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USDA Recalls Beef: Time to Revisit Food Safety Regulation?

What, if anything, should Congress do to address the growing incidence and severity of food contamination?

by Countable | Updated on 12.5.18

UPDATE December 5, 2018: The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced yesterday that it was recalling 12 million pounds of beef after nearly 250 people in 26 states contracted salmonella.

This latest move is an expansion of a previous, more limited recall from October 4.

The USDA has labeled this a Class I recall, which means there's a reasonable chance that consuming the beef will result in “serious, adverse health consequences or death.”

Read Countable's original November 25, 2018 story below for more on the growing frequency and severity of food contamination and the regulatory framework that governs our food supply.


  • As people across the U.S. are panic-purging every leafy green from their fridges in the wake of an E. coli outbreak, many are wondering how it is that animal-borne pathogens are turning up in produce in the first place.
  • Some experts say that as our food system becomes increasingly industrialized, new food safety regulations may be necessary.

Background

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned people to stop eating romaine lettuce after an E. coli outbreak sickened 32 people in 11 U.S. states and 18 people in Ontario and Quebec.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has determined that the contaminated lettuce likely came from California, and is “working with growers and distributors on labeling produce for location and harvest date and possibly other ways of informing consumers that the product is ‘post-purge’.”

According to our partners at USAFacts, a non-partisan, not-for-profit civic initiative aimed at making government data accessible and understandable, food safety recalls have been on the rise. In 2005, when data collection started, there were 53 food safety recalls. By 2017, there were 131.

Leafy greens are the vehicle for one in five cases of food poisoning, and recent cases have been growing in severity.

The path of a pathogen

Escherichia coli – E. coli for short – is a bacterium commonly found in the intestines of humans and other animals. While most strains are harmless, some can cause severe food poisoning.

Determining the exact cause of food-borne outbreaks has long stymied investigators, especially those that affect leafy greens. In similar outbreaks in the past, the FDA eventually traced produce contamination back to livestock operations near where the produce was grown. The theory is that pathogens from the livestock entered the water source the lettuce farmer relied on for irrigation.

While many produce growers have implemented increasingly stringent safety measures, the FDA notes that protecting agricultural water is a vital step in preventing contamination.

As Fox News medical correspondent Marc Siegel notes:

“The larger concern is the emergence and spread of toxic bacteria in a multi-state food system in which produce is grown in one area, packaged in another, and then sold throughout the country. Bacteria harbored in the intestines of animals spread to the groundwater, which may infect our produce. Vigilance and careful labeling may help to curtail this problem, as will cutting back on the overuse of antibiotics in commercially raised poultry and cows.”

Possible remedies

In the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), the FDA has proposed stricter standards for irrigation water, but they have not yet been finalized. Even those proposed rules – including that untreated surface water be tested five times a year for pathogens – are unlikely to go far enough to prevent these kinds of outbreaks.

Some public health experts say that the frequency of food-borne illness outbreaks points to a need for bolder action by both the industry and federal government, especially when it comes to tracing contaminated produce.

Sarah Sorscher, deputy director of regulatory affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told The New York Times that the industry has resisted more robust measures like mandatory electronic tracing of produce after it leaves the field:

“They have to find a solution to this problem because when you can’t track down the source of an outbreak, the whole industry suffers.”

Consumer groups have urged the FDA to require producers to modernize their record keeping and use a standard system so that the source can be traced rapidly in an outbreak. Some members of the food industry are turning to “blockchain,” a technology that can provide a permanent digital record that indicates the exact route of a particular food item as it travels through its distribution pathway.

Walmart mandated this year that all its leafy greens providers start tracking their products using blockchain. The company has been testing the technology on mangoes for the past two years.

What do you think?

What, if anything, should Congress do to address the growing incidence and severity of food contamination? Tell your reps what you think, then share your thoughts below.

—Sara E. Murphy

(Photo Credit: iStock.com / Dr_Microbe

Countable

Written by Countable

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(61)
  • burrkitty
    11/26/2018
    ···

    Stop all the big ag subsidies that dispersed the all the risks to the taxpayers and freed big ag from their responsibilities. It’s getting worse because our “farms” are actually just “factories”. Quit supporting this crazy unnatural system that is making everyone sick and fat.

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  • John
    11/26/2018
    ···

    There needs to be stronger enforcement of feedlot laws. And less support for agribussinesses and more support for local/small scale organic agriculture.

