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Is your food safe? Legislation to curb food-borne illness moves through Congress

Created date

December 22nd, 2009

How safe is the food you eat? It s a question more and more Americans are asking in light of numerous recalls and outbreaks of food-borne illnesses. Whether it s Salmonella tainted peanut butter or leafy greens contaminated by deadly E. coli O157:H7 bacteria, food-borne illness threatens everyone. [caption id="attachment_7286" align="alignright" width="224" caption="The tomato is one of the ten riskiest foods for food-borne illness. (Photo by Michele Harris)"]Who keeps the food safe? We rely on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to monitor and ensure the safety of all the produce, seafood, shell eggs, and dairy products sold in the U.S. (meat and poultry is monitored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture). To do the job right, the FDA says it needs greater authority and more resources, changes that require new legislation. One of the organizations calling for an overhaul of food safety legislation is the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which released a list of foods most prone to contamination (see sidebar). "Outbreaks give the best evidence of where and when the food safety system is failing to protect the public," says Sarah Klein a CPSI attorney. "It is clearly time for FDA's reliance on industry self-regulation to come to an end. The absence of safety plans or frequent inspections unfortunately means that some of our favorite and most healthful foods also top the list of the most risky."

What is being done?

Improved food safety legislation is currently making its way through Congress. If passed, the FDA would gain greater authority to address food safety issues and would be able to place greater emphasis on preventing food-borne illnesses. Every year, 76 million Americans suffer from a preventable food-borne illness. Of those, 325,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 will die because our outdated, under-funded, and overwhelmed food safety system failed to ensure the food they ate was safe, says Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), cosponsor of the Senate bill. Food safety is not a partisan issue we all want the safest food supply possible, says Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY), a ranking member of the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee which unanimously voted to send the food safety bill to the floor for a full vote. We have the tools, the expert knowledge, and the innovative spirit to find better and more reliable systems to protect the public health from contaminated food. Backed by a wide array of consumer groups, food industry associations and the FDA itself, the legislation is expected to pass in 2010. No matter what happens in Washington, consumers must remain vigilant about washing and cooking foods thoroughly. And for those at greatest risk, it s probably wise to avoid susceptible foods.

Top ten riskiest foods

Together, these foods account for nearly 40% of all food-borne outbreaks linked to FDA-regulated foods since 1990 (as tracked by the Center for Science in the Public Interest using data from the CDC and elsewhere). Illnesses caused by these foods may be as minor as a short bout of stomach cramps and diarrhea, or as serious as kidney failure or death. 1. Leafy greens 2. Eggs 3. Tuna 4. Oysters 5. Potatoes 6. Cheese 7. Ice cream 8. Tomatoes 9. Sprouts 10. Berries