Study: Unsafe foods putting lives at risk

Posted Oct. 26, 2012, at 5:16 p.m.

In a little less than two years, illnesses linked to food recalls have sickened 1,753 Americans, including seven Mainers, according to a new report.

The report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund found that pathogens such as listeria and salmonella in recalled foods led to 37 deaths and racked up $227 million in related costs between January 2011 and September 2012. The group cited recalls during that period including cantaloupe, ground turkey, papaya, mangoes, raw tuna and, most recently, peanut butter.

Earlier this month, grocery chain Trader Joe’s, which has a store in Portland, recalled peanut butter that was linked to salmonella illnesses in 19 states. Eight people have been hospitalized, and most of those who became ill were children under age 10.

The report pegs the cost of illnesses from food recalls at $77,602 in Maine during the study period. The figure was derived using a model developed by Ohio State University professor Robert L. Schaff that accounts for hospital expenses, lab work, inpatient and outpatient care, as well as pain and suffering, and lost productivity.

The United States has failed to sustain progress on improving food safety, and recalls pulling contaminated products from store shelves have become all too common, U.S. PIRG said.

So far in 2012, the United States has recorded 1,035 illnesses linked to food recalls, putting the country on pace to see twice as many food-borne illnesses this year as in 2011, according to the report.

“More needs to be done to identify the contaminants that are making us sick and to protect Americans from the risk of unsafe food,” Nicole Karatzas, U.S. PIRG associate for Maine, said in a news release announcing the report.

Food safety is largely overseen by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The state also conducts inspections of food manufacturing facilities in Maine.

The group used the report’s release to advocate for full implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law in 2011, which calls for beefing up inspections of food manufacturing sites and other food-safety measures. Lack of funding and delays in rule-making have thwarted the law’s goal of shifting regulators’ focus from reacting to contamination of the food supply to preventing it, U.S. PIRG said.

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