Foodborne Illness:
  How to fix the
  food safety system  

Most advocates believe we need a single, independent food safety system. In March 2011, the General Accountability Office (GAO)–an independent, nonpartisan agency that works for Congress–called for a “government-wide performance plan for food safety that includes results oriented goals and performance measures.” 

Other nations–including Canada, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand–have created such agencies. In 2004, the European Union adopted unified and transparent food safety rules that took effect in 2006. Unlike the U.S., these countries focus on the entire food supply chain, starting on the farm and ending at the table. They put the onus on producers to ensure safe food. They have mandatory recall authority, cooperative arrangements between government veterinarians and public health officials, and meticulous traceback procedures. In EU member states, for instance, all food must be traceable “one step forward and one step back,” so that industry and government can quickly pull any contaminated products from restaurants and store shelves. 

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has made it part of her mission to tackle the growing threat of non-O157 STECs. She has called for full funding for the FDA to carry out the Food Safety Modernization Act. This summer, she introduced a bill titled “The Safe Meat and Poultry Act.” 

The proposed law would require comprehensive testing for all organisms that cause the vast majority of foodborne illnesses and deaths in the U.S. from meat and poultry contamination. It would mandate that the USDA treat disease-causing non-O157 STECs as adulterants, which means that meat contaminated with these bacteria would be removed from the market. The bill also bolsters inspections, mandates prevention controls, requires performance standards, tightens oversight of imports, and puts in place a traceback system from retailer to slaughterhouse.

But Gillibrand has met the same implacable industry opposition that has greeted other food safety bills over the years. Last May, the American Meat Institute stated: “We share Sen. Gillibrand’s desire to eradicate pathogenic bacteria, but we don’t believe that an act of Congress can make these bacteria disappear.” 

“Certain industry groups are reluctant to change the status quo,” Gillibrand says. “My argument to them is: Industry is already doing this with great success.” Costco and Beef Products Inc., for example, test their beef for the Big Six E. coli–and Costco tests its produce as well for these disease-causing bacteria. McDonald’s and Walmart also demand extra-stringent testing from their ground beef suppliers.

Why are private industry standards higher than those of our federal government? “They are fiercely protective of their brands,” says the Consumer Federation of America’s Chris Waldrop. “They are putting in place effective measures to make sure that they are never linked to an outbreak.”

On September 12, 2011, the USDA began the process of raising federal standards by declaring the Big Six group of E. Coli bacteria as adulterants in ground beef.

Some produce companies also adhere to food safety standards that surpass the government's. One example is Earthbound Farm, in San Juan Bautista, California, where Will Daniels, Senior Vice President of Operations and Organic Integrity, launched a model food safety program after it was implicated in the 2006 outbreak of E. coli O157 in spinach, in which three died and nearly 200 were reported stricken in 26 states. In that epidemic, investigators never found the source of the bacteria. “And because we didn’t find the root cause, it forced us to evaluate our entire process–from field selection to putting the product on the truck,” says Daniels.

Earthbound Farm’s 150 growers cultivate more than 100 varieties of organic salads, fruits, and vegetables on 36,000 acres. When the company began to explore faster testing methods, it discovered that produce industry labs only used slow tests that yielded results in three to five days—too long for lettuce or other greens, which would wilt before they could reach the market. So Daniels sought help from a private lab that works with the beef industry and developed a rapid test that gave results within one day. Yet even today, Earthbound’s rapid DNA tests still haven’t won government approval. As Daniels sees it, “The government is about five years behind the lab industry.”    

The company’s comprehensive prevention efforts could be a model for the produce industry. It tests all seed lots tested for pathogens, all water sources, all fertilizers and compost. It tests leafy greens coming in from the field as well as finished products before they are shipped out. It makes unannounced inspections on all its farms, and destroys any lots found to be contaminated. 

Surveys show that Americans are willing to pay more for food security. According to a 2011 survey conducted by the Pew Charitable Trusts, among likely voters across the nation, 66 percent support additional funding for the FDA to carry out new responsibilities related to food safety. And 74 percent feel it is worth a 1-3 percent increase in the cost of food to support the new safety measures in the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act . 

The cost of food safety is a bargain. Earthbound Farm’s Will Daniels says that the company’s thorough testing and prevention program adds only 3 cents to the cost of every retail package of produce. Pennies of prevention, in other words, could save many of the 3,000 lives each year in this country–lives lost by indulging in one of life’s simple pleasures.   

Unless otherwise noted, all content about foodborne illness and food safety policy is written by Madeline Drexler, Schuster Institute senior fellow.

Copyright © 2011 Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, Waltham, MA.

Last page update: September 18, 2011