USA, Washington. Americans rely on a vast network of farms and businesses to provide safe food daily. But in recent years, a string of high-profile recalls ranging from romaine lettuce to millions of pounds of beef to Ritz and Goldfish crackers have called into question the system developed to ensure safe food reaches people’s plates. The ubiquity of the problem can make grocery shopping a game of Russian roulette where what a family has for dinner could make them seriously sick.
While the US food safety system has improved significantly over the last 100 years, when toxics, fake foodstuffs and bacteria regularly infiltrated the supply, it is clear there is more work to do. A modern society relies on ensuring that the daily act of eating does not undermine the health of the population. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to get a handle on trends within the food system as ongoing, individual testing results are hard to access and may not indicate what hazards are reaching people’s mouths.
In 2011, the United States made significant upgrades to the food safety system by passing the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). This law, pushed through in the wake of a number of significant food recalls, was supposed to help the nation identify additional dangers by ensuring they were using modern techniques to track outbreaks of contamination like Salmonella and dangerous strains of E. coli, improve regulatory oversight of the food production system to minimize contamination, and update recall laws.
The US food safety system has two lines of defense. First, a series of protections including health standards, inspections and enforcement help keep contaminants out of the food supply in the first place. Second, when contaminated products make it to store shelves, the recall system helps remove these products from stores, homes and restaurants to keep people safe.
The research from US PIRG shows a dramatic increase in the number of recalls between 2013 and 2017. It is true that the ability to link infections together and trace them back to the source has improved significantly in the last decade through new technology such as Whole Genome Sequencing. This may explain some of these findings. But whether they always had a food safety problem and now they can see it, or the problem is getting worse in recent years, misses the point.
Americans should be confident that our food is safe and uncontaminated from dangerous bacteria like E. coli and Salmonella.
In addition, the number of recent high-profile recalls that stick in the public mind are the tip of the iceberg. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1 in 6 people in the US get foodborne illness with 128,000 individuals hospitalized and 3,000 dying every year. These infections include E. coli and Salmonella poisoning as well as Clostridium, Campylobacter and Toxoplasma gondii. The cumulative public health risk of foodborne illness warrants further study into causes and solutions.
The findings of the study by US PIRG make it clear that the food safety defenses need an across-the-board upgrade. Gaps in public health protections, enforcement and inspection make it too likely that dangers will reach Americans plates with potentially disastrous consequences. And, when these dangers are identified through analysis of disease vectors and health impacts, the US recall system often allows hazards to continue to impact people’s health.