Fixing the Food Safety Net

Ellen Haas Health Guide
  • The massive recall of tomatoes this week by the FDA, after voluntary actions by fast food chains like MacDonald's and supermarkets like Safeway, is another in the growing list of holes in our federal food safety net. The FDA alerted consumers this past weekend that they should avoid eating Roma, red plum and red round tomatoes that are not attached to the vine because they may carry the bacteria salmonella. Salmonella can cause severe abdominal pain and diarrhea. The FDA also reported that at least 145 people have gotten sick in 16 states so far during this outbreak.


    This most recent outbreak of food borne illness is another stark reminder of the inadequacy of our food safety protections. The most recent recall of tomatoes follows the recall of spinach grown in California that was found to be contaminated with Ecoli in 2006 and salmonella-tainted peanut butter which caused many people to be hospitalized in February 2007.

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    Problems of food borne illness go beyond those caused by bacterial contamination of produce. For example salmonella is more often linked with poultry which can carry the bacteria. According to the Economic Research Service of the Department of Agriculture, hazards in food cause an estimated 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. The cost of these illnesses to American taxpayers is approximately $6.9 billion annually in medical costs, hospitalizations and lost work. Those at most risk are the elderly, young children, pregnant women and their fetuses and those with compromised immune systems.


    Food safety scares like the most recent recall of tomatoes has resulted in an erosion of consumer confidence in the food supply. A survey by Deloitte and released this week showed that 76 % of respondents were more concerned about the foods they eat than five years ago and 57% of respondents stopped consuming a certain food product following a food scare.


    The time for Congress to act to fix the food safety net is long overdue. The food safety problems we face are complex and the result of inadequate resources for the FDA and weak food safety standards, particularly for produce and imported foods. It is encouraging that Congress is finally moving towards enacting legislation of urgently needed FDA reforms. In the House of Representatives, Chairman John Dingell of the House Energy and Commerce Committee along with Representatives Frank Pallone, Bart Stupak and Dian DeGette has introduced a strong reform package that includes requiring safety standards to help keep fresh fruits and vegetables free of harmful bacteria like the salmonella that has contaminated these tomatoes. Senator Ted Kennedy also has introduced legislation on the Senate side.


    In addition, both the food industry and consumer groups are united in seeking additional funding for the FDA to monitor effectively the food supply. According to the Alliance for a Stronger FDA, the resources that have been eroded since the 1970s need to be restored. At a time that imported food has dramatically increased, the number of FDA employees and inspectors has fallen. For example, the Food Safety program was almost half of FDA's budget in the 1970s, but today it is only 25%.


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    With this recent tomato recall, Congress can waste no time in protecting consumers. It is time to let your Members of Congress know your concern and support for fixing the food safety net.


    Finally, the FDA recommendations do not cover all tomatoes. The following tomatoes were not included: Cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, tomatoes with vines attached and the delicious tomatoes that are home grown.


    Also, tomatoes from the following states were not affected by the recall: Arkansas, California, Georgia, Hawaii, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.


    Cherry tomatoes and grape tomatoes work well in salads and as a topping for fish. Here at Ellen's Healthy Table, we enjoyed this favorite:

Published On: June 10, 2008

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