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Food Fight Over 'Riskiest Foods' Report

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) released a report on the ten riskiest foods regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that has garnered significant media attention as well as drawn criticism from the food industry.

Leafy greens, eggs, and tuna top the list of foods most likely to cause food poisoning according to the study. Among the next seven riskiest foods: oysters, ice cream, tomatoes, and sprouts, according to the study, which analyzed 17 years of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other sources.

The report generated a lot of buzz from mainstream media, blogs, local news, and public radio. 

The Today Show’s Meredith Vieira featured every food mentioned in the report and went down the line to each one of them, asking the show’s nutrition expert why each could pose a risk to consumers. 

“I’m looking down this table, these are the foods we’re going to talk about. Most of these seem to be very healthy choices, yet according to this group they represent 40 percent of the foorborne illness we face. How is that possible?” asked Vieira. 

According to CSPI, a confluence of factors are to blame. “A complex, globalized food system, archaic food-safety laws, and the risk of large-scale production and processing have combined to create a perfect storm for unsafe food,” said the report.

CSPI insists that the report is not meant to discourage people from eating the foods on the list, but to encourage the FDA to improve regulations over the food within its jurisdiction.

Sarah Klein, the lead author of the study, says it’s unfortunate that “some of our favorite and most healthful foods also top the list of the most risky.”

The food industry–especially the producers, growers, and fishermen who help bring the foods featured in the report to the dinner plate–criticized the report’s findings and expressed worry that the coverage would hurt the industries on the list.

The Produce Marketing Association and the United Fresh Produce Association sent a joint letter to CSPI asking that the report be revised “to more accurately reflect the cause of the outbreaks associated with many of the food products on the list.”

“The lack of clarity and misleading way the information was presented could very well discourage consumers from eating fresh fruits and vegetables,” said the letter. Five of the ten riskiest foods in the report are produce.

Jim Prevor, the “Perishable Pundit” also joined the debate over the report. Prevor believes CSPI’s list is “highly deceptive” and “worse than useless,” according to his post on the report.

Prevor had a number of criticisms, the first of which was that the study does not adjust for consumption. “If the purpose is to help consumers know where the risks are, these numbers, unadjusted for consumption, are worthless,” wrote Prevor yesterday. 

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The report comes as consumer advocates in Washington increase their effort to push the Senate to move on pending FDA reform legislation that would boost the agency’s authority and mandate increased inspections for high risk food facilities. 

Michael Taylor, FDA’s senior advisor to the Commissioner, believes the report underscores the need for strong FDA legislation.

“We’re looking to Congress to enact laws that would really empower FDA to implement the kind of preventive controls across the whole food system that we know can reduce these outbreaks significantly,” Taylor told MSNBC.

Taylor reiterated his support for the pending bill, which aims to reduce the amount of contamination in the food supply, in a press conference for the Make Our Food Safe Coalition on Wednesday. “We can do, frankly, very little without this legislation, ” said Taylor.

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