We as Americans have grown up believing that our food supply is the safest in the world. But the CDC estimates that over 300,000 people are hospitalized and over 5,000 die, just from eating food contaminated with a pathogen. In recent years, E. coli outbreaks have been linked to not just ground beef, but also to sprouts, lettuce, and steaks. Salmonella outbreaks have been traced to foods such as tomatoes, orange juice and cantaloupe. The largest Hepatitis-A outbreak in United States history has been linked to green onions. School children in a Chicago suburb were served chicken fingers contaminated with ammonia. And now, “Mad Cow” disease has been discovered at a slaughterhouse in Washington State.
While the incubation period for most foodborne pathogens is a matter of days and symptoms of hepatitis-A infection frequently do not show up for over a month, symptoms of Mad Cow, or Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, do not appear for up to forty years.
Because we should not have to worry about what we eat today, and the impact that it could have on us decades from now, we need stronger and more aggressive regulation by the USDA and the FDA. These two arms of the government must do everything they can to protect the consuming public.
Require the meat industry to document where specific lots of food are sold. That way, it can be recalled quickly if a pathogen is detected. In most outbreaks, there is no recall because retailers do not know where the meat came from and processors rarely step forward. Timely online records would allow meat to be efficiently tracked down and recalled as soon as inspectors get a positive test result.
Merge the two federal agencies (USDA and FDA) responsible for food safety. Right now, USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service and the inspection arm of the Food and Drug Administration share this mission. The system is bifurcated, which leads to turf wars and split responsibilities. We need one independent agency that deals with food-borne pathogens.
Finally, large purchasers of meat – fast food industry, grocery store chains, and yes, the USDA – must require the meat industry to produce high quality, pathogen lessened, meat. Can you imagine the power they can put on slaughterhouses to clean up this mess?