Advocates say FDA lacks power to keep food safe

By Heather Sullivan - bio | email

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - An Ohio food company is recalling lettuce sold in 23 states and the District of Columbia because of an E. Coli outbreak. At least 19 people have been sickened, three of them with life-threatening symptoms. The FDA is said to be focusing on lettuce grown in Arizona as a possible source for the outbreak.

We often hear about food recalls due to bacteria contamination. So what's being done to make sure your food is safe?

Every year, 76 million people become sick from a food borne illness and 5000 die. You cannot see, smell or taste food poisoning. But it can be prevented.

Remember the headlines? Hundreds became sick, some people died after bacteria seeped into foods like peanut butter, spinach, green onions and tomatoes. Last year 7-year-old Christopher Meunier of Vermont ate peanut butter snack crackers that almost killed him. Said his mother Gabrielle Meunier, "Never once did we ever fathom that a cracker could contain poisoning. Ever."

The Pew Charitable Trust just released a study it says reveals food poisoning costs $152 billion a year in medical bills and lost productivity at work. Sandra Eskin, Director of the Pew Health Group's Food Safety Campaign, says the FDA lacks the power and resources to make sure all food processing plants are clean and safe. Said Eskin, "The need is clearly there. Even though some companies are doing the right thing, because some aren't, it seems food borne illnesses, we're seeing contamination and recalls."

The foods most at risk include produce, eggs, tuna, oysters, cheese and ice cream. The Pew Charitable Trust is urging Congress to pass a law to give the FDA more money and power over food processors. Said Eskin, "To inspect facilities that are an integral component into an effective food safety system. It would also give the agency mandatory recall authority."

The bill calls for the FDA to increase inspections of food facilities from about once every 10 years to at least annually for high-risk facilities and at least once every three years for facilities deemed a low risk. FDA inspectors will have access to company records. And for the first time, the FDA could set standards and make sure farms and food manufacturers meet them.

We asked local food processors what they think about the bill.

Kraft sent a statement saying, "Kraft Foods support legislation that will strengthen America's food safety systems. There are a number of measures we believe will help accomplish this goal, including,

  • The requirement for comprehensive food safety plans so that every manufacturer will take a preventive approach to identifying and evaluating potential hazards.
  • Increased funding for FDA that includes helping to improve food safety science. It is critically important to rebuild a strong scientific base within FDA.
  • FDA authority to access records. We believe that this will provide FDA with a more comprehensive history of potential issues at manufacturing facilities."

Cargill sent us the following statement: "The food safety legislation moving through Congress is directed at increasing the Food and Drug Administration's authority and resources. Cargill is following the legislation closely. We recognize the need for meaningful reform, and we support changes that are science-based and would further protect consumer health."

To help pay for added inspections, the bill could make food processors pay a $500 fee. Some costs could be passed on to consumers through higher food prices. But Eskin says its necessary, "You can try to thoroughly wash your produce. But if there's a break in the skin or in a leafy green, the actual contamination comes through the root system. It's actually in the tissue. Washing it is not going to get rid of it."

The House passed the bill last summer. It's been sitting in the Senate since then, but the Senate may take it up soon.

The FDA gave us this statement in regards to the proposed legislation: "Congress is close to passing new legislation that would make the science-based prevention paradigm national policy and give FDA new authorities to make it happen. The legislation also embraces other principles that should guide the modernization of food safety: the need for science- and risk-based efforts, a farm-to-table approach, and a food safety system that holds imports to the same standards for domestic facilities."

You can learn how to keep your food safe at and you can sign up to receive food recall alerts from the FDA.

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