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  • Craig
    11/26/2018
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    The ecoli outbreaks in romaine lettuce is a direct result of Trump repealing agriculture safety laws. Reenact them now!

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  • David
    11/26/2018
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    “Roll back the regulations” they say, “These regulations hurt productivity and profits” they say. “We don’t need inspectors. Our food products are perfectly safe” they say. “The 31% cut in funding to the FDA won’t make any difference” they say.

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  • Robert
    11/26/2018
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    Trump rolled back testing of farm drain off water resulting in no testing and polluted water and contaminated food. Trump and the GOP love to criticize what they call “regulations” while any sane person sees them as protections for the public health. Trump and his cronies care only about profits, not about people. Very few of his cabinet are public servants. Rather they are out to maximize profits for private enterprise at the expense of the public’s health.

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  • Daniel
    11/26/2018
    ···

    Is it because the migrants working the fields are peeing and crap a round the crops. It was found in other locations of this happening we need better facilities for workers.

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  • David
    11/26/2018
    ···

    If our “government” spent half as much time attending to the basics: roads, health care, a balanced budget, food safety, as we do attacking women and children with chemical weapons (on our southern border) I don’t think it would be very hard to get lettuce right.

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  • Dave
    11/26/2018
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    Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned people to stop eating romaine lettuce after an E. coli outbreak, what do you expect every government oversight is being reduced and corporations are self regulating, just like the drug industry. It’s all about profit, this is just collateral damage to corporations in doing business.

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  • Poodle
    11/27/2018
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    Thanks to you on the removal of water testing and other safety regulations for our food supply....

    Like (8)
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  • Phillip
    12/05/2018
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    Whether you like it or not being in government is the responsibility to regulate and govern for the good of all. It is not to take money from the industries that want to foist tainted produce on your constituents. Enact and enforce proper food and drug regulations NOW.

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  • Kristin
    11/28/2018
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    This is what happens when you roll back environmental and safety regulations . How many romaine recalls have there been recently ? I can't keep track ! There was also a major recall on prepared food items at Kroger , Trader Joe's and several other major food retailers. Too many people don't think about the basic things such as food when they vote . Pretty soon people are going to get sick and tired of getting sick .

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  • Deirdre
    11/26/2018
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    So much food is being recalled I think that all the regulations that have been taken away is now affecting our food supply

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  • Hillary
    11/26/2018
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    Every food item should list every single item that comes in contact with, and every ingredient, no matter how small or how “proprietary” some company thinks their recipe. I am disgusted that company profit is more important than whether or not I die of anaphylaxis.

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  • Anne
    11/27/2018
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    Trump has rolled back regulations and put one of his cronies in charge so as to benefit himself as usual. This is what happens when a president has no idea what he is doing!! Thank you Republicans!

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  • Kathy
    11/26/2018
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    I’m thinking we need to put and keep in place the health and safety regulations regarding our food with testing to keep our food clean.

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  • Surender
    11/26/2018
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    And what did USDA recently roll back? Regulation on max speed on chicken processing lines! Just one of the many standards relaxed so food processing conglomerates can kill and sicken consumers faster. And a third of you (maga morons) voted for this mob!? Guess what ... you are going to be disproportionately impacted because the ‘elites’ & ‘liberals’ per your ‘fox & friends’ standards tend to be more informed ! Likewise the impact of trade wars / gutting epa-state-education-health-interior etc will have an immense impact on ‘middle red maga morons’

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  • John
    12/05/2018
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    Stop supporting factory farms and return to smaller scale, manageable family farms.

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  • Maria
    11/27/2018
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    Democrats need to stop using the word REGULATIONS. Trump et al. have completely hijacked it, and a mesmerized America think it means something like "mean stupid expensive foolish liberal traps"! We should call these sensible laws PROTECTIONS. Language has always been important, but we've been ignoring the control that business-only types have taken of the national vocabulary-- and these people literally do not care about poisoning the environment, even at the expense of their own offspring's future. Protect our PROTECTIONS!

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  • ConservativeGuy
    11/27/2018
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    Farm workers defecate in the fields rather than using the port-a-potty. That’s the truth, Monica.

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  • Melissa
    11/26/2018
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    In the past week I have seen three different recalls on vegetables for bacterial contamination. I learned that the current administration delayed some new regulations that would help to prevent contaminated food sources. Obviously, we need more safeguards now. Someday I would like to be able to safely eat salad again!

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