Debate over U.S.
food safety system heats up
Source of Article: http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/news/nation/stories/031509dnmetsalmonella.3d4b099.html
CDT on Sunday, March 15, 2009
You can't taste it or
smell it. It is undetectable to the human eye.
Nonetheless, a hearty
menu of food-borne pathogens is appearing on the plates of unsuspecting
Americans, leaving behind illness and, in some cases, death.
The latest sampling for
the U.S. palate is an unusual strain of salmonella found normally in the
intestinal tracts of cows, pigs and chickens.
this bacterial strain has contaminated peanuts in two processing plants –
one in Texas and another in Georgia – before they were added to thousands
of tasty products such as cookies, brownies and ice cream.
As the federal government
scrambles to contain this widening salmonella outbreak, health experts
believe this could be a turning point in:
•Renewing the debate over
irradiating foods to eliminate deadly pathogens.
to work more closely with the government to assure the safety of the food
•Awakening the public to
the dangers of eating tainted food.
This comes at a time when
salmonella cases are drastically increasing in Dallas County and throughout
Since September, the
salmonella outbreak involving peanuts has sickened nearly 700 people in 46
states, possibly caused nine deaths and triggered a nationwide food recall.
"The wakeup call is
here," said Dr. Herbert L. DuPont, director of the Center for
Infectious Diseases at the School of Public Health, which is part of the
Health Science Center at Houston.
For years, he has been a
proponent of improved food-inspection standards and better surveillance of
"The government does
not do enough," Dr. DuPont insisted. "But I'm not just blaming
the government. Scientists need to work with the government to figure out
how to tackle this thing. It's almost unbelievable."
Frustrations are growing
as the number of diseases transmitted by food now exceeds 250, including E.
coli bacteria, often found in ground beef; hepatitis A, a virus linked to
shellfish and fruits; and the ever-persistent Norwalk virus, which also
starts in raw shellfish or water and can spread rapidly from person to
Dr. Dennis Maki,
professor of medicine at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said it's
time for the government to become more proactive in stopping food-borne
"You have to
consider that this is the second very large, multistate outbreak involving
peanut butter, and we've just had the 12th outbreak due to contaminated
tomatoes or peppers since 2000," Dr. Maki said. "When is another
outbreak going to make a difference?"
account for an estimated 76 million illnesses, 350,000 hospitalizations and
5,000 deaths every year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention.
Dr. Maki and others are
advocating wider use of irradiation to protect fresh food against
disease-causing microbes. The idea has not been embraced by Americans, who
worry about the safety of eating food that's been zapped by gamma rays,
X-rays or electron beams.
Since 1983, the Food and
Drug Administration has allowed certain foods to be irradiated – a list
that now includes chicken, eggs, beef, pork and lamb. Last year, fresh
spinach and iceberg lettuce were added in hopes of ridding them of
microorganisms such as E. coli and salmonella.
Americans, however, seem
reluctant to buy irradiated products, and manufacturers tend to avoid the
process. The treatment also makes products more expensive.
"We already have the
capacity to improve food safety by adopting a technology that can protect
against safety breakdowns during production or cooking," Dr. Maki
argued in a recent issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.
"Instead of having
to pick up all these food outbreaks, I'd much rather use irradiation to
improve the safety of food preparation and processing."
The current food-borne
outbreak involves two peanut plants operated by the Peanut Corporation of
America. One plant in Blakely, Ga., apparently shipped peanut butter and
other products after they tested positive for salmonella. It was closed in
The company's West Texas
plant was never licensed as a food manufacturer, according to state
officials, and went without inspection for four years. The Plainview
operation closed in February after salmonella was detected in its product
So far, only a handful of
peanut-related illnesses have been reported in Texas, but many more could
have been sickened without being diagnosed. For every food-borne infection
investigated by the government, 38 go unreported, the CDC says.
"What we receive is
just the tip of the iceberg," agreed Dr. Wendy Chung, Dallas County's
chief epidemiologist, whose staff tracks local food-related infections.
"We are completely dependant on cases being reported to us."
underreporting, Dallas County is seeing a major jump in salmonella-related
The number of cases reported
here jumped by 90 percent in the last two years, according to local
laboratories and hospitals that perform such tests. The 337 cases
investigated by the county's Department of Health and Human Services in
2008 was up from 177 reported in 2006.
cases totaled 4,573 last year, a 53 percent increase over 2006.
However, state and local
health officials caution against assuming that any surge in reports means
more people are getting sick. It could mean that more people are seeking a
diagnosis for their illness.
"With all the
publicity about salmonella outbreaks, the public is a lot more aware of
seeing a physician when they have diarrhea, and they're having their stool
tested," Dr. Chung said. "Physicians also are being made more aware."
causes diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever and headache that last up to a
week. In more serious cases, particularly among infants and elderly people,
the infection can spread to the blood stream and require hospitalization.
infections are related to food preparation, such as cross-contamination of
uncooked meat with vegetables or other items.
"Nine times out of
10, the reason why we have salmonella cases is improperly cooked
foods," said Dr. John Carlo, the county health department's medical
When someone is diagnosed
with salmonella infection, finding the source is not easy. Trained
professionals, including nurses who work for the county health department,
interview patients to try to pinpoint what they ate and where they ate it.
because we're contacting people two weeks after they actually became ill
and asking them to remember," Dr. Chung said. "If they're part of
a genuine outbreak, the call might come months later."
Interviewers are always
on alert for an outbreak related to a tainted food product because it could
affect people in several states.
"It's important to
be looking for the bad actors out there," Dr. Carlo said. "These
illnesses could be intentional, so you have to be ready with surveillance