Deadly melons renew food safety focus; will money follow?
The U.S. has some of the safest food in the world, but roughly 1 in 6 people still get sick from eating tainted products each year.
Mon, Oct 31, 2011 at 06:27 AM
OUTBREAK: Twenty-eight people killed by listeria infection after eating cantaloupe contaminated in what regulators called an "unsanitary" Jensen Farms packing plant in Colorado. (Photo: osseous/flickr)
Debbie Frederick hopes that her father's death in September in one of the most lethal outbreaks of food-borne illness in U.S. history will force the government to increase the safety of the country's food supply.
It took more than a decade, a series of deadly outbreaks tied to food like peanuts, spinach and ground beef, as well as a coalition of strange bedfellows — victims, public health advocates and food industry representatives — to push through the first major revamp of food safety laws since the 1930s.
But advocates and other experts say the Food Safety Modernization Act signed by U.S. President Barack Obama in January still has shortcomings and worry it will be watered down through a lack of funding.
The United States by most measures has some of the safest food in the world. Still, roughly one in six people get sick from eating tainted products each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"The whole system was built to react to people getting sick" or to discoveries of contaminated food, said Erik Olson, the Pew Health Group's director of food programs.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates about 80 percent of the U.S. food supply, including melons and other produce, requires major structural changes to become primarily focused on prevention, as FSMA envisions. While lawmakers recently have given FDA more money for food programs, it still has lots of catching up to do, Olson said.
Eighty-seven-year-old William Beach, Frederick's father, lived in Oklahoma and was one of the 28 people killed by listeria infection after eating cantaloupe contaminated in what regulators called an "unsanitary" Jensen Farms packing plant in Colorado.
"My father was terrified ... nobody should have to go like that," said Frederick, a Phoenix aesthetician and newly minted activist who is the driving force behind her family's lawsuit against Jensen Farms. "The system broke down. It shouldn't have happened. This is a preventable thing."
Herb Stevens, of suburban Denver, also became ill after eating tainted cantaloupe, but he survived. The World War Two veteran, 84, lived at home with his wife before falling ill and now requires full-time care.
"We'd like to see better food safety laws and more inspectors," Jeni Exley, Stevens' daughter, said in an interview. Her family is suing for current and future medical expenses.
Where's the teeth?
FSMA aims to be a step in that direction.
The law requires FDA to set standards for produce safety and mandates more frequent inspections of domestic and foreign food processing facilities. It also gives FDA stronger enforcement tools, such as mandatory recall authority and the ability to yank the registration of a processing plant.
While inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture must be present at meat and poultry plants they regulate during operating hours, FDA had no frequency mandate for inspections prior to FSMA. As a result, lapses of as long as 10 years were not uncommon.
All high-risk domestic facilities, or those that handle foods with a high potential to cause harm, must be inspected within five years of enactment and no less than every three years thereafter, according to the FDA. In addition, the law rapidly steps up the number of required inspections for foreign facilities.
Jeff Almer and Randy Napier, who lost their mothers to the salmonella outbreak blamed for killing nine people and sickening 700 others who ate contaminated products from Peanut Corporation of America in 2008 and 2009, fought to get FSMA passed and now are pushing more FDA funding.
"The needs are substantially greater than what is covered by current funding," said Steven Grossman, deputy executive director of the Alliance for a Stronger FDA, which said FDA's food funding rose $52 million to $836 million in fiscal 2011.
The U.S. House of Representatives wants to cut that funding to $750 million in fiscal 2012, while the Senate is proposing increasing funding to $867 million. It is still not known where the final number will come out.
The issue is personal for Almer and Napier, who frequently work with reporters and button-hole lawmakers.
PCA, now bankrupt, is accused of knowingly shipping contaminated products in violation of federal law. The men want to see company President Stewart Parnell criminally charged.
Handing down an indictment of Parnell would "send a loud and clear message to producers of food to literally clean up their acts," Almer said.
"We believe there is absolutely no basis for criminal prosecution," said Parnell's attorney Bill Gust, a partner at Gentry Locke Rakes & Moore.
Napier said he has made at least six trips to Washington, D.C., since his mother's death. Almer testified before Congress in 2009 and said he met with federal law enforcement representatives regarding the PCA criminal case.
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