June 28, 2009
Why Are There More Food
In April, the federal
government advised citizens not to eat raw alfalfa sprouts, while earlier in
the year we were warned against pistachios and peanut butter. If it seems
like these public-health alerts are being issued more frequently, they are.
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there were 214 food
recalls in 2006, 247 in 2007, and 310 in 2008.
But food manufacturers say that’s a good thing. “It may look like the food
supply is getting less safe, but it actually means that we’re getting better
at detecting the outbreaks,” says Dr. Robert Brackett, chief science and
regulatory-affairs officer for the Grocery Manufacturers Association. Figures
from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) seem to support
Brackett’s conclusion: Despite the increase in food recalls in the last
several years, the number of food-borne illnesses has plateaued.
Dr. David Acheson, the FDA’s associate commissioner for food safety, says the
agency is becoming more aggressive about identifying health hazards before
any illness is reported. “If we have a concern about a product, we’re trying
to get out in front of it,” Acheson says. In the pistachio recall, for
instance, the nuts were removed from shelves before anyone got sick.
But some lawmakers worry that the FDA still isn’t doing enough, and they’re
working on a bill to toughen regulations. The legislation would require food
manufacturers to closely track the distribution of their products, while the
FDA would have to make more frequent visits to food manufacturing plants.
The globalization of the food supply poses further challenges. With more
stops from farm to fork, there is a greater chance of contamination. The FDA
recently opened offices in India and China to keep an eye on food producers
there. The good news is that, thanks to advances in surveillance technology,
the CDC is able to track the genetic fingerprint of food-borne illnesses
nationwide, allowing the FDA to warn Americans about potential health risks
Even with increased oversight, the FDA warns, some food recalls are
inevitable. “It’s not possible to be inspecting and testing every food item,”
Acheson says. “You simply cannot do it.”
— Brooke Lea Foster