June 19, 2008 The Pump Handle 1Comment

Salmonella-tainted tomatoes have sickened at least 277, although the Seattle PI’s Andrew Schneider cites a CDC estimate of 8,600 people who’ve become ill during this outbreak. Congress has reacted to this and other food and drug safety problems by forcing additional funding on the FDA, which isn’t allowed to ask for more money than the administration decides it needs. The additional $275 million is small change, though, compared to what’s needed to shore up our overburdened food and drug safety systems.

Contrast this lackluster action to what happened in South Korea when the government made a beef deal with the U.S. that will allow the importation of meat from cows older than 30 months, which are regarded as more likely to carry mad cow disease. (South Korea banned U.S. beef after mad cow disease was detected here in 2003.) A series of protest – the largest drawing more than 80,000 demonstrators – erupted and forced President Lee Myung-bak to offer a public apology and promise to try to modify the regulations.

Last week, Paul Krugman reminded New York Times readers that federal regulatory agencies have been getting progressively more starved for resources since the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, and have recently been headed by appointees with industry-friendly views. This, he points out, ends up being bad for business:

One amazing decision came in 2004, when a Kansas producer asked for permission to test its own cows, so that it could resume exports to Japan. You might have expected the Bush administration to applaud this example of self-regulation. But permission was denied, because other beef producers feared consumer demands that they follow suit.
When push comes to shove, it seems, the imperatives of crony capitalism trump professed faith in free markets.

Eventually, the department did expand its testing, and at this point most countries that initially banned U.S. beef have allowed it back into their markets. But the South Koreans still don’t trust us. And while some of that distrust may be irrational — the beef issue has become entangled with questions of Korean national pride, which has been insulted by clumsy American diplomacy — it’s hard to blame them.

The ironic thing is that the Agriculture Department’s deference to the beef industry actually ended up backfiring: because potential foreign buyers didn’t trust our safety measures, beef producers spent years excluded from their most important overseas markets.

If salmonella-tainted tomatoes aren’t enough to prompt our elected officials to make the necessary improvements to our food safety system, perhaps the threat of MRSA will do the trick. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, a hard-to-treat and often fatal bacteria, has been found in U.S. pigs and farmworkers. MRSA is a growing problem in the U.S. (and elsewhere); Environmental Defense Fund scientist Rebecca Goldburg told Schneider that it now causes more deaths in the U.S. than AIDS does. Its spread hasn’t been definitively linked to the common practice of dosing livestock with lots of antibiotics, but research suggests this profligate use of antibiotics might be a culprit.

The winners of the next elections will have a lot of urgent problems to deal with. They’ll accomplish a lot just by requiring regulatory agencies to do the jobs they were created to do.

One thought on “Taking Food Safety Seriously

  1. WSU Extension Launches “Food Safety in a Minute” Podcast Series

    RENTON, Wash. – An outbreak of salmonella in tomatoes and spinach takes food off the grocery shelves. Avian flu in chickens and BSE in cattle result in the destruction of millions of birds and cows. A natural disaster shuts down electricity, and your refrigerator warms up. Is your food safe to eat?

    A new series of podcasts from Washington State University Extension helps answer some of these questions. Each “Food Safety in a Minute” podcast offers listeners a handy, easy-to-apply tip. The first in the series is available Wednesday, June 25. Additional podcasts in the series will be posted each Wednesday morning at 10 a.m. Pacific time.

    With 76 million Americans a year experiencing a food-borne illness, this is a series you, your readers and listeners, and your family can’t afford to miss.

    Simple practices like washing hands, keeping the kitchen clean and cooking foods properly are only the obvious first steps in keeping food safe. As consumers we think know how to tell food that is safe to eat from food that is not—but the “sight and smell test” is not a reliable method of detecting food pathogens. Spoilage micro-organisms don’t make us sick, pathogens do—but food containing pathogens such as E. coli or salmonella look and taste just fine.

    The Food Safety in a Minute podcast series addresses a wide gamut of issues, including holiday food safety, packing school lunches to insure children are eating safe food, how long to store canned food, and many other topics.

    Visit the Food Safety in a Minute Web page at http://cahnrsnews.wsu.edu/foodsafety/ to download the first in the series. Subscribe to the RSS feed to insure you don’t miss an installment. Each podcast is one minute long (and a one megabyte download or stream), making it perfect for use on radio and for the general public on the go.

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