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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.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  October 14, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Food Safety and Recalls  
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Consumers don't have to muddle through. They have to be proactive. That is why our website, is so important. We take the confusion out of food recalls.

Our readership is comprised of tens of thousands of grandparents, new mothers, corporations, the government and everyone in between.

The website has been acclaimed in the Washington Post and other noteworthy publications. I invite you to contact me personally for real information about consumers and food safety.

Susan Reef, President
US Food Safety Corporation

Posted by: susnar | October 14, 2009 9:58 AM | Report abuse

It is doubly incorrect to state, as you do:

(While meat, poultry and 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.)

First, dairy products caused far fewer outbreaks of illness than leafy greens, tuna and several others, as CSPI's report clearly stated.

Second, dairy product safety is regulated by FDA, not USDA, and thus the CSPI report included cheese and ice cream (for which the data was skewed by a single 15-year-old incident).

The report and previous data from CSPI have made clear that raw, unpasteurized milk and its products are the major cause of illness associated with dairy products. If the study looked only at illness linked to pasteurized milk and dairy products, it would be hardly a blip on the radar scope.

Posted by: JamesWebster | October 14, 2009 10:19 AM | Report abuse

Can someone please explain why the CSPI study receives any credit? There is no new information. The most recent data hails from 2006! No "new" practices are taken into account. Ice cream is vilified due to one outbreak 15 years ago. This blog opens by calling out the new "guidlines" introduced by FDA, but there was no reference to the role the industry played, and has played historically, in developing those guidlines. FDA does not have the expertise to develop any guidlines for farmers or the products they produce. We cannot look exclusivley at FDA as the one and only agency to govern food safety on the farm. Would you ask a mechanic to exxecute a surgery?

Posted by: psimonds | October 14, 2009 12:47 PM | Report abuse

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