The landmark Food Safety Modernization Act, signed earlier this month by President Obama, certainly provides a long overdue increase in food safety authority to the Food and Drug Administration. But is it enough authority – or even too much?  Is there a risk that consumers will be lulled by the Act into a false sense of security?


I thought about this last week when I took my six-year-old grandson for a walk. At one point we crossed a very busy street at a crosswalk. My grandson was interested to know why the cars stopped to let us cross, so I explained the government had passed a law that said cars had to yield to pedestrians walking in a crosswalk. I added that whenever he wanted to cross a busy street at a crosswalk, he did not have to look both ways before crossing, as his mother had taught him to do, because of the law. He could run across the street within the crosswalk anytime he wanted to and without looking – the law says the cars have to stop.

Such advice would be crazy, of course. (And no, I did not really tell my grandson not to look both ways before crossing a busy street. I told him his mother was right, the world is a dangerous place and he should always look both ways before crossing any road.) But with our increasingly tough federal food regulations as well as the increasingly sophisticated food-safety technologies used by the food industry, aren’t we, in effect, telling consumers that they needn’t be so cautious when it comes to the safety of food products? 

Consider E. coli O157:H7 specifically. It’s a particularly troublesome food pathogen because O157:H7 belongs to a family of bacteria that’s present in the digestive tracts of all mammals – you, me, your cat, your dog, cattle, hogs, furry little lambs, fuzzy baby foxes, smooth baby whales and every other mammalian creature. It comes in literally hundreds of varieties, and fortunately most of these are harmless to humans. But while E. coli O157:H7 comprises a very small percentage of all E. coli, we know it has the ability to make at-risk people – the young, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems – extremely sick, sometimes fatally so, at very low concentrations. 

Not so long ago, the meat industry and its regulators assumed O157:H7 was a problem peculiar and limited to the U.S. beef industry, but recent research shows O157:H7 is unstopped by mountains, deserts, even oceans. It’s been found in fresh spinach, lettuce, apple juice, orange juice, raw milk, alfalfa sprouts, and water – indeed, O157:H7 now adulterates more fresh produce than it does ground beef.  It has been found in homes, hospitals, daycare centers, schools, and nursing homes. 

For consumers, the risk of O157:H7 adulterating food is made even more serious because a negative test for E. coli in food does not mean there’s no O157:H7 present. Only a millimeter away from a clean food particle, another particle can be honeycombed with O157:H7 organisms. That’s why lab results for food tested for O157:H7 and found clean always state “this product has been tested for E. coli O157:H7 and found to be negative.” The government as well as the food industry can never claim that a product has been tested and found to be completely free of E. coli O157:H7. 

We must put food-safety laws, however thorough and much-needed they may be, and food-safety technologies, however efficient they may be, into the same context we put traffic laws. Believing that foodborne pathogens, including deadly E. coli O157:H7, can be completely eliminated from food is as crazy as thinking you don’t have to look in both directions before you step off the curb. The consequences of a false sense of food security can be devastating: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that E. coli O157:H7 is the source of 73,000 illnesses, 2,000 hospitalizations, and 60 deaths in the United States every year.

The fact is, 100 years from now dangerous varieties of E. coli will still be present in food no matter how many laws our politicians in Washington, DC, pass or how many technologies the food industry brings to bear on the pathogen problem. Even though we may wish otherwise, the world can be a dangerous place, and consumers must take personal responsibility and proactively protect their own safety. Two things we should always do are: look both ways before crossing any street, and fully cook meat.

  • Doc Mudd

    An interesting analogy, FMSA to vehicle-pedestrian traffic law.
    Of course you should look both ways before crossing. You should properly prepare and cook your foods also.
    But if FMSA were traffic law, when appoaching a crosswalk you would need to teach your grandkids something like this:
    1) Vehicles must yield the right of way to pedestrians in crosswalks, but only professionally trained drivers of commercially registered vehicles, trucks mostly.
    You should still watch out for them because a trained professional driver could make a mistake or a commercial vehicle, although very rigidly inspected for safety equipment, could conceivably carreen out of control. These trucks, after all, are big and scary! Family vehicles, on the other hand, are small and painted in bright colors and fun to look at!
    OK, so far, so good. Now the tricky part:
    2) Carefully explain to the grandkids that family vehicles, with no required safety inspection are operated by amateur drivers; they have the right of way over everything in the street – they are exempt; they are not required to stop for pedestrians, so they probably won’t. The pedestrian must yield. The grandkids must learn to differentiate amateur family vehicles from professionally operated commercial vehicles in order to avoid getting clobbered crossing the street.
    Now, this will be no easy crossing. Family vehicles are plentiful, the amateur drivers know they have the absolute right of way, they are in a hurry to get to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow…and they really don’t think about pedestrians at all, only of themselves. Some of these amateur drivers are distracted admiring themselves in the mirror or are drunk on save-the-earth Kool-Aid. Some of them calculate a few pedestrians will have to be sacrificed along the way; they think there are too many pedestrians for the world to sustain, as it is.
    Any means to an end is the credo of these amateur pleasure drivers, so when they exercise their right to step on it and swerve around a professionally driven commercial truck stopped at a crosswalk for pedestrians, well, those silly pedestrians had better be paying extra special attention…or else.
    Oh man, what started out to be a pleasant walkabout with grandpa/grandma isn’t looking very promising now. It’s turning into a life lesson:
    3) Make the grandkids understand there is no safe way to cross even a small local street because, as pedestrians, they are unimportant to family vehicle lobbyists and, so, for traffic safety legislators and, in turn, for amateur drivers of family vehicles.
    It’s not the trucks and buses you most need to watch out for. The pedestrian must be the alert and responsible party; in a split second you must accurately “know your driver” if you are to cross the street safely.

  • Minkpuppy

    Bravo, Doc Mudd!

  • I just have to comment. I am one of those small producer you are talking about. Why would you think I would be careless as to cause harm to family, friends & neighbors(even if they stepped out of the cross walk). I am not a Corporate no face. I don’t need to be told to be nice. That is a given for me. Besides how smart would I be to work hard every day just to loose my farm in a law suite. I don’t have the big money or lawers.

  • Bob Behling

    Cynthia has good reason to take umbrage. But that’s another topic better suited for a Walmart/corner store analogy.
    What about building bridges over the nasty roads? It’s obvious to me that there is a huge gap between government expectations and the food industry’s limitations. A company that wants to establish a system of reasonable checks by testing the plant environment for pathogens is forced to deal with fear that a positive swab result will not only give them headaches of epic proprtion, but will be followed by weeks and months of consequencial expenditures. More than a little time and effort is put forth by companies trying to find “unsubstantiated” tests that point to the pathogen of choice without definitively identifying a microbial species.
    Look, we all know that bad bugs are there, in the drains, on the floors, on the walls, etc. Why pretend that it’s not so?
    If the government could find a way to allow diligent manufacturers to research their processes forthrightly, food quality would be lifted to new levels.

  • Whitedolphin

    This new law doesn’t guarantee that the food is going to be microorganism free is more a pro active approach for prevent more outbreaks it also put the enforcement into the federals to enforce and provide more quality training to state, tribal and local health department that are every day on the front row protecting the lives of the American, tourist and dignitaries’ that visit our country. Also gives more authority to the health inspector to take corrective actions since the first time the firm has a mayor public health violation, is given the authority back to the people that every day see those preventable situation but politics needs to set aside and even when the firm is well connected with powerful dignitaries they need to let the professionals do their job and back them up, things that people forget they enforced, but the manager and high managerial have to always answer to the politics and them an outbreak is nationwide and then they want to take enforcement action on preventable situations