge of 15 agencies administers the roughly 30 federal laws relating to food safety. That framework results in inefficiencies and inconsistent oversight. For example, both the U.S. Department of Agriculture (responsible for meat, poultry, and processed egg products) and the Food and Drug Administration (responsible for nearly everything else) inspect shipments of imported food at U.S. ports of entry, but they do not share resources.
More worrisome, GAO notes that these agencies "do not know how promptly and completely companies carry out recalls, do not promptly verify that recalls have reached all segments of the distribution chain, and use procedures to alert consumers to a recall that may not be effective."
The GAO report, coupled with the E. coli and Salmonella outbreaks, spurred Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-CT) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) to introduce the 'Safe Food Act,' which would establish a single food safety agency. Meanwhile, a coalition of consumer and industry groups is calling for increased funding for the FDA - $115 million more for FY2008 - so that the agency will have more resources to rapidly detect outbreaks and track down the source of contamination.
Compared to the world at large, our food sector's performance is exemplary. But we cannot afford to be complacent. According to the CDC (which extrapolates from 1997 survey data), 76 million people fall ill each year in the U.S. from food-borne illnesses; 5,000 die. And that's without any malicious actors trying to contaminate our food supply.