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How Safe Is Our Food?

Recent trends and case studies of recalls, and what they mean for our health

Americans rely on a vast network of farms and businesses to provide safe food daily. But in recent years, a string of high-profile recalls ranging from romaine lettuce to millions of pounds of beef to Ritz and Goldfish crackers have called into question the system developed to ensure safe food reaches people’s plates. The ubiquity of the problem can make grocery shopping a game of Russian roulette where what a family has for dinner could make them seriously sick.

While our food safety system has improved significantly over the last 100 years, when toxics, fake foodstuffs and bacteria regularly infiltrated the supply, it is clear there is more work to do. A modern society relies on ensuring that the daily act of eating does not undermine the health of the population. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to get a handle on trends within the food system as ongoing, individual testing results are hard to access and may not indicate what hazards are reaching people’s mouths.

In 2018, there were a number of high profile food recalls, including a nationwide recall of Romain lettuce, and millions of pounds of beef contaminated with antibiotic-resistant salmonella.
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Our food safety systems: more improvements needed

In 2011, the United States made significant upgrades to the food safety system by passing the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). This law, pushed through in the wake of a number of significant food recalls, was supposed to help the nation identify additional dangers by ensuring we were using modern techniques to track outbreaks of contamination like Salmonella and dangerous strains of E. coli, improve regulatory oversight of the food production system to minimize contamination, and update recall laws. 

Our food safety system has two lines of defense. First, a series of protections including health standards, inspections and enforcement help keep contaminants out of the food supply in the first place. Second, when contaminated products make it to store shelves, the recall system helps remove these products from stores, homes and restaurants to keep people safe.

Our research shows a dramatic increase in the number of recalls between 2013 and 2017.
*Recalls that are most likely to cause a health hazard or death are classified as “Class 1” recalls.

It is true that the ability to link infections together and trace them back to the source has improved significantly in the last decade through new technology such as Whole Genome Sequencing. This may explain some of these findings. But whether we’ve always had a food safety problem and now we can see it, or the problem is getting worse in recent years, misses the point. Americans should be confident that our food is safe and uncontaminated from dangerous bacteria like E. coli and Salmonella.

In addition, the number of recent high-profile recalls that stick in the public mind are the tip of the iceberg. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1 in 6 people in the U.S. get foodborne illness with 128,000 individuals hospitalized and 3,000 dying every year. These infections include E. coli and Salmonella poisoning as well as Clostridium, Campylobacter and Toxoplasma gondii. The cumulative public health risk of foodborne illness warrants further study into causes and solutions.

Americans should be able to trust that their food is safe.

The food recalls illustrated by the case studies highlighted above raise concerns about the efficacy of current policies. Adding to these issues, while we buy our food at the same stores, farmer stands and restaurants, the current, convoluted system splits primary responsibility for different foods between the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and the FDA. This has caused inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination and inefficient use of resources.

Policy Solutions 
Our findings make it clear that our food safety defenses need an across-the-board upgrade. Gaps in public health protections, enforcement and inspection make it too likely that dangers will reach Americans plates with potentially disastrous consequences. And, when these dangers are identified through analysis of disease vectors and health impacts, our recall system often allows hazards to continue to impact people’s health.

To solve these problems, we recommend a serious boost to our food safety system.

  • 1. Food Production and Testing
    • Test water used for irrigation or watering of produce for hazardous pathogens.
    • Set health-based bacterial load levels for agriculture watering to prevent contamination.
  • 2. Inspection and Monitoring
    • Require plants to identify most common pathogens associated with meat and poultry products as hazards likely to occur and address them in their safety plans.
    • Establish clear enforcement consequences for recurring violations of food safety protections or plans.
    • Update food safety standards at facilities every three years.
    • Declare antibiotic-resistant strains of Salmonella as an adulterant in meat and poultry.
  • 3. Traceability
    • Improve traceability throughout the food supply chain through network-based tracking technologies.
    • Retailers notify consumers that products they may have in their homes are recalled.
  • 4. Recall Effectiveness
    • Require disclosure of retailers selling products for all Class I and Class II recalls, establish a timeline for release of that information, and include packaged goods.
    • Penalize companies who continue to sell products after a recall.
    • Develop programs for retailers to directly notify customers about food recalls.
Take Action
Tell the USDA: ban the sale of meat with salmonella

Even if beef processors find salmonella in their meat, they can continue selling it until there's a major disease outbreak, and now, nearly 250 people in 25 states have been infected with a strain of Salmonella linked to beef.