The Food-Safety Muddle
At the behest of the President's Food Safety Working Group, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in late July proposed industry guidelines that would help make it safer to eat tomatoes, leafy greens and melons. That proposal follows one aimed at reducing the risks of eating eggs and is to be followed by guidelines regarding poultry and beef.
Last week, the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest released its list of the 10 foods overseen by the FDA that are responsible for most food-borne illness outbreaks in the United States. Topping the list: leafy greens, eggs and tuna. Further down the list are some surprising items: Oysters, sure, but potatoes? Really?
(While meat, poultry and egg
dairy products cause more food-borne illnesses than leafy greens or any of the others on CSPI's list do, they're regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, so they weren't included.)
As the Washington Post's Lyndsey Layton reported yesterday, the Obama administration's agencies, including the FDA, are cracking down, enforcing regulations like there's no tomorrow. Among the FDA's most visible actions of late has been requiring General Mills to stop saying that Cheerios can lower cholesterol in four weeks. In June, the agency called for people to stop eating pistachios for fear of salmonella contamination -- though there had been no illnesses reported and the contamination was limited to a single plant.
All of this serves to underscore the challenge of fixing what ails America's food safety system. With limited resources, where do we focus first? Is a commodity-by-commodity approach best--fix beef, poultry and eggs first, then get to the leafy greens? Or might there be some way to institute simple safety standards that would apply across the board? And how much energy should we spend keeping Cheerios honest when Toll House cookie dough is making people sick?
Part of the problem is that food-borne illness is a moving target. You deal with an outbreak involving bean sprouts, and next thing you know there's a bunch of contaminated peanut butter on the market.
Though it's encouraging to see the federal government taking action, the sad reality is that it will take years for any initiative proposed today to take effect. In the meantime, we'll just have to muddle through, eating as healthfully as we can and hoping our food choices don't come back to haunt us.
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