US Food Safety Takes a Catastrophe to Change

According to recent history it takes a catastrophe to bring about change to food safety legislation in the US.
May 20, 2015

According to a special report, recent history reveals that it takes a catastrophe to bring about change to food safety legislation in the US. 

Experts have said that current progress towards better national food safety is not being made fast enough and one has even claimed, ‘we need bodies in the streets before we get it.’

In a new episode of Retro Report, ‘Chasing Outbreaks: How safe is our food?’, some of the worst cases of food poisoning in US history are examined. The causes, reactions and consequences of these infamous outbreaks are analysed and reveal a rather disturbing pattern.

‘The US food safety system is dysfunctional, it’s slow to react to science, it’s slow to react to change. We need rules and regulations in place that are going to prevent the problems, not just react to them,’ Dr David Acheson said, food safety professional from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Jack in the Box

One of the worst food poisoning cases in US history was the 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak. Hundreds of people were hospitalised and four children tragically died after eating contaminated burgers that were traced back to the franchise.

Those affected, many of who were children, suffered serious illnesses because of the contamination - including liver failure, kidney failure and in some cases they were comatose. The seriousness of the contamination was acutely highlighted when a young boy was infected after he came into contact with another infected child at day care. Just three weeks after being infected with the bacteria, the young boy sadly died.

An investigation into the cause of the outbreak found the meat was actually contaminated in the slaughterhouse, before it reached the restaurant. However, the investigation also found that the restaurant did not cook the beef to a high enough temperature before selling it, which combined with the initial contamination, caused the outbreak.

“Jack in the Box was a wake up call to many, including the regulators… it changed consumers perceptions and it absolutely changed the industry,’ said Dr Acheson.

Following the outbreak Jack in the Box became a leader in contamination prevention. The company created an extensive inspection and detection system, one that is still used by many as a food safety model today.

Primitive Detection

Prior to the Jack in the Box outbreak, the way inspectors used to check meat for possible contamination was to poke and sniff it. This changed following the infamous 1993 E. coli outbreak and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) went so far as to declare the 0157 E. coli strand an adulterant. There is now a zero tolerance policy for this E. coli strand to be found in any raw minced beef.

In 2006 there was another food poisoning scandal that earned nationwide notoriety. Bags of spinach were rapidly pulled off supermarket shelves after being linked to another E. coli outbreak that made hundreds of people seriously ill. An investigation into the outbreak eventually determined the spinach became contaminated after coming into contact with pig and cow manure - likely from the dirt the spinach was grown in.

According to Dr Acheson in 2006 the FDA rarely ever inspected farms for such contamination and no controls were put in place to manage that type of risk. Retro reports that a key reason such things were overlooked was due to the fact that 15 different agencies were responsible for monitoring the food supply industry. Something that caused both confusion and gaps in the monitoring systems.

Another legal issue that has come under fire is when a company itself is responsible for voluntarily recalling possibly unsafe foods. In the case of Foster Farms, salmonella was found to be the cause of an outbreak that ended up making hundreds of people sick. Despite this however, it took almost a year of USDA investigation before the company voluntarily recalled any of its chicken. Unlike E. coli 0157 strand, some of the more dangerous types of salmonella are not considered an adulterant.

The Slow Move Towards Change

After several more infamous food poising outbreaks, Retro reports that the national food safety monitoring system finally appears to be working itself out. Following contamination outbreaks related to cheese, cookie dough and other foods, the widespread extent of the damage finally began to be realised.

The USDA reports it has added procedures that will result in 1000’s fewer cases of salmonella each year. Also, Congress eventually passed legislation that gave regulatory authorities more resources and influence so as to better monitor food safety of the industry.

Whether the past reforms are enough, however, still remains the question. Despite these and other horrendous food poisoning outbreaks - and the resulting policy reform - Retro explains that ‘tens of millions of Americans still get food poisoning each year.’

Reacting to a crisis still seems to be the most effective way of making improvements to the country’s food safety legislation. It seems that if there is going to be further change to US food safety, without waiting for the next food poisoning crisis, it is up to the public and industries to get involved in the effort.