You'd think preventing contamination of the fruits, vegetables and packaged foods we eat would be an obvious priority. True, the United States ranks a respectable third in food safety — behind Israel and France. Still, some 48 million Americans are sickened by foodborne illnesses each year, the result of everything from listeria-tainted cantaloupes to salmonella-poisoned peanut butter. Of those who fall ill, 130,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die.
We have the know-how to thwart most outbreaks. But historically, lawmakers have relegated such prevention to the back burner. That promised to change in early 2011, when, after a rash of deadly outbreaks, Congress yielded to pressure from health advocates and passed the landmark Food Safety Modernization Act.
The law gave the U.S. Food and Drug Administration unprecedented authority to establish and enforce guidelines about how our produce is harvested, handled and processed, and to mandate recalls of contaminated foods. The goal: Empower the FDA to prevent a contamination crisis, not just react to it.
Now though, many wonder if this hard-won change will come to fruition. Without a beefed-up budget, the FDA won't be able to monitor and enforce the new guidelines that it just proposed in January and were touted as the first sweeping changes in more than 70 years.
Instead, across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration mean the FDA will be forced to reduce the number of inspections it conducts by an estimated 2,100.
The first two rules the FDA put forth in January center on the safety of production facilities and produce on the farm and in the packing shed. These are outlined in more than 1,200 pages that boil down to practicing common sense.
The proposals call for food manufacturers to submit food safety plans to the government, proving that they maintain sanitary operations and have a plan to correct any potential problems. FDA inspectors would be permitted to audit the program and enforce safety standards.
Farmers are to make sure workers wash their hands, that irrigation water is clean, and that animal waste does not touch crops. These are often called the "four W's" — water, waste, workers and wildlife.
The rules would govern about 80 percent of the U.S. food supply, basically everything except meat, poultry and egg products, which are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Additional safety guidelines for imported food are to be announced in the coming months. These are critical since 50 percent of fresh fruits, 20 percent of vegetables and 80 percent of seafood consumed in the United States is imported. Processing food abroad costs less but carries greater risk of contamination. Last summer, 127 people across 15 states were infected and 33 were hospitalized after eating mangoes imported from Mexico that were contaminated with salmonella.
Overall, eight known pathogens account for the vast majority of food-borne illnesses. The most common are norovirus, salmonella, clostridium and campylobacter. The deadliest are salmonella, toxoplasma and listeria. Anyone can get a foodborne illness, but between 15 percent and 20 percent of the population is the most susceptible. This includes people with compromised immune systems, pregnant women, infants and the elderly.
Leafy, green vegetables such as lettuce, spinach and kale are more likely to carry bacteria and viruses than any other food source. However, while greens most often make people sick, meat and poultry contamination causes the most deaths.
The FDA estimates that implementing its guidelines would prevent up to 2.5 million foodborne illnesses annually and save more than $1 billion. Food poisoning in our country costs $14 billion a year, according to a study published in the Journal of Food Protection. This includes the medical expenses of those who are hospitalized, but not the millions of dollars that it costs food companies to recall products or pay in legal expenses from victims' lawsuits.
Nor does it take into account losses incurred by other companies when consumers hear about a contaminated product and avoid everything in that category, even food that is totally safe. Last year's listeria outbreak caused by infected cantaloupes from Colorado resulted in plummeting sales of the melon grown in other regions, including here in California, though California cantaloupes have never been linked to contamination.
Complying with the new standards is estimated to cost each large farm $30,000 a year and each small farm $13,000, according to the FDA. Farmers may need to build fences to keep animals out and provide hand-washing and restroom facilities to field workers.
Most Americans — three-fourths of those surveyed — say they are willing to pay between 1 and 3 percent more for groceries to offset these costs, according to a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Many farmers and food companies already voluntarily follow the FDA's recommendations. Here in California, for example, farmers, shippers and processors of specific vegetables adhere to the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement, which contains guidelines that essentially mirror those proposed by the FDA. The organization formed in 2007 in response to an E. coli outbreak caused by contaminated spinach traced to a farm in San Benito County. The tainted produce killed three people and infected nearly 200. Similarly, cantaloupe growers in our state joined together last year to formalize strict safety standards for growing, packing and shipping their products.
The FDA's new mandates, however, would offer further safety by deterring unhealthy practices by those who cut corners or are careless. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the cost of implementing the bill would be $1.4 billion over five years, though advocates believe it would be less.
Even if Congress is persuaded to fork over the funds for improved oversight, changes wouldn't be enforced for at least a couple of years. Interested parties are reviewing the guidelines and have until mid-May.
In the meantime, individuals can minimize risk by practicing safety at home. While major outbreaks and recalls are typically the result of contamination on farms or in processing plants, improper food handling at home and in restaurants also causes illnesses.
When choosing fruits and vegetables, select ones that look fresh and don't have bruises, cuts, visible mold, or excessive dirt or soil on the edible portions. Produce should be stored in a cool, dry place away from raw meats, poultry and seafood.
Make sure you wash your hands, cutting boards, utensils and countertops with hot, soapy water before preparing food and eating. It is especially important to wash your hands after using the bathroom, changing diapers, handling raw meat or poultry, touching pets or animals, and emptying the garbage. (My grandson, Zane, recently demonstrated at his school’s Science Fair that washing for 20 seconds with soap and warm water is needed to rid hands of most bacteria, and that a quick rinse in warm or cold water alone is not sufficient.) Produce that is not labeled ready-to-eat or prewashed should be washed with cool running water.
Cooking meat, poultry and seafood for at least 10 minutes at 75 degrees C (167 degrees F) is recommended, so the center of the food reaches this temperature. Microwaves don't always kill bacteria. In the microwave, food often cooks unevenly and is left with cold spots where harmful bacteria can survive. Follow package instructions that call for rotating and stirring foods while they cook. Also follow instructions that call for foods to stand after cooking in the microwave.
These precautions are essential but won't prevent all foodborne illness. Hopefully, Congress will do its part. While many worthy policies and programs need funding, it's hard to think of any that are more universally necessary than protecting our nation's food supply.