The FDA must do more to ensure our food is safe

The FDA must do more to ensure our food is safe
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When we order a salad out at a restaurant, we assume it's safe to eat. At the very least, we don't expect it to put our health or even our life at risk. But that's precisely what happened to William Whit one day when he went out to lunch with friends and opted for what seemed like the healthy route at a pizza place. Whit ordered a salad and, soon after, began experiencing severe stomach discomfort.

Eventually, after his condition worsened, he ended up in the hospital. The doctors spent days trying to figure out how an otherwise-healthy man became sick so quickly, before finally realizing that the lettuce he consumed was contaminated with E. coli. 

Unfortunately, Whit's story is not uncommon. From E. coli-laden Romaine lettuce to Salmonella-laced flourpapayas, and melon, dangerous pathogens are constantly invading America's food. 

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A new analysis from the U.S. PIRG Education Fund illustrates this ongoing food safety problem, while at the same time outlining the solution. The report found that meat and poultry recall remained high last year, but that recalls for produce and processed food has decreased in the previous three years since new protections were put in place.

Recalls are an important measure of the health of our food safety system. When a recall occurs, it means that the system failed to prevent contaminated food from reaching consumers. After several high profile recalls in the late 2000s, Congress passed the FDA Food Safety and Modernization Act in 2011, giving the Food and Drug Administration more authority to mandate recalls and require new protections for our food supply.

A few years after the government implemented these new protections, recalls started to decrease. As U.S. PIRG Education Fund's "How Safe is Our Food?" report notes, the number of recalls overseen by the FDA has dropped 34 percent since 2016.

That same year, businesses were required by the FDA to establish food safety plans to identify and address hazards to the food supply, including everything from dangerous pathogens to chunks of metal or plastic. These plans require constant monitoring to verify that controls are working, and mandate corrective action if failures appear. The theory is simple: comprehensive, facility-specific plans prevent hazardous food from reaching grocery stores, restaurants and ultimately, your plate. And when something does slip through, the food producer has to determine if updates are necessary.

This FDA should be lauded for this success — but it makes it even more baffling that other standards have been delayed as recalls and outbreaks continue. One E. coli-related recall just ended a few weeks ago after the fifth outbreak of E. coli linked to leafy greens since 2017 made 167 people sick in 27 states.

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There's growing evidence that something is rotten in the nation's fields. During an extensive investigation into a March 2018 outbreak, the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found the same strain of E. coli in a canal adjacent to a large cattle farm, also known as a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO). 

A likely chain of events goes like this: Bacteria from the CAFO, possibly from leaking waste, made it into the nearby canal. The contaminated water was used to irrigate leafy greens on the farm, and then shipped to stores across the country and purchased by consumers. 

Although water has been identified as a potential cause of a foodborne illness outbreak many times now, a rule to set science-based standards limiting bacteria in the water used to irrigate, harvest and wash produce has been delayed from 2019 until 2022. In the meantime, Americans continue to get sick.

This is unacceptable. The decline in recalls since some food safety rules went into effect in 2016 shows that when common-sense regulations are enacted using modern technology, consumers are safer. We have the ability to prevent more dangerous contamination and illness by using the same science-based approach to food safety. The FDA should move forward with strong health-based standards for water used on our produce. Then, Americans like William Whit will be able to enjoy that next salad with less worry.

Dylan Robb is a Consumer Watchdog associate for U.S. PIRG Education Fund, a national nonprofit organization.