Writing for AOL News (and his blog, Cold Truth) Andrew Schneider writes that the hydrolyzed vegetable protein recall reminds us that, no matter what was said in the wake of last year’s peanut butter recall, the FDA still doesn’t have the ability to pay close attention to source foods that are destined to end up in hundreds of different products.
In this most recent case, it was a test by a supplier, not an FDA representative, that caught the contaminated additive.
The FDA conducted an investigation at the company’s Las Vegas facility after a food producer that bought the flavoring from Basic Food Flavors notified federal agents that it had found Salmonella Tennessee in the vegetable protein.
In answer to the criticism about its actions during the peanut episode, FDA officials said they have no way knowing to whom suppliers sell their food products, what those products are and where they’re sold. The FDA says it doesn’t have the personnel or the needed regulations to handle the millions of shipments made within the food industry every week.
But what was seen with the dangerous peanuts, and what we’re beginning to see with the flavoring agent, is that producers of end products — those items that actually reach store and warehouse shelves — are declaring their own voluntary recalls.
The Make Our Food Safe coalition’s latest study provides a state-by-state breakdown of the cost of foodborne illness, both in absolute and per-capita terms. The report estimates that foodborne illnesses cost about $152 billion each year in America, with the cost being spread fairly evenly across the country.
Hawaii ($553) and Mississippi ($543) suffer the highest cost per capita, while Nevada ($450) and Utah ($448) bear the lightest per-capita load.
The report is the work of former FDA economist Robert L. Scharff, now a professor at Ohio State (bio). You can read the entire 27-page report in PDF form, scan the one-page summary or play with the accompanying interactive map and draw your own conclusions. You can also listen to an MP3 of the related media telebriefing.
A new HHS inspector general’s report sheds light on problems in the FDA’s Food Facility Registy (PDF), finding that almost half of the facilities in its analysis did not provide accurate information for the registry.
In addition, 7 percent of the facilities either failed to register or failed to cancel their registration with the FDA. The agency uses information from the registry to help track foodborne illnesses, so a lack of correct information could hamper the public health system’s ability to trace an outbreak and remove contaminated products from the food supply.
The registry, officially known as the FDA Unified Registration and Listing System, was instituted in the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002 and requires food facilities that manufacture, process, pack, or hold food for consumption to provide reliable information about food facilities.
The report makes a number of recommendations, including “seeking statutory authority to require facilities to reregister on a routine basis.” For its part, the FDA “noted that the study confirms problems that the agency has encountered as well as the need for additional statutory authority.”
It might be interesting for reporters to see what local businesses should be listed in the database but are not or which of them have incorrect or outdated information in the registry. Here is some technical information about the software used for the database.
Lifting the shroud: Using multiple-cause-of-death data
Fatal Food: A study of illness outbreaks
With the Senate expected to consider food safety legislation that gives the FDA additional oversight and enforcement powers, two organizations have turned a spotlight on the issue.
Poll and research data released today from the Make Our Food Safe Campaign and the Center for Foodborne Illness look at the long-term impacts of acute food-borne disease [Summary | Full report] and what the public thinks should be done to improve safety. The Center for Foodborne Illness says its report demonstrates the need for the reform of what it calls America’s “broken” food safety system.
Listeria. Photo by AJC1
According to CFI’s report, long-term effects are most likely to hit children, the elderly and the immune-suppressed.
The Make Our Food Safe campaign polled four states (Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Ohio) and found support for the federal government enacting new food safety measures, such as:
- Report tests that show contamination
- Tracing system
- Standards for produce growers
- FDA mandatory recall authority
- Equal food safety standards for imports
- Broad access to food company records
- FDA inspections every 6-12 months
The Make Our Food Safe campaign is a coalition of public health organizations, consumer organizations, and groups representing the families of victims of food-borne illness, including the American Public Health Association, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Consumers Union and others. The Center for Foodborne Illness is a nonprofit organization funded by donations from individuals and corporations, including one that specializes in food safety products and services, as well as the Produce Marketing Association and ConAgra foods.
Writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, Dennis G. Maki, M.D. takes a look at foodborne illness, the sources of recent outbreaks and official attempts to control the food-based spread of pathogens.
Once again, we must ask ourselves how foodborne disease can develop in 76 million residents of one of the world’s most technically advanced countries each year, causing 350,000 hospitalizations and 5000 deaths and adding $7 billion to our health care costs, despite intensive regulation of food production and distribution.
Industrial food production and importation, the American fondness for eating at restaurants and centralized distribution have helped to multiply the damage caused by any single outbreak, Maki said.
Maki suggested several possible measures to combat the spread of foodborne pathogens:
- Requiring bar codes for all commercial food so its origins and contact points can be quickly and easily traced.
- Changing the feeding practices of cattle, poultry and swine and reduce reliance on practices like anti-microbial food supplements that may promote the growth of harmful bacteria.
- Improving hygienic food-preparation practices in homes, restaurants and hospitals and giving local health departments the power and means to monitor these practices.
- Irradiating high-risk foods because “the CDC has estimated that irradiation of high-risk foods could prevent up to a million cases of bacterial foodborne disease each year in North America.”
Fatal Food: A study of illness outbreaks
Thomas Hargrove of Scripps Howard News Service wrote about foodborne illness outbreaks in a 2007 article for AHCJ. He found that some states did a good job of diagnosing and tracking down the causes of outbreaks, while other states “are virtually blind in detecting outbreaks of food illness.”