Header graphic for print

Food Safety News

Breaking news for everyone's consumption

Is Food Safer? NEJM Tells the Rest of the Story

Two months ago, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released revised estimates of foodborne illness in the United States, plenty of people tried to put a positive spin on the long-awaited analysis.

Even though CDC experts cautioned against comparing the old estimates with the new to discern a trend, some saw the new estimate of 48 million episodes of foodborne illnesses per year, in contrast with the 1999 estimate of 76 million, as a dramatic drop — a sign the food supply was becoming safer.

Not so fast, say the publishers of the New England Journal of Medicine.

In a perspective published Wednesday in the Journal, Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy and a preeminent authority on food safety, channels the ghost of Paul Harvey with “Foodborne Disease in 2011 – The Rest of the Story.”

Food safety improvements made in the late 1990s are still having a positive effect, Osterholm writes, “but we’ve made little additional progress in the past decade.”

“Although the media and some food producers, processors, wholesalers, and retailers may conclude that the recent CDC estimates offer evidence of major improvements in food safety since 1999, data from active population-based surveillance offer a more nuanced and neutral picture.”

Osterholm says data collected by the Foodborne Disease Active Surveillance Network (FoodNet)– the 10 states that track lab-confirmed infections–are a better “measuring stick of the incidence of foodborne disease across geographic areas and over time” than the CDC estimates.

Based on the FoodNet data, Osterholm says, “even with improvements made during the past decade, the burden of foodborne disease persists” and only the infection rates from Shigella and E. coli O157:H7 have declined significantly.

Additionally, the increase in disease caused by non-O157 toxic E. coli suggests “that surveillance for O157 is no longer sufficient to determine the effect” of foodborne E. coli infections, he notes.

The same edition of the Journal also discusses previously unrecognized sources of foodborne disease that have caused nationwide outbreaks – such as contaminated jalapeno peppers. That outbreak, with 1,500 illnesses and two fatalities, was initially thought to be caused by tomatoes.

Outbreaks caused by contaminated fresh produce are difficult to track to their source, Osterholm points out, because like the peppers, produce from a single farm can be distributed widely and yet the food is quickly gone–consumed because it is perishable.

But will the new FDA Food Safety Modernization Act make the food supply safer?

Osterholm calls the FDA’s expanded authority and other provisions “long overdue,” but adds that without adequate funding “requiring the FDA to carry out the law’s required activities will be like trying to get blood out of a rock.”

Unless Congress appropriates enough money to implement the new law, Osterholm predicts that  ”in the end, food safety in the United States cannot be expected to improve in more than an incremental manner.”

© Food Safety News
  • Doc Mudd

    “Outbreaks caused by contaminated fresh produce are difficult to track to their source, Osterholm points out, because like the peppers, produce from a single farm can be distributed widely and yet the food is quickly gone–consumed because it is perishable…But will the new FDA Food Safety Modernization Act make the food supply safer?”
    How can FSMA possibly make us “safer” when 95% of individual producers of fresh produce have been fully exempted from any food safety oversight by the Tester amendment? There may be fewer spectacular nationwide outbreaks, perhaps expedited forensics when those occur but quaint local poisonings of only a few neighborhood families at a time will roll happily along unnoticed, unchallenged and unchanged.
    So long as a few hundred thousand ‘small producers’ continue to fly under the radar of local and regional health departments an illusion of perfect food safety is created and the buying public is successfully gulled. Hence, the sudden enthusiasm for blanket ‘exemptions for small producers’ being lobbied in so many states by professional activist organizations. Health agencies won’t find and can’t document what they’re not permitted or funded to look for in the first place.
    The ‘big, evil industrial corporations’ aren’t the only monied interests successfully lobbying against consumers on behalf of producers. Beware of the tidal wave of inbred activist cults, many who sport trendy acronyms like; FARFA, WORC, R-CALF, FTCLDF, FOFF, who lobby tirelessly to exempt amateur food producers from safety requirements and personal accountability…OMG, WTF?

