The U.S. federal government has been fighting foodborne illness for a century, ever since Upton Sinclair terrified the country with The Jungle, his expose of the Chicago meatpacking industry. Many think these measures have been successful. House Republicans, for example, recently voted to cut the FDA's budget for food safety, using the argument that our food system is "99 percent safe."
Widely-touted statistics about the prevalence of food poisoning cast some serious aspersions on that idea. In 2011, 48.7 million Americans contracted a foodborne illness. Of those, 127,839 were hospitalized and 3,037 died.
But the blistering cover story of the November 2012 issue of Bloomberg Markets magazine dispels any lingering doubt about the safety of the American food market. And shows just how little the country's food safety system has improved in the past century. It reveals the extent to which the federal government's lack of food safety regulation allows contaminated food to slip through the cracks to be sold in stores, leading to millions of preventable illnesses every year.
The basic problem, as depicted in the story co-written by Stephanie Armour, John Lippert and Michael Smith, is that the FDA, the federal agency assigned to monitor the safety of all food sold in the U.S. save meat, poultry and dairy, does not have the resources to adequately inspect the food Americans eat. As a result, the FDA outsources much of its inspection duties to private agencies, which are often supported by the food industry itself and which are often subject to little (if any) government oversight.
The most damning facet of the Bloomberg Markets story is its exposure of the many instances in which a private food inspection agency certified a producer as safe just weeks before or after food from that producer sickened, and even killed, scores of people. The first page of the story includes the following shocking passage:
Six audits gave sterling marks to the cantaloupe farm, an egg producer, a peanut processor and a ground-turkey plant -- either before or right after they supplied toxic food. Collectively, these growers and processors were responsible for tainted food that sickened 2936 people and killed 43 in 50 states.
Why is the situation so bleak? Much of the time, according to the story, "for-hire auditors have financial ties to executives at companies they're reviewing." Sometimes, the food producers themselves set the standards that the inspectors are instructed to inspect. Much of the time, the inspectors never even test for pathogens. They often don't even "set foot in the production area of the companies they report in audits as safe," according to one former auditor interviewed by Bloomberg Markets.
One employee at a company that conducts inspections on behalf of the FDA went so far as to say that "If you have a program for adding rat poison to a food, the auditor will ask, 'Did you add as much as you intended?' Most won't ask, 'Why the hell are we adding poison?'"
The situation is even worse when it comes to imported food. There, most food production plants are subject to virtually no inspection. Just 2.7 percent of the food that is imported from abroad is subject to inspection. Much of the rest is theoretically vetted by foreign inspectors -- but many of those inspections are far less rigorous than those in America (take the evidence from the recent massive Canadian beef recall as one example). Bloomberg Markets reporters visited several Mexican farms and found deplorable conditions. That's especially alarming considering that by 2030, half of the food we consume in the U.S. will be imported. Already, about a fifth of the food we eat is currently imported. And for certain foods, that figure is much higher. Here's a chart from the Bloomberg Markets story indicating the most frequently-imported foods:
Some of the issues uncovered in the Bloomberg Markets investigation are addressed in 2011's landmark Food Safety Modernization Act. But many of the provisions of that bill have yet to be implemented. If there were ever a case for fixing that, this article makes it. Be sure to read it in its entirety -- including several compelling personal stories of people affected by contaminating food -- at Bloomberg Markets magazine.
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In early December, Trader Joe's announced that the producer behind its <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/03/trader-joes-recall-butter-chicken_n_2231507.html?utm_hp_ref=food-safety" target="_hplink">"Trader Joe's Butter Chicken with Basmati Rice" was recalling 4,865 pounds of the product</a> because they may be contaminated with Listeria. The product was distributed nationwide, to stores in New York, Massachusetts, Virginia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, North Carolina, Connecticut, Florida, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maine and Rhode Island.
Salad distributor Fresh Express voluntarily recalled 9 oz. packages of spinach in November because they may be <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/08/fresh-express-spinach-recall_n_2094286.html?utm_hp_ref=food-safety" target="_hplink">tainted with salmonella bacteria</a>. The packages were sold to stores in Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington State and Wyoming.
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/02/wegmans-salad-recall-e-coli_n_2063939.html?utm_hp_ref=food-safety" target="_hplink">Sixteen cases of E. coli were linked to organic spinach and spring mix salads from Wegmans</a>, which in early November recalled 5 and 11-ounce packages of the products.
In November, Publix supermarkets in several Florida counties pulled 45 varieties of cake from shelves because of fears they may have been <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/16/publix-cake-recall_n_2146833.html?utm_hp_ref=food-safety" target="_hplink">contaminated with Listeria bacteria</a>.
Authorities in the Netherlands said in October that tainted <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/02/smoked-salmon-salmonella_n_1931940.html?utm_hp_ref=food-safety" target="_hplink">smoked salmon is the cause of a salmonella outbreak that sickened hundreds of people</a>. The same product may also be responsible for a multi-state outbreak in the U.S.
