FoodFacts.com has always made it a point to call attention to food recalls and restaurant closings on our website. We think it’s important to keep as many people informed of foodborne illnesses as possible because they do affect so many people. New food recalls happen every single day of the year and most of them aren’t publicized, so you may not know that a product that’s sitting in your pantry has been recalled to do foodborne pathogens or cross contamination from allergens. You need to know exactly what’s in your food – and sometimes that includes things that aren’t very pleasant and can, in fact, cause immediate and serious harm.
The latest scare comes from Oregon and Washington state, where Chipotle closed 43 restaurants after more than 35 people fell ill with E. coli. Other outbreaks in recent years involved cantaloupes, peanuts and cookie dough.Here’s the story behind product recalls and restaurant closings: food poisoning is more common than you think. Some 3,000 Americans die every year from food poisoning, and 128,000 are hospitalized.
It’s not as if Congress has done nothing. In 2011 it passed the Food Safety Modernization Act, the biggest change in industry monitoring since the 1930s. The law had broad support from both parties as well as consumer groups and Big Agriculture.
The act makes a number of improvements to the food-safety system. The Food and Drug Administration is empowered to order recalls of contaminated food products — previously, it could only request them — and put in place tougher rules on processing fruits and vegetables. Companies are required to create written safety plans and keep records of safety issues, which the agency has the right to see. The FDA will also do more frequent inspections — once every three years instead of every decade for high-risk facilities — and has greater authority over imported food, which is required to meet many of the same safety standards as domestic food.
The law falls short in some places: Most important, it does too little to address a lax program of domestic self-regulation, especially when it comes to outside safety inspectors, whose independence has been questioned. The agency has proposed a set of rules for improving matters, including a set of model accreditation standards for safety auditors, but they would simply be guidelines.
Yet any discussion of benefits and drawbacks would be premature, since few of the law’s core provisions have taken effect. The FDA only last month finalized its preventive-control rules, and Congress has doled out less than half the $580 million that the Congressional Budget Office says has been needed to implement the law. It is unlikely to open its wallet wider. The process has become bogged down by industry objections to compliance costs and a proposed $225 million in other fees.
Congress, agricultural producers and food retailers need to find a compromise out of the fiscal logjam. One potentially helpful suggestion came from President Barack Obama earlier this year, when he proposed placing all food-safety responsibilities in one agency inside the Department of Health and Human Services, combining the efforts of the FDA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (which oversees meat and poultry) and a handful of other government offices. This could well increase efficiency and cut down on regulatory overlap, meaning lower costs to industry.
FoodFacts.com will continue to provide news to our community concerning food recalls and restaurant closings. It’s important that we all stay aware so that we can avoid serious illness. And food poisoning IS serious illness – even though we don’t tend to think of it that way. With over 100,000 hospitalizations every year and numerous fatalities, food poisoning isn’t something about which any of us can afford to live in the dark. While we have plenty of systems in place to help us avoid these situations in the first place, none of those has yet been perfect. In the end, it’s still up to us to find out as much as we can about problems as they arise in order to keep ourselves healthy and well.