  • http://www.healthyfoodcoalition.org hhamil

    On 2-20-11, Bill Marler announced a new Food Safety News policy for comments (http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2011/02/publishers-platform-cant-we-all-just-get-along/) as follows:
    “Grist’s posting rules, which we not only think make sense, but will adopt in full:
    1. Don’t be a jerk. Nobody likes jerks.
    2. Don’t use profanity. The English language is vast and magnificent.
    3. Don’t be a troll. (Troll: Commenter who makes outrageous or provocative statements purely in order to derail discussion.) You know who you are.
    4. No spam, no solicitation, no links to porn, no Internet detritus of similar ilk. Sell us on your point of view, not your Super-Slanket!
    5. No personal attacks at the author or fellow commenter. Substance, people. Substance.
    6. Seriously, don’t be a jerk.”
    After considering “Doc Mudd’s” comment above made at 3:27 AM on 2-24-11, I ask, “When is FSN going to begin enforcing the new policy so that we can actually have serious discussions of important issues raised in articles like this one by Mary Rothschild?” It is very difficult to do so as long as FSN permits “Doc Mudd” to make comments like the one I just cited.
    For those interested in seeing how “Doc Mudd” has responded to the new policy, I suggest reading the “Doc Mudd” comments, all made since the new policy was announced, on the following links:
    http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2011/02/the-bug-that-poisoned-the-president/ (made on 02/21/2011 at 3:01AM)
    http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2011/02/lone-star-rally-planned-to-boost-raw-milk-sales/ (made on 02/21/2011 at 11:39AM and a second made on 02/22/2011 at 8:30AM)
    http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2011/02/drinking-raw-milk-its-not-worth-the-risk/ (made on 02/22/2011 at 3:33PM)
    As the cited comments show, I have been an individual target of “Doc Mudd’s.” I am also a member or supporter of every group he has targeted. I don’t mind the personal attacks so much as the fact that Food Safety News permits them to continue unabated, anonymously. Because of the 6th Amendment of the US Constitution, I have the right to face my accusers in court, but Food Safety News allows “Doc Mudd” to do so anonymously.
    Why?

  • Doc Mudd

    You’re howling like you’ve been gut-shot, Harry, so I especially recommend reviewing the “…lone-star-rally…” thread you’ve linked in your rant. Can we lighten up a bit?
    FARFA, WORC, R-CALF, FTCLDF, FOFF are most deserving of your active participation, Mr. Hamil. Of that I am quite certain.
    Now let’s get back on topic; why don’t you compose yourself and tell us how you and your playmates are making food safer for consumers?

  • Jared Strong

    While I may not fully agree with Doc Mudd I believe it is disingenuous to insinuate he is a troll. He clearly has strong views about food safety and would appear to value it above all else. Although in the above case his 95% claim seems to purposefully mislead or he would appear to have missed the point that 95% of individual producers, I doubt even 100% of INDIVIDUAL producers, are responsible for production of the majority of foods consumed.
    While the exemption he refers to I agree provides a gap in food safety this gap must be balanced by the enormous improvement in food security offered by this gap. I refer to food security as defined by the Committee on World Food Security of the Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO, of the United Nations. While many of the purported benefits of these producers remain the subject of intensive debate within both the scientific and political communities some of these claims are irrefutable. The safety net provided by these producers to mitigate any disruptions in the distribution network of the global food supply. Also the majority of these producers provide a diverse decentralized seed bank to humanity. History has shown these two characteristics alone to be of great value to food security. In addition these food producers may provide research opportunities for further data acquisition vital to current debates on best agricultural practices central to accomplishing the FAO’s goal of global food security in the context of climate change and population growth into 2050. Futhermore additional realities must be confronted. The limited abilities of available internal capacity as the inherently decentralized nature of these numerous producers poses a problem of enforcement. Finally the rights of the growing external constituency in support of “local food” as a political concept has developed within the nation since the 1970′s and must be addressed. While Doc Mudd would appear to take issue with beliefs expressed by some within this constituency that local food is some how sprinkled with magical fairy dust I would have to agree with him many of these claims are spurious. This does not mean that exemption does not provide an overall benefit to the quality of the nations food supply and culture despite the inherit risks it poses.
    Besides with the USD sales price cap in the exemption and the fact that so few laws, any?, are indexed to price inflation (currency debasement) the exemption was cleverly designed to be a moot point soon enough…

