Improving America’s Food Safety Standards

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.

About Sheila Viswanathan

Sheila Viswanathan focuses on educating individuals on how to make healthier dietary choices. She received her doctoral degree in Nutrition and Public Health from Teachers College, Columbia University and is certified as a registered dietitian.
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2 Responses to Improving America’s Food Safety Standards

  1. uRDietitian says:

    Thank you to all of those trying to positively influence our "sick" food supply. I understand that what you are proposing is better than the current system, however, you and I know that this is not a HACCP issue. Reducing the risk of recalls and food-borne illness will not make up for the loss of life or of loved ones who become an "acceptable loss". The food recalls due to contamination are only one symptom of the disease. Treating the symptoms will not cure the disease, only mask the symptoms and assist in keeping this "sick" food system at work.

    Our food supply has been destroyed by our disconnect with what food provides to those who sow the seeds and those who are nourished by the harvest. As a nation, we must stop feeding the hunger and start nourishing the people.

  2. You are right, the onus is on us. And the article on the methyl… contamination does a wonderful job of reviewing many of the issues and where we stand on them – summed up by this quote, "But dig in a little deeper, and you’ll find a limp, corporate-friendly food-safety system on display."

    Since the onus is on us, we need to take responsibility. We need to buy food rather than "food-like substances" (Kellogg’s products for example) to use Michael Pollan’s words. This is a way of voting with our dollars and sending the message from the Market about what sells. We need to keep informed (thank you GoodGuide!!). And we need to try as we may to keep the Government honest and working for us rather than you know who.

    Great blog. Great article. Thanks,

    Dennis Dilday, D.C.

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