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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 | 11.25.18

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

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