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?
Five pathogens account for almost 90 percent of the most serious cases of food-related illness (the CDC estimates four times as many are sickened by unknown or unspecified pathogens). Norovirus is the most common food-related cause of acute gastroenteritis; more than 20 million people are sickened each year, although only a fraction of those cases result in hospitalization or death. In terms of acute risk, salmonella is the leading cause of food-related hospitalizations and death in the United States with 40,000 cases reported annually. Because many milder cases go unreported, the actual number of infections is likely more than 1 million. In addition to poultry and eggs, contamination occurs in fruits, vegetables, and processed foods. The Campylobacter bacterium is also a very common source of food-related illness with as many as 2.4 million infections each year, most of them unreported.
The most common transmission is through uncooked poultry; even one drop of juice from raw chicken contains enough microbes to cause illness. In rare cases, Campylobacter infection can cause Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that results in temporary paralysis. The listeria bacterium that killed 30 people in 2011 is particularly dangerous to those with compromised immune systems. In addition, it can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery, or life-threatening infection among newborn children. Finally, several virulent strains of E. coli can cause acute illness, kidney failure, and in some cases death among those infected.
We have our industrial food system to thank for these dangers. Concentrated animal production and global networks of food distribution increase the incidence and severity of foodborne risks. Meanwhile, changing consumption patterns, such as increased demand for fruits and vegetables, many sourced from global markets, and a greater share of meals eaten outside the home increase our exposure to these risks as well. These developments challenge a creaking food-safety inspection system. Poultry production illustrates these dangers. Since 1960, production has increased from 1.5 billion to 8.6 billion birds slaughtered each year. Over the same period, average weight grew by 60 percent as the industry perfected methods to produce bigger birds faster and more cheaply. By the 1990s, chicken surpassed beef and pork in per capita pounds consumed.
To make money, producers must operate on a vast scale: Almost all chicken farms raise at least 100,000 broilers a year, and half of all sales come from farms that produce more than 600,000 birds annually. These concentrated poultry operations have become breeding grounds for dangerous bacteria, especially salmonella and Campylobacter. Moreover, the widespread use of antibiotics to promote animal growth—animals now consume 80 percent of all antibiotic drugs in the United States—has yielded new strains of these pathogens that are resistant to anti-microbial drugs. In August 2011, Cargill announced the recall of 36 million pounds of ground turkey contaminated with a drug-resistant strain of salmonella.
The development of more virulent bacteria due to concentrated animal production poses serious challenges to the system. Under the 1906 act (and additional legislation passed in 1957), every slaughterhouse in the United States must have inspectors present from the USDA to examine each animal and carcass for spoilage or disease. Historically, USDA inspectors relied on the “poke and sniff” method—using sight, touch, and smell to assess the quality and safety of meat. These techniques became woefully inadequate with the emergence of more virulent microscopic pathogens, such as E. coli O157:H7, a previously unknown strain of the bacterium that tragically sickened 700 people, killing four children, when they ate contaminated hamburger meat at a Jack in the Box fast-food restaurant in 1993. The event prompted the Clinton Administration and the USDA to require more sophisticated procedures to reduce pathogens like E. coli in the food supply. These methods, known as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP), require food handlers to identify stages in the production process where the risks of contamination are highest and implement preventive measures that have the greatest effect on improving safety. The adoption of HACCP standards has led to measurable improvements in food safety as companies have invested in new technology that reduces the risk of contamination.
Big problems remain, however. There are two principal obstacles to effective food-safety control in the United States. First, food-safety regulations suffer from institutional fragmentation and administrative duplication that divide responsibility among multiple agencies in seemingly inexplicable ways. Recall that the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act split authority between the USDA, which is mainly responsible for slaughter and processing facilities, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is responsible for the overall safety of domestic and imported food products. Over the ensuing decades, authority fractured even further. In 1957, Congress passed a law expanding the authority of the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) in the USDA to oversee poultry production as well as beef, pork, and other meats. However, authority for egg inspection is governed by a different law, the Poultry Products Inspection Act of 1970, which divides authority between the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service and the FDA.
Similarly, responsibility for fish is divided between the FDA, which has primary responsibility, and the National Marine Fisheries Service of the Department of Commerce, which is also authorized to inspect and grade U.S. fish and shellfish. Altogether at least 12 federal departments and agencies operating under more than 30 different statutes have partial responsibility for food safety in the United States.
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