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Food Safety News

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Healthcare Reform Requires Safe Food

President Obama once said:

“There are certain things only a government can do. And one of those things is ensuring that the foods we eat are safe and do not cause us harm.”

I am sitting in the Seattle airport heading to our Nation’s Capitol for several days of meetings with Congress Members and their staff on the issue of safe food.  I thought again how Linda Rivera’s excruciating case of food poisoning should shine some light on a crucial reality that is missing from most healthcare reform plans: you can’t fix America’s healthcare unless you provide Americans with a safe food supply.  (See Severe Case Gives Context to Issue of Food Safety, Washington Post, Sept. 1)

Rivera, a mother of six, lies comatose in her Las Vegas hospital room as a consequence of eating cookie dough contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 – a vicious microbe previously associated with hamburgers, spinach, lettuce, and raw milk as well as other products. But she is not an isolated case. According to federal health authorities, she is just one of the 76 million Americans sickened each year by tainted food, adding billions in costs to individuals, to food-producers, and to our beleaguered medical system.

Yet food safety is rarely mentioned in the scream-fest that has been the national healthcare debate in and around Congress.  In fact, our national squabble threatens to scuttle any hope for the much-needed food safety legislation that overwhelmingly passed the House this summer. The Food Safety Enhancement Act would give the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the authority it needs to inspect food-processing plants and stop the distribution of food tainted with E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria or any of the other usual suspects. It would increase the agency’s ability to use emerging technologies to trace contaminated foods and additives back to their source, while imposing new safety standards on both domestic and imported food products.

The potential benefits – to our children, our parents, our neighbors, and to the U.S. economy – are enormous.  While the food industry insists that we have the world’s safest food supply, the authoritative Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests otherwise:  76 million sick people per year, 208,000 per day, 8,675 per hour. Most of those cases are relatively mild, but the CDC statistics show that 325,000 people will be hospitalized, and at least 5,000 of them will die of food poisoning this year.

Consider the costs to the healthcare system, such as it is.  The Department of Agriculture estimates the combined medical costs, productivity losses, and the costs of premature death at a minimum of $6.9 billion per year.  But that estimate excludes costs such as lost business opportunities, public costs, pain and suffering, and much more.  The Food and Drug Administration assigns a cost of $5 million per death, reaching a total cost of $17 billion per year. But using a more complex FDA formula that factors in the full societal cost, the savings reach an astronomical $357 billion.

There may be argument over the calculations, but these are not paper costs; they are real. In the 17 years I have been representing the victims of foodborne illness, we have collected more than $500 million in settlements and verdicts against food manufacturers. Most of that goes to cover the costs of medical bills, lost wages and the pain and suffering incurred by people whose only crime was to believe processors` claims that their products were safe.  So what if we passed meaningful food safety legislation?  What if we saved billions of dollars in medical care and treatment by avoiding poisoning in the first place?  What if Linda Rivera and thousands of Americans like her never became infected with E. coli or Salmonella or Listeria?

It’s time to tone down the rhetoric on healthcare and do something positive:  pass meaningful food safety legislation that will put lawyers like me out of business, while saving money and the lives and well being of innocent Americans.

© Food Safety News
  • hhamil

    Bill, “Ensuring that the foods we eat are safe and do not cause us harm” is NOT within the power of government. It never has been nor will it ever be. And, as long as we, Americans, hold onto that fiction calling it truth, little will be done to stop the vast majority of foodborne illnesses.
    At the very most and at its very best, ALL government can do is pass good laws and regulations and then create a bureaucracy which implements them efficiently and well.
    Government can’t grow the crops and raise the animals that become food. Nor can government manufacture, process, pack, hold, distribute nor retail food. And, most importantly, government can’t prepare and serve food. All of that must be done by people who don’t work for government.
    For over 50 years, the addiction recovery movement has pointed out that whenever we, human beings, try to control that which we cannot control, we almost never control that which we can control. So, Bill, let’s focus on what government can control that will materially improve food safety in the US.
    1. Most importantly, we need to admit that the present food safety legislation does nothing about the #1 problem in food safety regulation—25+ years of negligent underfunding of every federal food safety activity. The FDA, USDA and CDC all need huge increases in funding. And fully developing a good appropriations bill for food safety will take several months; so we need to start now!.
    Why is starting now on the funding so important? Because if we could wave a magic wand and pass an optimal appropriations bill tomorrow, it would take several years to revise our current regulations so they will work, find the right people to staff these efforts, train them, and then implement those revised regulations.
    Just look at how long it has taken to improve the safety at our airports. And that was easy compared to revising our food system to provide safer food.
    2. Next, we need to admit that our existing overextended staff at the federal level isn’t doing the quality job we need from them.
    The 2008 salmonella St. Paul outbreak (first blamed on tomatoes and later on peppers) included some truly crummy work by both the CDC and FDA. Poor surveying based on poor science was compounded by abysmally worded warnings to the public.
    The greatest toll for that poor work was paid by tomato growers across the country when there was zero indication of any connection to the tomatoes they had grown and were still growing. In my area of western NC, there were hundreds of small farmers who were already fighting exceptional drought (the worst class) for the second year in a row. Then, instead of getting a premium for the tomatoes they had managed to grow and were just beginning to bring to a hungry market, they watched the bottom drop out of even their markets close to home. At the height of the harvest a 25 pound box of conventionally grown red tomatoes brought $5 and the box cost $1.50. $3.50 for 25 pounds of beautiful red, fully ripe tomatoes!
    3. We will never have safe food until our regulators are held accountable. How many times has a deadly recall resulted in even a reprimand of someone in government inspection unit involved much less cost anyone’s job? Attorneys like Marler Clark help hold implicated businesses accountable but who does it for government?
    4. We didn’t get to this point in a day, a week, a month or a year (or even 10 years). And we won’t fix things in a day, a week, a month or even a year. It will take years to do all that is within our power and then reap the benefits of our actions. Improving here will aid us with #5.
    5. When a problem is clearly revealed, as has occurred with all the foodborne illness outbreaks and recalls, our politicians and regulators know the importance of APPEARING to be listening and responding. So, they respond to what they hear from the pundits, academics and NGOs created to address the problem. Just about everybody makes grand pronouncements and calls for change and new regulations. Sometimes, a law is written and passed quickly. And this new law, calling for increased regulation, APPEARS to be doing something. But, the energy needed to actually implement the real changes needed is dissipated and, in several ways, we are worse off.
    Of course, good laws, like good regulations, usually require time for consideration and they always require talent and effort.
    Bill, as you well know, HR 2749 was shoved through the House by the Democratic leadership with the full support of the President. It appeared, was changed in many ways behind closed doors, and was passed in just over 6 weeks without a single substantial hearing. And all this occurred while small farmers and ranchers were at the height of their struggle to create the healthy food you want. And, like most of the those who voted for HR 2749, those of us in the business of providing local food for local didn’t know what it said much less what it would do.
    The good news is that, if we have done 1-4 above, then we have the time needed to carefully review the legislative proposals and then create optimal legislation we all need.

