The State of Food Safety
Americans have seen big news in food safety lately. At the end of last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a long-awaited report on foodborne disease rates. Weeks later, on Jan. 4, the president signed into law the Food Safety and Modernization Act, marking sweeping changes to America’s food safety system. The legislation gives the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) significant new powers.
But will the FDA overhaul make for a safer food supply? There is debate, even among food safety experts.
Fifteeen percent of Americans get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die each year from eating tainted food.
The CDC made headlines with its estimate that there are 48 million cases of foodborne illnesses in the U.S. each year. The first government estimates of food borne illness in a decade found that 15 percent of Americans get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die each year from eating tainted food. While the numbers are high—finding one in six Americans suffer from foodborne illnesses annually—SPH professor Michael Osterholm says many media outlets got the story wrong when they reported that foodborne disease rates were significantly down from the late 1990s.
That misinterpretation occurred when the media compared 1999 estimates to 2011 estimates without explaining—as the CDC had—that the two sets of data had been analyzed with different methods and assumptions.
Osterholm, who directs the University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, wrote a commentary for the New England Journal of Medicine cautioning about misinterpreting the numbers and citing what he believes is a more reliable data source: the CDC’s Foodborne Disease Active Surveillance Network (FoodNet).
“The FoodNet data show that improvements to the food safety system of the late 1990s are still having a positive effect,” says Osterholm. “But we’ve made littleto- no additional progress in the past decade.”
New law, new outlook
The Food Safety and Modernization Act grants the FDA the power to issue recalls, increases the frequency of factory inspections, and ramps up surveillance so outbreaks can be more quickly traced to their source. It also boosts restrictions on imported foods.
SPH professor Craig Hedberg says the bill marks a fundamental change by requiring food producers to identify and prevent hazards.
“For the first time, there is a clear expectation that food producers are responsible for the safety of their products,” says Hedberg. “The law creates a different climate for food safety.”
While the new laws don’t affect the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), they will help to put the FDA on par with the fellow federal agency. “Even though the legislation deals with the FDA, it will undoubtedly drive changes in the overall food safety system,” says Hedberg.
Several of the new law’s provisions are modeled on Minnesota-based practices that led to legislation introduced in 2009 by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Minn. At a press conference announcing the bill (held at the SPH), Klobuchar spoke of collaborative food safety involving the Minnesota Department of Health, Minnesota Department of Agriculture, and University of Minnesota.
That model includes Team D, (for “Team Diarrhea”) a group of investigators—including SPH students—that races into action when there are cases of foodborne illness in the state. In recent years, Team D has pinpointed the culprits behind two national salmonella outbreaks. The model was first championed years ago by Hedberg and Osterholm, who was state epidemiologist at the time. Both have since worked to keep the model active, and they served as advisors to Sen. Klobuchar in the drafting of the bill.
Framework needs funding
While the food law is expected to cost $1.4 billion over the next five years, Congress hasn’t appropriated the $326 million requested by the FDA to make initial changes. For Osterholm, this is a major concern. “The bottom line is that you need financial support,” he says. “The media coverage has overlooked a major failing of the new law—namely that it lacks sufficient funding to make it truly effective.”
Hedberg says he isn’t as concerned with the initial lack of financial backing. “Even without full funding, changes can be made to the foundation of the regulatory process,” he says. “That fundamental shift alone is worth building on and promoting.”
Both Osterholm and Hedberg agree that the key to funding the law is to view any appropriation not as an expenditure but rather a sound investment. “The federal budget is obviously incredibly challenged right now. But the cost of foodborne disease far outstrips the investment of trying to prevent it,” says Osterholm.
Recent salmonella outbreaks have well proved this point. For example, even though one company was responsible for the 2009 peanut contamination that led to nine deaths, hundreds of companies suffered. Kellogg’s alone, which made snacks using the tainted nuts, reported a $34 million hit.
As for critics that argue the laws will be too costly for small businesses, Hedberg and Osterholm say that small producers shouldn’t be held to a different standard of safety. “Identifying and controlling your own safety issues, as a food producer, should be part of the cost of conducting business,” says Hedberg.
Osterholm makes the point with an analogy to another industry: “That’s like saying ‘I have a smaller car company, can I just skip the seatbelts?’”