Experts say new tools, tougher government oversight can reduce foodborne illnesses #ahcj13

Placing food safety above profits, and using new regulatory power and testing techniques could help protect consumers from foodborne illnesses, three experts in food safety said today.

The experts – an executive at America’s largest organic food producer, a food safety attorney and a federal food and safety regulator – discussed the challenges of protecting consumers from illnesses such as E. coli, salmonella and listeria on a panel called, “Why is food still making us sick in the 21st century?” during Health Journalism 2013 in Boston.

Bill D. Marler, managing partner at the law firm Marler Clark, began litigating personal injury cases related to foodborne illness cases in 1993 after E.coli-contaminated meat from the fast-food chain Jack in the Box resulted in the deaths of four children and illness in hundreds of consumers. Marler said that when companies take shortcuts, or focus on profits more than food safety, it can compromise consumer safety.

“Food production is a risky business with a competitive market,” said Marler, who started the website “Good safety practice isn’t always on everyone’s minds because of stockholder pressures.”

But even companies that follow strict food testing procedures can’t always stop outbreaks. Earthbound Farm Senior Vice President Will Daniels said despite following strict safety guidelines, his company had to recall spinach contaminated with E. coli in 2006 after three people died and 300 became sick.

“This changed my life,” Daniels said. “There was no smoking gun, no break in our system and no deliberate contamination. The source of contamination was never proven.”

Earthbound Farm is now a leader in the food industry when it comes to safety standards. By using the newest technology, Earthbound Farms is able to test food products twice before delivering them to consumers, he said. New technology has made it possible for the products to be tested in a 12-hour time frame, whereas older methods took three to five days.

“Before, I couldn’t wait five days to test results on the raw side of the product and then again at the end of the process,” he said. “That was almost half the life of the product.”

The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010 shifts the role of regulators from responding to outbreaks to preventing them. For the first time, the law gives the U.S. Food and Drug Administration the authority to order recalls of contaminated food. But, with 80 percent of seafood and 20 percent of vegetables imported from overseas, FDA Deputy Commissioner Michael Taylor said there are even more obstacles for ensuring safety regulations are followed.

The law “creates a mandate for companies to meet comprehensive safety standards,” Taylor said. “It also strengthens government authority to make sure those standards are being met. But to build a national integrated food-safety system, we need aggressive partnerships between state and local governments.”

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