Ensuring Food Safety

Posted Oct. 13, 2009, at 5:39 p.m.

Americans eating a hamburger or a salad should not have to worry that their meal will make them sick or even kill them. But, according to a public interest group, staples of many diets — leafy vegetables, eggs, tuna and ice cream — are among the riskiest foods you can eat.

Congress can improve the situation, but only if it moves forward with modernization of the country’s food safety rules. Such a bill is languishing in the Senate.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest compiled a list of the 10 foods most often responsible for food-borne illnesses, which sicken about 76 million people each year. Leafy greens, eggs and tuna topped the list, followed by oysters, potatoes, cheese, ice cream, tomatoes, sprouts and berries. The group only looked at foods regulated by the Food and Drug Administration; the Department of Agriculture oversees meat.

The center’s report is especially distressing because Americans should eat more of many of the foods included in its list. With a rapid rise in obesity, eating fewer fresh vegetables and fruits is preferable to processed foods, but they must be free from contamination.

Earlier this week, the agriculture department announced it will work with the FDA to develop new produce regulations over the next six months. The federal agencies plan to write new food safety rules for fresh produce after food-borne illness outbreaks tied to fruits and vegetables, such as jalapenos and spinach, in recent years.

This is a good start, but a more comprehensive overhaul is needed.

A major problem is lack of inspections. According to the Government Accountability Office, the number of FDA inspectors decreased by more than 400 between 2003 and 2007 while the number of businesses needing oversight grew by more than 7,000. As a result, many plant inspections are carried out by state officials, or not done at all.

The Food Safety Act, which passed the House in August, would require that high-risk facilities be inspected by the FDA every six to 12 months. Lower-risk facilities would be inspected every 18 months to three years.

More important, the FDA, which is in charge of about 80 percent of food inspections, would have the authority to order recalls. Now it only can encourage companies to pull tainted products.

The legislation also requires development of a system to trace food items from growers to distributors so the origin of products can easily be known. While this traceability can be helpful, the reporting and tracking burden for small farms could be problematic, especially for organic growers.

This needed legislation is on track and with some easy fixes in the Senate could go a long way to ensuring Americans can eat healthfully without worrying about what lurks in their food.

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