(This article by Baylen J. Linnekin was published here on Jan. 17, 2015, and is reposted with permission. He is executive director of the Keep Food Legal Foundation and an adjunct professor at George Mason University Law School, where he teaches Food Law & Policy.) The past few weeks have seen what may be an unprecedented number of headlines around the world pertaining to foodborne illness. A number of these illnesses have proven fatal. In Mozambique, beer allegedly tainted with crocodile bile killed dozens at a wedding. It’s unclear at this point how the bile did — or even could — make its way into the beer. (It’s also not clear that crocodile bile is poisonous.) In India, more than two-dozen people are dead and at least 100 people are ill, some severely, after consuming homemade liquor containing deadly methyl alcohol during a cricket match. Elsewhere in India, four members of a family died after dining at a restaurant to celebrate a holiday. In California, a batch of drug-laced sweet bread from a Santa Ana bakery has sickened more than 40 people. And listeria-tainted apples, which authorities say are linked to a California producer, have killed three. Despite this news and the prevalence of Buzzfeed-worthy foodborne illness headlines, the domestic food supply is still remarkably safe — and among the safest in the world. CDC data indicate that foodborne illness is not on the rise in the United States. Agency data from 2013 show only one statistically significant increase in illnesses caused by various pathogens (vibrio), while showing statistically significant decreases in illnesses caused by two key pathogens — listeria and salmonella. But is the overall safety of our food supply enough to warn off regulations? What, if anything, is the government’s proper role in preventing foodborne illness and punishing food adulteration? I think the federal government should have the authority to order adulterated products off the market and to punish (with fines, arrest, or both) those who sell food that sickens others. While I’m often a critic of FDA regulations — particularly those pertaining to food safety — it turns out that my own beliefs here mirror FDA rules currently in place. It may surprise you to learn that FDA only recently was given the power to order food recalls. Scholars and advocates pushed for years for Congress to grant FDA the power to order recalls of food that is adulterated and harmful — something that finally came to fruition in the otherwise awful Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). Again, I’m a big supporter of FDA having such power. “Giving the FDA mandatory recall authority, as the [FSMA] did, is an important tool for forcing foods that have been found to be a definitive hazard off the market,” I wrote last year. FDA’s power to punish those who adulterate food and cause harm has been in place far longer. That’s a good thing — particularly if the culprit does so intentionally. FDA clearly deserves some of the credit for the safety of our food supply. But, as I noted in recent FSMA comments I submitted to FDA on behalf of Keep Food Legal Foundation (the nonprofit I lead), that’s but a small piece of the puzzle. “The FDA can’t wash the hands of every eater and cook in the country,” I wrote. And it can’t prevent bad actors from intentionally poisoning food — as may have recently happened in India, Mozambique, and California. That’s why the private sector’s role is so important. The safety of our food supply is a testament to the men and women who make our food — and to the companies that employ them. It’s also thanks to the lawyers who sue those people and companies when they do harm. Thanks to splashy headlines and a handful of truly appalling recent cases, foodborne illness may appear to be on the rise. Thankfully, that’s not the case. What’s more, data and the combined efforts of the public and private sectors make it clear that the tools are in place to push back against foodborne illness.

  • doc raymond

    And as I have said before, the FSMA giving FDA mandatory recall powers did nothing to strengthen the safety of our food supply. It just made good political points. the FDA has only had one company refuse a recall when asked, and it was a pet food company.

    • tallen2007

      True, but recalls do cost $$ and that is all these companies care about, especially the pet food companies.

  • Roy E Costa

    Whether the situation is getting better or not is really hard to say since our surviellance systems have bias. Looking at the data on reported outbreaks in Florida restaurants for example, there has been an 84% drop between 2012 and 1995, whereas our incidence of Salmonella, Campy and E coli has increased when adjusted for population increase. This may be due to these agents having other vectors. I think FBI outbreak data shows a decrease.

  • Eric Powell

    One observation/opinion to add as well: We are more connected than ever before to world-wide occurrences due to the internet and social media. The number of headlines may be on the rise, but perhaps the numbers are skewed because we also receive daily reports from places like Mozambique.
    Though I have doubts FSMA will be the program it was designed to be, I remain hopeful FSMA will help decrease world-wide food safety occurrences.

  • CA Leafy Greens LGMA

    We appreciate this author’s point of view. Everyone involved in food production has a role to play in food safety.

    For California leafy greens, a system is in place (now in it’s 8th year) to ensure that science-based food safety practices are being followed on farms and leafy greens producers themselves are paying for government auditors to ensure the laws are being followed.

    This all happens through a private-public partnership known as the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement.