From spinach to peanuts, and now to cereal and sprouts, food contamination has unfortunately become a common occurrence of late. Contamination, in these cases, is from bacteria that cause food-borne illness and methylnaphthalene. Pinpointing the cause of each contamination incident is surprisingly difficult.
What’s more troublesome is consumers often receive the short end of the stick when it comes to avoiding contaminated products. That’s because the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees 80% of the food supply, does not have the authority to require companies to recall contaminated foods. Instead, manufacturers can voluntarily issue product recalls. The Institute of Medicine issued a report last month drawing attention this flaw and calling for remediation:
Shifting from a reactive approach to a risk-based approach allows the FDA to make decisions based on risk and prevent future foodborne disease, in turn protecting the public’s health. Until the recommended changes are implemented, the FDA and the federal government will lack the process, capabilities, and structure needed to properly evaluate decisions that will ultimately ensure the safety of the nation’s food.
Thankfully, illness outbreaks resulting from recent contaminations have prompted government action, as evidenced by new faces at the FDA and Congressional efforts to revamp the way the FDA approaches food safety. However, the long-awaited food safety legislation is now stuck in limbo in the Senate. In a recent op-ed, Eric Schlosser (author of Fast Food Nation) implores the Senate to act swiftly to pass the Food Safety Modernization Act. He advises that
Without tough food safety rules, a perverse economic incentive guides the marketplace. Adulterated food is cheaper to produce than safe food. Since consumers cannot tell the difference between the two, companies that try to do the right thing are forced to compete with companies that couldn’t care less.
What can we do until food safety legislation is passed? Since the onus is on consumers, we must make the most of the situation we’re in by practicing safe food handling techniques and staying abreast of food recalls that do occur. While these actions are reactive, we can also encourage preventive action by demanding that companies prioritize food safety by creating and implementing hazard analysis critical control point (HACCP) plans.