Food Safety Should Come First, Not After

10/18/2011 03:08 pm ET | Updated Dec 18, 2011

We should be able to sit down to a meal without wondering if this meal will be our last due to contaminated food.

October 24th is the first National Food Day. Food Day is a nationwide campaign to change the way Americans eat and think about food. Food Day encourages consumers nationwide to support healthy, affordable food, grown in a sustainable, humane way. It is also a time to advocate for safe food.

In the past few weeks 23 people have died and more than 116 have become ill from listeria in 19 states from tainted cantaloupes from Colorado. This outbreak is the deadliest in the United States in more than a decade.

While public alerts have helped raise awareness after food contaminations cause illness and death in this country, what is critical is to have more funding, energy and research put into preventing these outbreaks at the start. Farmers, food producers, transporters and retailers of food products in this country need to be regulated by stricter laws that have deeper consequences.

Hollywood recognizes that contamination by mysterious viruses or food sources captures our attention and is part of our collective consciousness. This week, the pathogen Listeria was the topic for the TV series The Good Wife and the recent movie Contagion dealt with the panic from sudden death by virus.

But what is real is the need to move our focus from warnings after the fact to guarantees about food safety from the beginning. If you read about an alert or watch one on television news, it may be too late for someone who is already ill.

The Centers for Disease Control estimate there are 48 million cases, 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths each year from foodborne Illness in this country. But these dry statistics don't fully tell the story. The stories of those individuals impacted must drive all of us to work and advocate for safer food.

Last week Dr. Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, relayed the story of a young woman who developed hemolytic uremic syndrome after eating e coli-tainted spinach in 2006. At the Consumer's Federation of America's Food Policy Conference in Washington, D.C, Dr. Hamburg explained how 13-year-old Rylee spent several weeks in intensive care, developed diabetes, renal failure, high blood pressure, loss of vision and swelling around her lungs and heart.

There are too many stories, similar to Rylee's, but many did not survive to share them.

Dr. Hamburg says it is in cooperation with government agencies, consumer groups and the food industry that the goal of a safe food supply can and will be realized. But that is in jeopardy.

The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was signed into law in January 2011 by President Obama and now we face the possibility of having a mandate that is not adequately funded. It is imperative that we have financial resources sufficient to implement this act. In the spring, the House of Representatives cut FDA'S budget by $87 million for the 2012 fiscal year. We are still awaiting the final numbers.

Today's food supply is very different from the chain of the past as food travels long distances from supplier to consumers' tables. We have a complex system with products coming from many places. There are imported foods, food from small farms and large farms, food that is local and food that is organic. We have genetically modified food, food that comes with and without antibiotics and hormones.

It is not the food of 50 years ago.

The Food Safety Modernization Act is the most significant reform in foods laws in more than 70 years. We need new tools and resources to adequately meet the demand of verifying the safety of our food supply for the 21st century.

Yes, there is a movement for locally grown food in this country, but it is only a small percentage of America's food supply and pathogens don't discriminate based on the size of the farm or facility. All food from every supplier needs to come to us free from of contaminants.

There are those who believe that it is the consumer's responsibility -- not the government's -- to take care with their food.

But how would Shirley Almer, 72, from Minnesota have known there was salmonella in her peanut butter that would kill her? How about Zella Ploghoft from Ohio who died from salmonella contracted from chiles rellenos after eating at her favorite restaurant with her husband and son?

Alex Donley, 6, from Chicago died from ecoli 0157:H7 after eating a tainted hamburger at a backyard cookout. How would his parents have known that the pre-packaged patty would end his life?

The public must demand that food that comes to us from the market and restaurants, from small and large farms, from domestic and international locations, is free of contaminants. The FDA now has the authority to ensure a safer food supply and they need the funding to get it done.

No amount of alerts after the fact can create a sense of safety for all foods we consume.

Each meal we share with family and friends should be safe enough for us to see tomorrow.