At a time when so many resources are being pumped into improving consumer health through food, it is pitifully ironic that more and more people are getting sick or dying from what they eat because of safety slips.
A new report published last week by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveals a 50 percent increase in E coli infections since 2004, and a monstrous 78 percent increase in Vibrio infections - caused by eating raw shellfish - over the past decade. The center estimates that 76 million Americans get sick and 5,000 die from foodborne hazards each year in the United States. That's 5,000 deaths too many, and it cries out for immediate attention form government and industry. Admittedly, it might be a little optimistic to call for the complete eradication of all contamination cases, but there is certainly room for much improvement. In the last six months, there have been huge outbreaks associated with spinach, lettuce, tomatoes and peanut butter, and consumer groups are not just ranting when they say that people's confidence in the safety of the food supply has been severely shaken. Results are also coming through to convince those that need monetary incentive to admit to a problem. The recent spinach E coli outbreak, for example, resulted in estimated losses of $100m throughout the industry, with sales not yet fully recovered. And the case of ConAgra's peanut butter salmonella contamination has also hit the firm hard. Although ConAgra doesn't reveal the full impact of the infection on its business, a rough guess points to significant losses. For the recall alone, the firm said it expected to fork out up to $60m. Add to that the complete halt of production of its Peter Pan peanut butter - produced exclusively at the affected plant in Sylvester, Georgia - for a good six months, and the numbers start climbing. ConAgra plans to contract with a co-packer to get Peter Pan back on the shelves in July while its own plant is being renovated, but a huge chunk of the firm's $150m annual sales in peanut butter - of which Peter Pan forms the large majority - has already been eaten away. Together with the lives of at least four consumers. A better tracking system for food contamination would go some way to reducing the damage caused by such cases, but an absolute priority needs to be better systems for prevention. This means a more uniform food safety network, more stringent regulation and more federal funding pumped into the FDA to make it all possible. Under current law, food safety monitoring, inspection and labeling functions are spread across 15 agencies in the federal government, including the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) which oversees meat, poultry and egg products; the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) which oversees most other food products; and the US Commerce Department's National Marine Fisheries Service which inspects fish. The agencies collectively administer at least 30 laws. The nation's General Accounting Office in February called on legislators to radically amend the food safety system, which it said is fragmented, ineffective and inefficient. One solution, it said, was to consolidate regulatory insight. New proposed legislation was introduced in 2005 in an effort to achieve just this. Senator Dick Durbin and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro's Safe Food Act would include regular, but random, inspection of all food processing plants; categorized review process for all foods to monitor and inspect them based on their risk, not their name; increased oversight of imported foods; and established requirements for tracing foods to point of origin. As we have unfortunately witnessed, self regulation just doesn't cut it any more. Voluntary guidance or industry self regulatory schemes is a short sighted answer to a growing problem that calls for immediate and permanent solutions, according to Consumers Union. But while we can only hope that the government will take necessary action, food manufacturers need to do everything in their power to protect their consumers and their business. ConAgra said it "had plans in place to address this kind of situation". Now the firm is totally renovating and redesigning its plant to separate raw ingredients from finished products, as well as appointing a Global Food Safety executive and forming a Food Safety Advisory Committee. These are all positive moves, it's just a shame they needed to be prompted by disaster. Learning from mistakes is good, but preventing them is even better. Lorraine Heller is editor of FoodNavigator-USA and is a specialist writer on food industry issues. With an international focus, she has lived and worked in the UK, Cyprus and France. If you would like to comment on this article, please e-mail lorraine.heller'at'decisionnews.com