Still a Jungle
In an environment of drug-resistant pathogens and “pink slime,” why do the food industry and government place the onus for safety on consumers?
In August 2011, Shelly Occhipinti-Krout, a 48-year-old mother of three from Parker, Colorado, became ill. Suffering from flu-like symptoms, Shelly collapsed at home and was taken to the hospital, where she went into cardiac arrest. By the time her doctors determined that she was suffering from listeria poisoning, Shelly was in a medically induced coma.
Although listeria, a bacterium, is most commonly found in prepared foods and meats, agents from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Outbreak and Response Team determined that the source of the outbreak was cantaloupe from a farm in southeastern Colorado. The farm, along with distributors in Kansas City, Kansas, and Buffalo, New York, issued a recall, but not before listeria-tainted cantaloupe reached supermarkets across the country, sickening 146 people in 28 states. By the time CDC investigators concluded their investigation that December, Shelly and 29 others had died.
Shelly’s story is not uncommon. Each year, 48 million Americans suffer from illnesses caused by a foodborne pathogen. Most, if not all, who read this article have suffered from foodborne illness at one time or another. For the vast majority affected, food poisoning results in temporary gastrointestinal distress. For others, though, the effects are much more serious. According to CDC estimates, more than 125,000 Americans are hospitalized and 3,000 die each year from microbial pathogens including salmonella, E. coli, and listeria. Estimates of the cost of foodborne illness in terms of health care and lost productivity exceed $75 billion a year. Although the number of laboratory-confirmed cases has declined for some pathogens, cases of salmonella, the leading cause of hospitalization and death from foodborne illness, remain stubbornly high and have even increased slightly in recent years. In fact, many incidents of mild foodborne illness go undetected, making it difficult to monitor and track diseases accurately.
That eating a piece of cantaloupe could result in lifelong disability or death comes as a shock to most Americans, who believe we largely solved this problem back in Upton Sinclair’s day. In fact, the rules and regulations that we assume will protect us are inadequate and incomplete. Duplication and gaps in government responsibilities leave us vulnerable to a variety of risks associated with industrial food production. Meanwhile, a steady stream of worrying revelations belies any notion that the current system of protection is up to the task. Whether it is the decision by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to use reconstituted meat treated with ammonia in the federal school lunch program (so-called pink slime) or the recent discovery that poultry producers are using a class of critical antibiotics banned from animal production in 2005, the federal government appears either unwilling or unable to protect us.
In order to truly improve food safety, government must have more effective tools to prevent foodborne illness. At the same time, problems of administrative overlap must be remedied so that we can manage the risks of our modern food system. However, the politics of food safety pose significant obstacles to reform. Whereas industry can exercise its influence through multiple means, from congressional lobbying to executive rulemaking to legal action, consumers and public health advocates have fewer opportunities to shape the debate or bend policies toward the goals of consumer protection.
This problem is compounded by a political culture that places much of the responsibility for food safety on consumers. Outbreaks of deadly pathogens might produce measured outrage, but rarely enough to prompt politicians to push for more stringent controls on industry practices or address the bureaucratic and legal shortcomings of our current regulatory regime. Successful reform requires that we reframe the food-safety issue so that industry and government accept greater responsibility for illness outbreaks when they occur.
In this regard, food safety is part of a larger struggle in American politics. Across a range of issues, be it health care, retirement security, or consumer finance, individuals and their families are forced to bear a greater share of the risks associated with modern life. The battles over food safety reflect this broader trend: Both industry and government, perhaps for different reasons, have a joint interest in shifting the onus on to consumers. The lesson of food safety is that a more vocal and empowered consumer movement will not only help protect us and our children from unsafe food, but could shift our politics in a progressive direction as well.
Pathogens and Pathologies
We have always lived with the risk of foodborne illness; methods of curing that date back millennia testify to human attempts to preserve and protect our food. In the United States, food safety became a national concern at the turn of the twentieth century. Spurred by the sensational horrors of Sinclair’s The Jungle, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act in 1906. The two laws marked an important first step in protecting American consumers: The Pure Food and Drug Act prevented the sale of adulterated or misleadingly labeled foods, while the Meat Inspection Act prevented sick or diseased animals from entering our food supply. The difference may be subtle, but the result was to divide authority for food safety among multiple agencies, a decision that would have important implications as the food system became more complex and new kinds of foodborne risks emerged. Today, a combination of more virulent pathogens and administrative pathologies leaves us at greater risk of foodborne illness.
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