Tracing Of Foodborne Illnesses Falls Under A Patchwork Of
Poorly-run, Under-resourced State Labs
of Article: http://www.perishablepundit.com/
We’ve been writing about it for years,
but finally The New York Times has picked up on the food safety
problem caused by incompetent and under-resourced state labs. Gardiner
Harris wrote a piece titled, Ill
From Food? Investigations Vary By State:
In just about
every major contaminated food scare, Minnesotans become sick by the dozens
while few people in Kentucky and other states are counted among the ill.
peanuts? Forty-two Minnesotans were reported sick compared with three
Kentuckians. Jalapeño peppers last year? Thirty-one in Minnesota and two in
Kentucky became ill. The different numbers arise because health officials
in Kentucky and many other states fail to investigate many complaints of
food-related sickness while those in Minnesota do so diligently,
safeguarding not only Minnesotans but much of the rest of the country, as
In fact what state one is in can make a
big difference in the way an individual experiences the government reaction
to a foodborne illness:
Take the case of
Lauren Threlkeld, who went to a Kroger grocery store in Lexington, Ky., in
August 2007 and bought a bag of Dole baby spinach contaminated with E. coli
O157. She became violently ill with bloody diarrhea and was hospitalized
for nearly a week.
Threlkeld finally went home to recuperate in Madisonville, Ky., a county
health worker called only to verify that she had fallen ill in another
county. No one asked about the foods she had eaten or what might have made
her so ill, she said. Later efforts by her lawyer pinpointed the source of
her illness — far too late to help others avoid similar fates.
Dr. William D.
Hacker, the public health commissioner in Kentucky, blamed tight budgets.
“We have had a historically poor record of reporting” food-borne illnesses,
Dr. Hacker said. “We are working hard to change our culture even with
In Minnesota and
a few other states, victims of food-related illnesses tell very different
stories. Sarah Kirchner of Belle Plaine, Minn., said health workers called
her three separate times and spent hours discussing her children’s diet
almost immediately after a laboratory test verified that one had fallen ill
with salmonella. Officials in Minnesota traced the outbreak to peanut
butter in part because of Ms. Kirchner’s responses.
Many states are very limited in terms of
In Utah, for instance,
only 18 of the state’s 1,388 medical laboratories process stool tests, said
Dr. Pat Luedtke, director of the Utah public health laboratory.
There also are other barriers to
gathering the needed information:
doctors who wish to send stool samples sometimes must pay the postage
because insurers often refuse to pay for a test that largely serves a
public health function; many doctors do not bother.
This New York Times reporter
caught this key insight:
Congress and the
Obama administration have said that more inspections and new food
production rules are needed to prevent food-related diseases, but far less
attention has been paid to fixing the fractured system by which officials
detect and stop ongoing outbreaks. Right now, uncovering which foods have
been contaminated is left to a patchwork of more than 3,000 federal, state
and local health departments that are, for the most part, poorly financed,
poorly trained and disconnected, officials said.
The truth is that hiring inspectors to
stand around plants in the hope they will see invisible pathogens is an
enormous waste of money. In contrast, bringing every state lab and public
health service up to the level of Minnesota would be a wise and
transformational investment in food safety.