• Food Safety – Why No Regulation Hurts People

    • August – September 2015:  300 people were infected with Salmonella. Cases in California and Arizona with the states of California and Texas having one fatality each. Traced to cucumbers from Mexico distributed by Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce who issued a voluntary recall.
    • June 2015: Listeria in Blue Bell Ice Cream (something very close to my heart). Ten people hospitalized in 4 states, with 3 deaths.
    • February 2014: One person died and three newborns ill in an outbreak of listeria in cheese.  Seven additional illnesses in Maryland. All of the Maryland victims reported eating soft or semi-soft Hispanic-style cheese that they purchased at different locations of the same grocery store chain.

    I could go on. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were 8 food-born illness outbreaks in 2015 involving food from ice cream to tuna to cucumbers. In 2014, there were 13 such outbreaks ranging from beef to cilantro. In 2013, 11 cases, including a really fascinating one… hepatitis A from pomegranate seeds (shipped from Turkey and placed into “organic” frozen food mixes). Ten more outbreaks from 2012 and 14 from 2011.

    Here’s some more that the CDC didn’t mention, so I’m not sure that means that they just aren’t confirmed with the source or what. But there are linked news reports for each (it’s just 2014).

    Let’s be clear here, people are dying. Not many, but there are a few deaths in many of the cases. Mostly people with weak immune systems already.

    My list stopped in 2011, because something happened that was supposed to help. The Food Safety Modernization Act was signed into law in 2011. The goal of this law was to shift the focus of food safety from containment and response to prevention.

    However, the US congress has yet to provide the requested budget needed to implement the law. The Congressional Budget Office says that the FDA needs $580 million to implement (that’s from 2011 to 2015). So far, the Congress has budgeted less than half of that amount.

    In 2014, the FDA submitted a request for about $260 million, of which $230 million would come from user fees from the food industry. I’ll give you three guesses to describe what happened.

    Yep, the food industry lobbied against that and thus the FDA ended up getting $27 million dollars for the program. Just over 1/10th of the requested amount. And much, much smaller than the amount needed to actually run this program.

    I’ve seen this become more common over the last few decades. Congress must “Do Something!” so they pass a law. However, laws don’t mean much without enforcement. And that requires money. And congress also controls the money. So they can be seen to be “Doing Something!” and yet, the end result is that nothing has changed because they refuse to provide a budget to support the law they passed.

    According to Dr. Robert Scharff, a former FDA economist, food-borne illness kills 3,000 people and affects almost 50 million people in the US and causes a loss of 152 billion dollars each year. And the US congress can’t agree on spending less than 1% of that value to help fix the problem.

    In 2014, the US imported almost 70 million metric tons of food. The FDA has 2,000 inspectors to handle all of that and all of the US produced food. I should note that the food-borne illness outbreaks are not restricted to foreign food. US producers have plenty of issues of their own.

    Here’s where I get a little ranty, but it’s important to consider.

    The US loses 3,000 lives and $150 billion to food-borne illness every year. This isn’t handguns that cause more deaths than that, but has all kinds of cultural issues to deal with. This isn’t disease which we’re trying to understand. This is simple things like not washing off produce, not cleaning packaging machines, and not keep refrigeration equipment properly maintained.

    This is the kind of thing that SHOULD be trivial to deal with. But it’s obviously not because people are dying and millions of people are going to the hospital every year.

    I would consider the US food safety system to be barely regulated. Yes, there are regulations in place. Yes, there are inspectors. But each of those 2,000 inspectors has to verify something like 35,000 metric tons of food per year. That’s 673 metric tons of food inspected each week or about 16 metric tons inspected per hour (at 40 hours per week). Again, that’s just imports.

    It’s not possible for those inspectors to catch everything. So many companies can skate the edges of cleanliness and hope that they don’t get caught. No one, as far as I’ve read, has still figured out how hepatitis A got into pomegranate seeds and it’s likely no one ever will.

    But there’s a potential solution. Provide the FDA with the money needed to support the law that congress passed. It’s at least better than saying “Oh well” and ignoring the problem (like we do with guns). These regulations (which a large group of people in the US want to get rid of) are helping… at least they are trying to help. But regulations without enforcement is meaningless.

    Now, $125 million a year over 4 years is a lot of money. But is it more important than 12,000 deaths and $600 billion in lost productivity? I don’t think so.

    That’s the problem. There’s no way that WE can get our congresscritters to think about things like that. I don’t think it’s that they don’t care. But it’s a side issue for them. It’s a large campaign contribution from a food company vs. a few voters that probably aren’t even in their district.

    We (meaning the whole US) keep electing people like that to office. People who are more concerned with keeping their job than doing their job. That needs to stop. We need politicians who are trying to do what’s best for the people, not industries (hint: People who are vomiting and have diarrhea for a week, don’t buy food!)

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    Article by: Smilodon's Retreat