Some see lack of
progress in reducing food safety risks
GEORGINA GUSTIN, St. Louis Post-Dispatch Monday,
April 13, 2009
Rates of food-borne
illnesses have remained roughly level since 2004, the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention reported Thursday, revealing what health officials and
regulators say is an alarming lack of progress in reducing food safety risks.
The rate of illnesses from salmonella — the bug that struck hundreds of
Americans in recent outbreaks involving peanut butter and hot peppers — is
twice the level federal agencies had hoped to reach, according to the CDC.
Meanwhile, produce-related food poisonings are on the rise.
“We need greater efforts along the food chain — from farm to table,” said Dr.
Robert Tauxe of the CDC.
Faced with bigger, more complex food-poisoning outbreaks in recent years,
government agencies have been forced to devote the bulk of their resources to
reacting only after people became sick. Outbreaks also are becoming more
difficult to investigate as more imported food pours into the U.S. and food
distribution networks become more complex.
“As supply chains get longer and longer, there’s more opportunity for
contaminants,” said Dr. Stephen F. Sundlof, director of the Food and Drug
Administration’s Center for Food Safety. “One single ingredient can have a
very wide distribution.”
Investigators also have to cope with the emergence of new forms of illness.
“Our pathogens have complicated ecologies that may be changing, and we have
very little information about that,” Tauxe said.
The CDC report focused on data collected from 10 states through a government
surveillance network dubbed FoodNet. The network tracked food-borne pathogens
dating back to 1996. The data showed declines in cases of several food-borne
illnesses from 1996 to 2004, but those numbers have leveled off since.
In recent years, however, several prominent outbreaks have heightened
awareness of food poisoning and triggered several bills in Congress that
would overhaul the food safety system. The Obama administration has declared
food safety a priority, and last month established a Food Safety Working
Group to address what the president called an “unacceptable” status quo.
“Our system of inspection and enforcement is spread out so widely among so
many people that it’s difficult for different parts of the government to
share information, work together and solve problems,” the president said in
The agencies responsible for food safety and responding to outbreaks are
vast, unwieldy and often fail to communicate effectively, many critics and
regulators say. Last year, when a cluster of salmonellosis cases appeared in
Jefferson County, inspectors and scientists from three federal agencies came
to the area to oversee different parts of the investigation.
“We’ve dealt directly with the CDC, the FDA and the Department of Agriculture
on some of these issues as most health departments have,” said Dennis Diehl,
the county’s health director. “But because of the way the responsibilities
are delegated to those different agencies, the FDA doesn’t always know what
Agriculture or what CDC is doing, and sometimes it’s hard to get
Critics say the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees 80 percent of
the food in the U.S., is overwhelmed and devotes more resources to drug
oversight than food. Last year, however, the agency hired 150 more
inspectors, and plans to hire roughly 30 more scientists and consumer safety
officers. The agency also has opened several international offices, in China,
Latin America and India. “It’s become very clear that preventative controls
are critical,” said David Acheson, associate commissioner for foods at the
Food and Drug Administration. “FDA certainly needs to do more inspections.”
Food safety experts generally agree that more inspections and more emphasis
on prevention rather than reaction will be key to addresses food poisoning
One bill introduced in Congress would call for a single food safety agency to
streamline the food safety system. Another calls for preventative controls in
high-risk facilities and points along the food chain.
Michael Taylor, a professor at the George Washington School of Public Health
and former deputy commissioner for policy at the Food and Drug
Administration, agrees the country’s food safety system needs to undergo a
“It has to shift from people getting sick to a framework of prevention where
you clarify the industry’s duty to implement modern preventative controls,”
Taylor said. “Also defining through government standards what’s good enough,
and following up with inspection and enforcement.”
Taylor, as well as other food safety experts, say the time is ripe for
substantial change, noting the reform theme of the Obama administration.
“You’ve got a visible presence for reform,” Taylor said, “and that’s an
important part of this.”