  • Harry Hamil

    Bill, “Ensuring that the foods we eat are safe and do not cause us harm” is NOT within the power of government. It never has been nor will it ever be. And, as long as we, Americans, hold onto that fiction calling it truth, little will be done to stop the vast majority of foodborne illnesses.
    At the very most and at its very best, ALL government can do is pass good laws and regulations and then create a bureaucracy which implements them efficiently and well.
    Government can’t grow the crops and raise the animals that become food. Nor can government manufacture, process, pack, hold, distribute nor retail food. And, most importantly, government can’t prepare and serve food. All of that must be done by people who don’t work for government.
    For over 50 years, the addiction recovery movement has pointed out that whenever we, human beings, try to control that which we cannot control, we almost never control that which we can control. So, Bill, let’s focus on what government can control that will materially improve food safety in the US.
    1. Most importantly, we need to admit that the present food safety legislation does nothing about the #1 problem in food safety regulation—25+ years of negligent underfunding of every federal food safety activity. The FDA, USDA and CDC all need huge increases in funding. And fully developing a good appropriations bill for food safety will take several months; so we need to start now!.
    Why is starting now on the funding so important? Because if we could wave a magic wand and pass an optimal appropriations bill tomorrow, it would take several years to revise our current regulations so they will work, find the right people to staff these efforts, train them, and then implement those revised regulations.
    Just look at how long it has taken to improve the safety at our airports. And that was easy compared to revising our food system to provide safer food.
    2. Next, we need to admit that our existing overextended staff at the federal level isn’t doing the quality job we need from them.
    The 2008 salmonella St. Paul outbreak (first blamed on tomatoes and later on peppers) included some truly crummy work by both the CDC and FDA. Poor surveying based on poor science was compounded by abysmally worded warnings to the public.
    The greatest toll for that poor work was paid by tomato growers across the country when there was zero indication of any connection to the tomatoes they had grown and were still growing. In my area of western NC, there were hundreds of small farmers who were already fighting exceptional drought (the worst class) for the second year in a row. Then, instead of getting a premium for the tomatoes they had managed to grow and were just beginning to bring to a hungry market, they watched the bottom drop out of even their markets close to home. At the height of the harvest a 25 pound box of conventionally grown red tomatoes brought $5 and the box cost $1.50. $3.50 for 25 pounds of beautiful red, fully ripe tomatoes!
    3. We will never have safe food until our regulators are held accountable. How many times has a deadly recall resulted in even a reprimand of someone in government inspection unit involved much less cost anyone’s job? Attorneys like Marler Clark help hold implicated businesses accountable but who does it for government?
    4. We didn’t get to this point in a day, a week, a month or a year (or even 10 years). And we won’t fix things in a day, a week, a month or even a year. It will take years to do all that is within our power and then reap the benefits of our actions. Improving here will aid us with #5.
    5. When a problem is clearly revealed, as has occurred with all the foodborne illness outbreaks and recalls, our politicians and regulators know the importance of APPEARING to be listening and responding. So, they respond to what they hear from the pundits, academics and NGOs created to address the problem. Just about everybody makes grand pronouncements and calls for change and new regulations. Sometimes, a law is written and passed quickly. And this new law, calling for increased regulation, APPEARS to be doing something. But, the energy needed to actually implement the real changes needed is dissipated and, in several ways, we are worse off.
    Of course, good laws, like good regulations, usually require time for consideration and they always require talent and effort.
    Bill, as you well know, HR 2749 was shoved through the House by the Democratic leadership with the full support of the President. It appeared, was changed in many ways behind closed doors, and was passed in just over 6 weeks without a single substantial hearing. And all this occurred while small farmers and ranchers were at the height of their struggle to create the healthy food you want. And, like most of the those who voted for HR 2749, those of us in the business of providing local food for local didn’t know what it said much less what it would do.
    The good news is that, if we have done 1-4 above, then we have the time needed to carefully review the legislative proposals and then create optimal legislation we all need.