As a kid I was petrified of beef. What if I ate a burger, got infected with mad cow disease and went crazy years later? While I was afraid of beef, foods like peanut butter, eggs, sprouts and cantaloupes were definitely not on my fear radar. But maybe they should have been, because all of those foodstuffs have been responsible for deadly outbreaks in the past few years. Since July, American cantaloupes contaminated with the bacteria Listeria have sickened over 100people and killed 25people —the worst food-spread disease outbreak in decades.
The Food &Drug Administrationrecently tracked the infected cantaloupes to a single farm in Colorado, which was found to have conditions conducive to Listeria growth and spread. Disturbingly, the farm had passed a food safety audit just before the outbreak started. These audits are common practice, so that restaurants and grocery stores can ensure they’re getting safe food. But the FDAhas not set guidelines for audits or auditor training and, worse still, the auditors have a conflict of interest because they are hired by the suppliers themselves. To be fair, given that there are not established protocols for cleaning cantaloupes it seems there could be genuine confusion about appropriate conditions for melon growth and harvest. For example, cleaning cantaloupes with water could provide a hospitable environment for the growth and spread of Listeria.
The listeria outbreak is the latest in a series of troubling revelations about the quality of food safety monitoring in this country. It has been known for some time that there are at least six strains of E.colithat can cause serious illness. This past summer, thousands of Europeans got sick from eating sprouts contaminated with yet a new, seventh virulent strain of E.coli. Screening kits are already available to test for the six previously identified virulent E.coli strains and several companies are working to develop tests for the seventh. Society pays a high price when our food is contaminated. Not only do individuals get sick and sometimes die, but companies go bankrupt recalling produce and consumers stop buying from entire industries.
In spite of this, most suppliers have balked at the increased costs associated with additional E.coli testing, arguing that monitoring for one strain is sufficient. Fortunately, starting next March, the Department of Agriculture will not allow the sale of ground beef that has not been tested for all seven known E.coli strains. This is a major victory for public health, but its impact may be blunted by inconsistent safety evaluations and training procedures. In an effort to standardize safety practices and give additional recall power to the FDA, the Food Safety Modernization Act was signed into law by President Barack Obama in January. However, since then the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has cut funding for the FDA, putting the ultimate effectiveness of the act in doubt.
When we buy food at grocery stores, we do so under the assumption that nothing truly ominous lurks in the peanut butter jar or in the salad greens box. Most of us, even my childhood self, still have enough faith in the system to eat beef. If the food industry wants us to keep believing, it should be cooperating with the FDA, the Department of Agriculture. and conscientious members of Congress to establish and implement more rigorous food safety standards. Steadfast opposition isn’t just playing politics, it’s playing with people’s lives.