If it seems like every week, there’s a new recall or outbreak of foodborne illness, you’re right. Almost every day, the FDA updates their recall homepage with new food that’s being pulled from shelves, either because it’s made someone sick, or because it could. But is food really more unsafe now than it has been in the past? According to a new report by the Public Interest Research Group, incidents of foodborne illness have increased 44%…in the last two years alone.
It’s easy to see all of the recent recalls–peanut butter, Frosted Mini-Wheats, mangoes, spinach, cantaloupe–and feel like food is getting less and less safe. But the numbers about just how many people foodborne illness hurts (and how much it costs). Here are some staggering numbers from the PIRG’s press release:
Contaminated food makes 48 million Americans sick every year and costs over $77 billion in aggregated economic costs. In the USA over the last 21 months, 1753 people were made sick from foodborne illnesses linked directly to food recalls and the cost was over $227 million.
But why, in this modern era, is our food getting less safe, instead of more? Aren’t there consumer protections in place to help keep the food on the shelves at free of contaminants, like Salmonella, e. Coli, and Listeria?
As the PIRG points out, there has been recent sweeping, bi-partisan legislation put in place by the Obama Administration, to ensure that the FDA actually has the tools and legal ability to protect consumers from food manufacturers who may engage in unsavory, unsafe practices.
Unfortunately, many of the Food Safety Modernization Act‘s critical facets–like re-inspection of food processing plants and new inspection fees on imports–have only just gone into effect, or won’t go into effect until 2013. Other elements of it are still awaiting approval and funding…which means the act itself isn’t able to do what it’s supposed to do: Protect consumers.
Another reason for increased recalls and foodborne illness? Large-scale food manufacturing and shipping, which makes it much more likely for food to become cross-contaminated. As noted food safety legal eagle Bill Marler told me last year in an interview on the subject, “size matters.” From that interview:
…If there’s a mistake that gets made, or something happens in the processing that allows pathogens to enter, the chance of causing a problem–a big problem–is exponential…The spinach outbreak of 2006 was ultimately linked back to one small, 25-acre spinach farm…It’s likely that only a small field was contaminated, and when the spinach from that field got mixed in and washed with everything else, that’s when it got into trouble.
Which doesn’t necessarily mean that shopping local is safer–larger companies are able to pay for more rigorous food safety practices and inspections–but buying fresh, locally-grown produce can cut down on the risk of purchasing something that’s been shipped in unsanitary or unsafe conditions. Properly washing and storing your food (keeping meat separate, for example) is another good way to protect yourself and your family.
But until the FSMA finally makes it off the budgetary floor and into practice, the best way to protect yourself as a consumer is to stay updated on what’s safe and what’s not. Check the FDA’s site (or Blisstree–we do write an awful lot about food safety) often to ensure you know the latest recall news. Without larger protections in place, education remains the best armor against foodborne illness.
Image via the FDA’s Flickr account