Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Ten Steps To A Safer Food Supply: Part Three

"Please make our food supply safer."
- Carol Lobato, Salmonella Enteritis victim, September 22, 2010

The House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations heard today from two of the more than 1600 victims of the Salmonella Enteritis outbreak, both of the companies whose eggs were linked to that outbreak, and the Principal Deputy Commissioner of the FDA. The Subcommittee chose not to hear from USDA, whose Agriculture Marketing Service is responsible for egg-grading activities at both company's operations.

Sarah Lewis (Freedom, CA) and her sister were two of the earliest recorded victims of the outbreak. They both became ill last May, after eating a custard tart served during Sarah's sister's college graduation banquet. Sarah was hospitalized twice – including three days in a coronary critical care unit – and developed colitis as a result of a secondary Clostridium difficile infection. Sarah remains a carrier of Salmonella Enteritis and continues to suffer aftereffects of her illness.

Carol Lobato (Littleton, CO) is 77 years old. On July 10th, Carol and her husband Ed took their grandson Drew to dinner at The Fort Restaurant in Morrison, Colorado. All three shared an appetizer of rattlesnake cakes. Carol, who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and takes immunosuppressive medications, developed septic shock and was admitted to hospital. Ed and Drew also were ill, but not as severely as Carol, who remained in hospital for five days. Salmonella Enteritidis – an exact DNA match to the strain recovered at Wright County Egg – was found both in Carol's bloodstream and in her intestines.

Sarah Lewis and Carol Lobato suffered life-threatening illnesses through no fault of their own. All they did was to enjoy a celebratory meal with their families.

In the first two parts of this series, I proposed six steps that I believe would improve the ability of federal food safety agencies – mainly FDA and USDA – to carry out their responsibility to US consumers. Following are an additional four steps that can be taken to answer Carol Lobato's plea and improve the safety of the US food supply.

Step 7. Pass and implement mandatory recall authority for FDA and USDA
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has mandatory recall authority. So does the UK Food Standards Agency. So does Food Standards Australia. So do the food regulators in a number of other countries.

In the United States, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has mandatory recall authority. USDA does not, but can "encourage" a recall by threatening to withdraw its inspector from a plant that it oversees. FDA has no such means of persuasion. Its only rapid response recourse in the absence of a company's cooperation is to issue a Health Alert – as it did earlier this year to warn pet owners about dog treats that were at risk of being contaminated with Salmonella.

In fact, Canada, the UK and Australia rarely have to invoke their recall authority. The mere existence of this provision is enough to ensure cooperation on the part of the food manufacturer, processor or distributor whose product safety has been called into question.

Step 8. Pass and implement traceability for all food products
One of the most problematic parts of a food outbreak investigation is tracing the origin and distribution of a suspect food. Unless companies are required to maintain complete and detailed records – and make those records available to regulators in the event of a product contamination issue – a contaminated food cannot be tracked back to its source or forward to its destination. Without effective traceability, contaminated food inevitably will remain on the market and in the hands of consumers.

Step 9. Increase FDA's budget for routine inspections of domestic food processors
According to FDA's Principal Deputy Commissioner, Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, who testified at the Egg hearing, the agency has the wherewithal to carry out approximately 18,000 inspections annually. That sounds like a lot of inspections, except that there are 150,000 facilities in the US under FDA jurisdiction. FDA simply must be given the money to do its job, if we are to see any significant reduction in the number of foodborne outbreaks in the United States.

Step 10. Introduce steep, mandatory penalties – including prison sentences – for egregious or repeat offenders of food safety laws
Malefactors such as Peanut Corporation of America's Stewart Parnell or Wright County's DeCoster should not be able to extricate themselves with a formal apology and a slap on the wrist.

My Ten Steps are not the entire answer to the problems that beset the food safety system in the United States. They are just the first steps in a long journey back to a food system that US consumers can depend upon and that members of the food industry can be proud of.

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