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Report says food safety threats overwhelm regulators

October 4, 2011
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Every year millions of Americans are sickened, and thousands die, from foodborne diseases. The statistics reflect the inability of regulators — from the U.S. Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration, as well as at state and local agencies — to keep up with a monumental task of ensuring the safety of the nation’s food supply.

As an overview story by journalism students from the News21 program reports, government officials are hampered by underfunding and ineffective regulations. Even though the landmark Food Safety Modernization Act was signed into law in January, there are serious questions about whether it will have any impact, at least in the near future, because of likely government budget cuts.

The overview story, part of a series by News21 on food safety, pointed out that:

  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every year one in six Americans — 48 million people — get foodborne illnesses. That includes 128,000 who are hospitalized, and 3,000 who die.
  • Already this year, contaminated hazelnuts, cantaloupe, bologna, sprouts, papayas and ground turkey have caused outbreaks of E. coli and salmonella illnesses in the U.S. As The Associated Press reports, the tainted cantaloupes, produced by Jensen Farms in Colorado, are linked to at least 15 deaths and the toll could rise.
  • Food imports have quadrupled over the past decade, and now account for 60 percent of all fruits and vegetables eaten in the U.S. Yet the FDA, which relies on a a risk-based system to focus on products with a high risk of contamination, inspects only about 2 percent of all imported food.
  • Imports, often from China and Thailand, account for more than 80 percent of all seafood eaten in the U.S. As FairWarning reported in July, tons of that fish is laced with chemicals banned from the U.S. food supply, including carcinogens. But state officials say the tainted imported fish nevertheless is winding up on American dinner plates.
  • Nearly 3 million Americans get sick every year from harmful bacteria in meat and poultry, according to University of Florida research.
  • One out of every five chicken breasts for sale in grocery stores is infected with salmonella, a 2009 FDA study found.
  • Although the FDA last year started mandating new safety measures to reduce salmonella in eggs, the agency has checked up on fewer than 50 farms nationally — out of 600 farms with more than 50,000 hens — due to limited staffing, agency records show.
  • Even when public health authorities learn of illnesses from tainted food, more than half of the time investigators never determine the origin, allowing the contaminated food to remain on the market and to sicken more people.

About FairWarning

FairWarning ( is a nonprofit, online news organization focused on issues of safety, health and government and business accountability.

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