Every year, 3,000 people in U.S. die from contaminated food — fruit, peanut butter, ground meat. Children and the elderly, whose immune systems are weaker, are especially at risk of food poisoning and, in some cases, people who became sick did not actually eat contaminated food but simply had physical contact with someone who had.
In 2009, 7-year old Abby Fenstermaker died from E. coli she most likely contracted from physical contact with her grandfather, who had eaten contaminated beef at a veteran’s hall in Ohio. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), you can get E. coli from a person who was not washed properly.
Here are five compelling reasons that the U.S. needs to clean up its food supply, and soon.
1. So many people just should not be getting sick from food they purchase at their local supermarkets.
100,000 people are hospitalized and 48 million people become ill from contaminated food in the U.S. In a terrible twist, some were eating fresh produce in quantities, thinking that it was healthy and good for them as a report in Bloomberg details. Food-borne salmonella causes the majority of illnesses and deaths; the rate of infections from it rose by 10 percent from 2006 to 2010, says the CDC.
Moreover, while there were only two recalls of fruits and vegetables in 2005, there were 37 in 2011.
2. The Food and Drug Administration needs far more resources to inspect food.
Currently, the FDA has a $1 billion budget from Congress to oversee the $1.2 trillion food industry. As a result, only a measly 6 percent of domestic food producers and only 0.4 percent of imports are inspected. In addition, the FDA also does not have rules about how often food growers should be inspected.
3. A U.S. law about food inspectors is toothless.
The U.S. does have a law, the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011, that requires inspectors of food imported from foreign providers be certified by the FDA and to submit their reports to the agency.
But domestic inspectors are exempt from such certification as a result of American food manufacturers arguing that doing so would take resources away from other FDA efforts.
4. Much of our food is inspected by third-party companies hired by the food industry.
Most growers are inspected by for-profit companies who are hired by food manufacturers. These third-party auditors are not regulated or supervised by the government and not required under federal law to follow government standards or to publicize their reports.
Via court cases, congressional investigations and company websites, Bloomberg obtained four audit reports and three audit certificates. Six of these audits gave “sterling” rankings to a cantaloupe farm, an egg producer, a peanut processor and a ground-turkey plant either before or after they supplied contaminated food that, in a number of cases, was linked to fatalities. Cantaloupes from Jensen Farms in Colorado — a third-party auditor gave it a glowing report — actually sickened 147 Americans and killed 33 others.
Guidelines for third-party food auditors were created in 2000 by the Paris-based Global Food Safety Initiative, which was in turn created by Danone SA (BN), Kraft, Wal-Mart and other companies.
5. By 2030, the U.S. will import half of its food.
20 percent of food is currently imported, but before too long, we’ll be importing even more. Even though inspectors of foreign food must be FDA-certified, not only are there hardly enough of them but they are certainly not able to visit every farm or factory that produces food exported to the US.
Bloomberg staff visited growers in China, Mexico and Vietnam and found unsanitary conditions in which produce, fish and other food were raised. For instance, fish raised in China are in part fed with feces from geese and pigs, which is often contaminated with microbes including salmonella. A farm that provides food for Agricola Pauher SA in San Juan, Mexico, grows grape tomatoes in fields that, in some cases, are contaminated with animal and human feces and dirty water. A Mexican papaya exporter, Red Starr Spr de R.L., has workers wash fruit in water that contains fungicides and bleach to kill salmonella.
It’s enough to make you lose your appetite.
It would take about $3 billion for the FDA to perform necessary inspections of both domestic and imported food, the agency estimates. Bloomberg points out that this would be far less than the $75-150 billion currently spent on treating food-borne illnesses, as well as the costs for Americans unable to work.
“You are what you eat” says the old adage. All the more reason for far, far better oversight of what we feed to those we love and ourselves.
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