After a Scary Year, will Food in 2010 be any Safer?


Here's a holiday menu that we'd all like to forget:

For the appetizer: San Antonio Bay oysters polluted with Noroviruses. For the main course: grilled beef infected with E. coli from contaminated tenderizing needles; chicken with Campylobacter or imported ham with Listeria monocytogenes. Then there's a side dish of stuffing loaded with salmonella-contaminated hazelnuts. And for those watching their weight: a popular nutritional drink fouled with the food poison Bacillus cereus.

All were recalled this month by the federal government or were the subjects of warnings by food safety experts. And 2010 isn't shaping up to set a safer table, according to some of the country's leading food safety experts.

That's not the message from the government's three big players in the war against dangerous food -- the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control. All predict the food supply will be safer because of new safeguards being pushed by the Obama administration.

Less than two months after taking office, the president announced the creation of the Food Safety Working Group and promised more resources to safeguard the nation's food supply. "Many of the laws and regulations governing food safety in America have not been updated since they were written in the time of Teddy Roosevelt," Obama said at that time.

The USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service and the FDA are trying to improve product traceability, both forward and back, in the production chain, with the goal of being able to respond quicker to outbreaks, said Caleb Weaver, USDA's press secretary.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack wants his agency to "further reduce the incidence of food-borne pathogens and the number of food-borne-related deaths to zero," Weaver added.

However, some managers and field investigators in the same agencies have views much closer to those of food safety activists. They predict that the very powerful food industry lobbyists, especially for the meat producers, will go down swinging and screaming to thwart meaningful food safety reform.

What Safety Experts Want

At the top of Food & Water Watch's safety wish list for 2010 is that FDA be given greater authority and resources to regulate the safety of both domestic and imported food, said Patty Lovera, the group's food team director.

Saying that some of the Food Safety and Inspection Service districts have been running double-digit vacancy rates for years, the organization called for more frequent inspections of domestic food facilities.

Because of the shortage of these frontline inspectors, Lovera said some food facilities are either not inspected on a daily basis or inspections are not being performed thoroughly.

Food & Water Watch also called for making slaughter facilities more accountable for E. coli contamination in their beef products.

Let's put Escherichia coli O157:H7 into perspective a bit with a figure that should shock you -- unless you raise cattle. The USDA estimates that between 2.5 million and 3 million cattle are slaughtered every month, and of those, about 5 percent were infected with E. coli O157:H7.

That works out to about one contaminated animal every 20 to 30 seconds, according to the agency.

And that's just E. coli.

Any food of animal origin can harbor other disease-causing bacteria, such as salmonella, Campylobacter jejuni, Listeria monocytogenes, and Staphylococcus aureus. These dangerous bacteria are invisible and odor free, but they all cause illness, some even death.

"As bad as the Iraq and Afghan wars are, we have a food safety system in the U.S. that probably kills as many people each year, and most people don't think this is acceptable," said Jaydee Hanson, policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety, another advocacy group.

Hanson relayed a tale well-known among food suppliers: Costco, which operates 566 warehouses around the globe, is so concerned about the safety of the meat it sells, it does not rely on USDA or FDA.

"Think about what it says about the government's food safety food operation when you have companies like Costco having to set up their own meat inspections operations to make sure they're not selling their customers contaminated meat," Hanson said.

"This country ought to have standards that are as tough as Costco," he added.

Craig Wilson, Costco's vice president for safety and quality assurance, said he doesn't think it's unusual for his company to do its own meat inspections.

"We owe nothing less to our customers," he said. "The government sets minimum standards for inspections, and we know that we want to improve on those because we have a responsibility to do everything to ensure we're selling safe food."

Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director of the nationwide Organic Consumers Association, said her organization puts the improper handling of meat at the top of its safety concerns.

"The way we slaughter and process that meat, animals wading in their own wastes, gives us a guaranteed E. coli contamination," she said.

Even healthy beef cattle may produce large quantities of potently toxic E. coli in their intestines.

"The government is willing to accept meat with low levels of E. coli. Inspectors find it all the time and allow it to be sold, but the public should be told it's there," Baden-Mayer said. "But label it as containing E. coli and let shoppers decide whether or not they want to buy this contaminated meat."

But there are others who say the perceived threats to the nation's food supply are exaggerated.

Shawn Stevens, a lawyer with Gass Weber Mullins, a Milwaukee-based law firm that defends food companies in high-profile food poisoning cases, said that Americans eat about 328.5 billion meals and countless more snack safely each year.

"While any illness or death linked to the consumption of food is one too many, the fact remains that you and I are 20 times more likely to die this year from pneumonia or drowing than from a food-borne illness," he wrote on his firm's Web site.

How Many Are Poisoned?

Many people and media outlets -- from Senate investigators to The New York Times -- quote the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says, "76 million cases of food-related illnesses are reported every year, with over 300,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths."

The problem is that the information came from data collected in 1995 and 1996 and, according to CDC, they haven't been updated since.

Another challenge? The pattern and numbers of outbreaks of bacterial, parasitic and viral foodborne pathogens go through stops and starts that puzzle even the experts.

"We do still face a number of significant concerns all the way along the farm-to-fork continuum," said Dr. Barbara Mahon, team leader of CDC's FoodNet, which tries to collect information on all reports of foodborne illness.

During the first eight years that FoodNet tracked reports of various foodborne infections, "almost every pathogen showed some degree of improvement, except for salmonella," Mahon said.

"But those improvements ended in 2004 and became stable ever since, and we're not really sure why," the pediatrician said.

Mahon and her colleagues are troubled because they continue to see the highest rate of foodborne infection among the young.

"Sometimes we can attribute E. coli to kids riding in a shopping cart next to the raw meat," Mahon said, "and salmonella can be caused because a child is living in a home with a reptile, a lizard or turtle, which are frequently sources of salmonella among young children."

But food scientists and disease detectives now see potentially lethal pathogens popping up in unexpected places.

This year alone, E. coli 157 showed up in cookie dough, and salmonella was found in peanuts, almonds and pistachios in 3,887 products sold throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Bill Marler, one of the country's top food safety lawyers, said the government has to take food safety seriously, but too often, it doesn't pay attention until people are getting sick -- or dying.

"The federal agencies responsible for ensuring the safety of America's food usually know what's being done wrong by food processors, and all too often they do little or nothing to stop it until it's too late," Marler said in November.