Food Safety Debate Heats Up as Foodborne Illness Victims Lobby for Stronger Food Laws

A front page story in the the New York Times Sunday paper on the devastating consequences of E. coli in the beef supply chain helped push food safety issues into mainstream public discourse, just as victims of foodborne illness head to Washington, DC to lobby Congress for stronger food laws.

The federal food safety system, which the Government Accountability Office deems “high-risk” for its haphazard regulation of the food supply, has started to grab mainstream media headlines.

Last month, Linda Rivera, a victim of the Nestle cookie dough E. coli outbreak, was featured on the front page of The Washington Post as she was in critical condition. She remains gravely ill and on a ventilator.

Media coverage of food safety issues, especially The Times piece last weekend, has ignited a firestorm of discussion from cab drivers to cabinet members.

Every major cable news network inquired about covering Stephanie Smith, the 22-year old girl featured in the New York Times article, who had her life ravaged by E. coli-tainted hamburger, according to Marler Clark LLP, the law firm representing Smith in her claim against Cargill.

Dozens of blogs including Obamafoodorama, the Federal Eye of the Washington Post and Food Politics by Marion Nestle responded to the article, as did several newspapers across the country.

Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Chairwoman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture responded by writing a letter to Vilsack demanding accountability from large slaughterhouses. 

“I am writing to strongly urge the [USDA] and Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to investigate the disturbing allegations that were revealed in Sunday’s New York Times article about the beef inspection process,” wrote DeLauro.

Vilsack offered his own formal statement in response to the article. “No priority is greater to me than food safety and I am firmly committed to taking the steps necessary to reduce the incidence of foodborne illness,” said Vilsack, who also outlined some key steps the USDA is taking to help ensure safe food.

Though the expose on meat regulation primarily raises USDA issues–the USDA regulates meat, poultry and eggs, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees the rest of the food supply–media attention over the safety of the food supply will undoubtedly help push pending legislation aimed at ramping up FDA food oversight.

The increased attention has impeccable timing for the Make Our Food Safe Coalition’s food safety lobbying effort. Today, the coalition will be on the Hill in support of S. 510, an FDA food safety bill similar to the one that passed in the House in July.

Fifteen families from across the country who have been seriously affected by foodborne illness will meet with Senators and their staff to discuss the importance of the legislation.

S. 510 would increase FDA inspections of food processing plants, especially of high-risk facilities, require imports to meet U.S. safety standards, establish science-based minimum safety standards for growing fresh produce, and give the agency mandatory recall authority.

Though there is some speculation on the timing of the bill, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has publicly indicated that the bill is a top priority once health care reform frees up some time in the Senate schedule. 

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which is overseeing the bill, has also made public statements indicating he intends to move quickly after health care reform dies down.

Many consumer advocates remain hopeful that the bill will move through the Senate before the holidays.