In October, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/11/kelloggs-mini-wheats-recall_n_1957487.html?utm_hp_ref=food-safety" target="_hplink">Kellogg's announced the recall of millions of boxes of Mini-Wheats cereal</a> after reports of pieces of metal mesh found within by some consumers. A "faulty manufacturing part" was reportedly to blame.
An investigation by Consumer Reports found that a shockingly high proportion of pork sold in grocery stores tested positive for potentially harmful bacteria. About 69 percent of the pork chop and ground pork samples tested <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/27/pork-investigation-consumer-reports_n_2197316.html?utm_hp_ref=food-safety" target="_hplink">contained Yersinia enterocolitica bacteria, which sickens about 100,000 people a year</a>. Most of the bacteria found was resistant to at least one form of antibiotic.
A McDonald's eatery in Bloomington, Ill. was <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/27/mcdonalds-bloomington-salmonella_n_2197920.html?utm_hp_ref=food-safety" target="_hplink">linked to a string of salmonella sickenings</a> involving several restaurants between October 18 and November 11. It closed down as investigators tested every employee. Those who fell ill were sick for about a week with a particularly nasty strain -- Salmonella Stanley -- which is rare outside of Southeast Asia.
In November, the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/26/sunland-peanut-butter-plant-fda_n_2194620.html?utm_hp_ref=food-safety" target="_hplink">FDA shuttered Sunland Inc.'s plant</a> months after it was first implicated in a widespread salmonella outbreak that sickened 41 people in 20 states. Peanut and other nut butters sold at chains including Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, Safeway and Target.
In September, the USDA reported that ground beef part of a nationwide Canadian recall for E. coli contamination had <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/21/ground-beef-canada-e-coli_n_1903482.html?utm_hp_ref=food-safety">found its way into the U.S.</a> The beef, which was originally produced by Alberta-based company XL Foods, was distributed in California, Michigan, Nebraska, Oregon, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin.
In September, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/19/spinach-listeria-recall-kroger_n_1897855.html?utm_hp_ref=food-safety">Kroger recalled 10 oz. bags of packaged spinach</a> that had been distributed in 15 states, citing a potential Listeria contamination.
An undercover investigation led by the BBC found "<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/18/rat-meat-london_n_1891832.html">shocking quantities" of "potentially unsafe" rat meat</a> sold at one of London's most popular markets, Ridley Road Market. Large quantities of other illegal bushmeat were also for sale.
Former egg farm manager Tony Wasmund plead guilty in September to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/12/tony-wasmund-bribery-egg-farm-salmonella_n_1877784.html?utm_hp_ref=food-safety">conspiring to bribe a USDA inspector</a> to allow the sale of unapproved eggs. The farm at which Wasmund worked, DeCoster Farms in Iowa City, Iowa, was blamed for a salmonella outbreak that sickened about 2,000 people.
In September, workers at a Conroe, Tex. KFC said they <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/12/kfc-spoiled-chicken-conroe-texas_n_1876870.html?utm_hp_ref=food-safety">sold expired chicken</a>. The meat was allegedly six days past the date at which it was supposed to have been thrown out.
In September, it was announced that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/12/listeria-cheese_n_1876930.html?utm_hp_ref=food-safety">14 hospitalizations and three deaths were linked to Listeria-tainted cheese</a> imported from Italy. Frescolina brand Ricotta Salata was recalled by distributor Forever Cheese Inc. following reports.
In August, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/31/mango-salmonella-outbreak_n_1846116.html?utm_hp_ref=food-safety">more than 100 people across 16 states reportedly were sickened with salmonella after eating mangos</a>. In September, the Food and Drug Administration detained mango imports from a Mexican packing house after the fruits were <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/14/mexican-mango-salmonella-imports_n_1885418.html?utm_hp_ref=food-safety">linked to the sickenings</a>.
In August, Wisconsin outfit Klement's Sausage Company Inc. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/31/pen-bratwurst-recall_n_1847002.html?utm_hp_ref=food-safety">recalled 2,920 pounds of frozen beef because they may contain pieces of a plastic pen</a>.
In August, it was determined that a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/18/cantaloupe-salmonella-outbreak-indiana_n_1799225.html?utm_hp_ref=food-safety">salmonella outbreak linked to cantaloupe sickened nearly 150 people and contributed to the deaths of two</a>. The outbreak, which began in July, affected consumers in Indiana, Kentucky and Minnesota.
In August, Utah company Dale T. Smith and Sons Meat Packing <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/15/dale-t-smith-beef-recall-e-coli_n_1778855.html?utm_hp_ref=food-safety">recalled 38,200 pounds of beef</a> due to a possible E. coli contamination.
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/10/apple-slices-mcdonalds-listeria-burger-king-recalled_n_1766286.html?utm_hp_ref=food-safety">Apple slices sold in children's meals at fast food chains McDonald's and Burger King were recalled</a> in August due to a potential Listeria contamination. The slices were also distributed to Wawa convenience stores and Wegman's grocery chains.