  • http://www.healthyfoodcoalition.org Harry Hamil

    On 2-20-11, Bill Marler announced a new Food Safety News policy for comments (http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2011/02/publishers-platform-cant-we-all-just-get-along/) as follows:
    “Grist’s posting rules, which we not only think make sense, but will adopt in full:
    1. Don’t be a jerk. Nobody likes jerks.
    2. Don’t use profanity. The English language is vast and magnificent.
    3. Don’t be a troll. (Troll: Commenter who makes outrageous or provocative statements purely in order to derail discussion.) You know who you are.
    4. No spam, no solicitation, no links to porn, no Internet detritus of similar ilk. Sell us on your point of view, not your Super-Slanket!
    5. No personal attacks at the author or fellow commenter. Substance, people. Substance.
    6. Seriously, don’t be a jerk.”
    After considering “Doc Mudd’s” comment above made at 3:27 AM on 2-24-11, I ask, “When is FSN going to begin enforcing the new policy so that we can actually have serious discussions of important issues raised in articles like this one by Mary Rothschild?” It is very difficult to do so as long as FSN permits “Doc Mudd” to make comments like the one I just cited.
    For those interested in seeing how “Doc Mudd” has responded to the new policy, I suggest reading the “Doc Mudd” comments, all made since the new policy was announced, on the following links:
    http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2011/02/the-bug-that-poisoned-the-president/ (made on 02/21/2011 at 3:01AM)
    http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2011/02/lone-star-rally-planned-to-boost-raw-milk-sales/ (made on 02/21/2011 at 11:39AM and a second made on 02/22/2011 at 8:30AM)
    http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2011/02/drinking-raw-milk-its-not-worth-the-risk/ (made on 02/22/2011 at 3:33PM)
    As the cited comments show, I have been an individual target of “Doc Mudd’s.” I am also a member or supporter of every group he has targeted. I don’t mind the personal attacks so much as the fact that Food Safety News permits them to continue unabated, anonymously. Because of the 6th Amendment of the US Constitution, I have the right to face my accusers in court, but Food Safety News allows “Doc Mudd” to do so anonymously.
    Why?

  • Doc Mudd

    Hmmm. Middle ground. Maybe can work with that. We’ll see how it goes, eh?

  • Lou Alfano

    1. There is NO way by which the food supply can be made 100$ safe, but this does not mean that everybody shouldn’t do his/her part in trying.
    2. We don’t need the self-appointed “food police” telling us what to eat.
    3. Legislation without adequate funding is an old Congressional ploy to cast the blame on the Executive Branch, and it happens almost every day in ALL areas.
    4. Tell the public that we could make food, say, 95% safe if a new tax were enacted and ALL the funds collected dedicated solely to food safety, and you’d be booed off the podium, but somehow government plans have to be PAID for by the public.
    5. A good deal of our food safety problems could be avoided by individuals preparing food properly, which many of us (including myself) often do not do. So some responsibility ultimately rests with the consumer.
    6. The politicians and special interests will never really get serious about the issue unless someone near and dear to them dies of food poisoning, and even that is problematic.
    7. Congress will never learn from the peanut butter scandal and the ground beef scandals of the past few years unless the public raises hell loud and clear and DEMANDS sufficient funding for food (and other product)safety laws.

  • XRumerTest

    Hi there,
    All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.