Is Your Supper Safe?

By Ben Hewitt, September/October 2009

With recent outbreaks of E. coli in beef and salmonella in peanuts, sitting down to dinner may seem hazardous to your health. Can it really be so bad? EatingWell investigates.

"I'm not one who believes that everything has to be refrigerated shortly after it has been served. Many time, we leave dinner out all night, and we have the next day. None of us has ever gotten sick as a result of this. We're European,...

The Regulation Situation

In a sense, it doesn’t matter whether it’s ignorance or a lack of scruples on the behalf of the producer, because the truth is that in the current regulatory environment, both are allowed to persist and the end result is the same.

“The FDA is basically asking the industry to ‘do a good job, please,’” explains Patty Lovera, assistant director at Food and Water Watch, a nonprofit consumer-advocacy organization that works to ensure safe, clean food and water in the U.S. “The FDA ends up doing a lot of recommending to the industry, when they should be doing enforcement.” It’s not really the agency’s fault, Lovera points out: “It’s just too easy to underfund the FDA’s efforts.” The funding that supports the FDA’s food-safety regulations is not written into law; it must be continually re-allocated.

The USDA is somewhat better off, since the funding and policies that guide its food inspection have been cemented in law since the early 1900s. But times are changing, and Marler is quick to point out that the USDA isn’t changing with them. “Yes, it’s law that a USDA inspector has to visually inspect every carcass that comes through a slaughterhouse,” explains Marler. “But you have to ask yourself: does it do any good to be looking for things that can’t be seen with the human eye? This is a protocol that was implemented at a time when we weren’t even sure that germs caused disease. Maybe we should think about an upgrade.” In Marler’s view, this means changing the entire focus of the inspection process. “We shouldn’t be looking at the meat, but at the procedure,” he explains. “We have the technology and the thought process that allow us to create systems to reduce contamination. Our focus should be implementing and monitoring those systems, not staring at meat all day, looking for things that can’t be seen.”

But inspectors do more than just look for invisible bacteria. The USDA requires every slaughterhouse and plant that produces raw, ground meat and poultry to design and implement a systematic risk-reduction procedure. These programs are called Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) systems. Basically, they are “structured thinking” about everything that might go wrong in the flow of production and what steps a plant will take to prevent these problems from actually occurring, says Douglas Archer.

On top of HACCP, meat and poultry plants must conduct routine, random testing of their products for the presence of E. coli. “I think we know that getting a negative sample doesn’t necessarily make anything safe. There’s always another pound of meat coming on that might contain a ‘bug,’” says Archer. “But [the sampling yields] useful information because if things are horribly out of control, you do get to know that pretty quickly.”

While HACCP-type plans currently are required on the federal level only for plants that produce meat, poultry, seafood and juice, some states and industry groups are establishing their own systems for keeping foods safer. For example, in 2007, California farmers, shippers and processors that handle leafy greens (including spinach, lettuce, kale and more) banded together to create the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement (LGMA). Operating with oversight from the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the LGMA is an audit program that ensures that its 118 member companies (which represent 99 percent of the California leafy greens on the market) are implementing science-based food-safety practices that protect against risks including animal intrusions (e.g., wild pigs), floods, keeping detailed records (of water use, soil testing, etc.) and enforcing safe sanitation practices.

Similarly, Archer’s home state of Florida recently passed a rule requiring that tomato growers implement systematic risk-reduction practices. “I presume that the feds will be working on a similar one pretty quickly,” says Archer. He’s referring to the report that President Barack Obama’s newly established Food Safety Working Group released this past July. The Working Group’s recommendations call for improved handling procedures and enhanced monitoring efforts that will help to reduce salmonella in eggs and poultry and E. coli in beef and certain types of produce—leafy greens, melons and tomatoes. The group is also guiding the industry to establish product-tracing systems.

Fundamentally changing such a large, politicized system will likely take years. Yet there’s one action that some people argue would immediately lead to safer food: a shift from the current model of centralized production, processing and distribution to localized food systems.

Next: Is Local Food Safer? »

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