In August, 300 prisoners in an Arkansas prison were stricken with food poisoning after <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/10/arkansas-prison-food-poisoning_n_1765236.html?utm_hp_ref=food-safety">consuming tainted chicken salad</a>.
An <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/25/e-coli-picnic_n_1701467.html">E. coli outbreak in July traced to a company picnic in Ohio</a> is responsible for the sickenings of 75 people and the death of one. Lowell Draffen, a 73-year-old former superintendent at several school districts in Ohio, developed developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, a type of kidney failure and passed away.
In July, New Jersey-based manufacturer Buona Vita Inc. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/09/meatball-recall-listeria_n_1656687.html">recalled about 324,700 pounds of frozen, ready-to-eat meat and poultry products</a>, citing a possible listeria contamination. The items included meatballs, chicken and beef patties, and loafs of chicken and beef.
California lettuce producer River Ranch Fresh Foods <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/21/river-ranch-fresh-foods-bagged-salad-recall_n_1534306.html">voluntarily recalled bags of its salads nationwide</a> in May when some routing testing returned positive for listeria. No illnesses were reported.
In April, fast food giant <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/27/kfc-ruling-salmonella-poisoning_n_1458031.html">KFC was ordered to pay $8.3 million to the family of Monika Samaan</a>, who at age seven contracted a serious case of salmonella after dining at a KFC eatery. The episode left her confined to a wheelchair with serious brain damage.
The USDA confirmed in April a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/24/mad-cow-disease-california-usda_n_1449871.html?utm_hp_ref=food-safety">case of mad cow disease in a dairy cow</a> found at a California transfer station. The finding sparked widespread panic in the U.S. beef community.
In April, a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/16/yellowfin-spicy-tuna-sushi-salmonella_n_1428116.html?utm_hp_ref=food-safety">salmonella outbreak linked to a yellowfin tuna product</a> made by Moon Marine USA Corp. was first reported. The culprit was "tuna scrape," a product made by scraping backmeat off fish bones, give it a ground-like appearance. It's often used in sushi. A <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/25/salmonella-sushi-lawsuit_n_1453115.html">lawsuit linked to the outbreak</a> was later filed.
In April, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/15/dole-bagged-salad-recall_n_1427120.html?utm_hp_ref=food-safety">Dole Food Co. pulled 756 cases of bagged lettuce citing a salmonella risk</a>. The bags of Seven Lettuces were sold to stores in Alabama, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin.
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/16/pink-slime-food-safety-farm-bill_n_1428245.html?utm_hp_ref=food-safety">"Pink slime" became one of the biggest stories of the year</a> in March when food activists went wild over the beef filler often used in school cafeterias. The finely textured beef product, made with scraps from more premium cuts, is treated with ammonia before being sold as ground beef.
In March, Polish health authorities recalled more than 500,000 pounds of pickles, bread and other foods they believe <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/09/poland-food-recall_n_1334392.html?utm_hp_ref=food-safety">may contain with industrial road salt</a> unfit for human consumption.
Oklahoma resident Leah Smith <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/22/taco-bell-lawsuit_n_1293515.html?utm_hp_ref=food-safety">filed a lawsuit against Taco Bell</a> in February, alleging that she contracted salmonella poisoning after eating food from the fast food chain. The chain was fingered as the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/02/taco-bell-salmonella_n_1249683.html?utm_hp_ref=food-safety">likely culprit behind a string of salmonella sickenings</a> in October and November of 2011.
South Carolina company Grand Strand Sandwich Co. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/08/chicken-salad-sandwiches-recalled_n_1262178.html?utm_hp_ref=food-safety">recalled about 2,800 of its chicken salad sandwiches</a> in February, citing potential listeria contamination.
Minnesota-based company Michael Foods <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/03/egg-recall-2012-listeria_n_1252484.html">recalled 15,000 pails of eggs in brine</a> in early February, citing potential listeria contamination. The eggs, which were meant for institutional use, had been distributed in 34 states.
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/08/tempeh-salmonella-outbreak_n_1500383.html">Unpasteurized tempeh produced by North Carolina company Smiling Hara was linked in February to a rare strain of salmonella</a> that sickened 60 people. The outbreak strain, Salmonella Paratyphyi B, can cause severe symptoms. Of those 60 people, several people were hospitalized.
In February, it was determined that<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/16/jimmy-johns-e-coli_n_1281448.html"> raw sprouts served in dishes at sandwich chain Jimmy John's were behind 12 cases of E. coli</a> poisonings in five states.
In January, it was reported that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/06/drug-resistant-salmonella-outbreak_n_1189182.html?utm_hp_ref=food-safety">19 people had fallen ill with a drug-resistant strain of salmonella</a> after eating beef sold at Scarborough, Maine-based supermarket chain Hannaford.
A recall Fromagerie Marie Kade cheeses that began in the last days of 2011 and lasted through early 2012 was called by Massachusetts health officials due to a potential listeria risk.