Food Safety Analysis: HOW SAFE IS OUR FOOD?
In its second annual report published by US PIRG Education Fund, the authors Viveth Karthikeyan & Adam Garber looked at the recall trend since the implementation of FSMA. Below is a summary of their findings and conclusions.
The food supply system is very complex, and many regulatory bodies are involved in any recall, such as several local authorities, state regulators, and federal agencies that share the responsibility for regulating the food supply. On the federal level, food safety and recalls are split between the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) and Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).
FSMA was designed to help in identifying dangers and prevent them before they happen, by utilizing modern techniques to identify and track outbreaks due to food pathogens. Lately, FSMA placed more responsibility for food safety on farmers and food processors than ever before. FSMA was also designed to improve regulatory oversight and update the recall laws. FSMA applies to FDA regulated facilities, while the USDA utilizes a different system.
The research showed a significant increase in the USDA regulated number of recalls from 2013 to 2017.
Recalls due to the most hazardous Class 1 meat and poultry increased by 83%, while the overall recall number increased by 67%. Beef recalls increased by 55%, pork by 67%, and poultry recalls increased the most at 70% from 2013 to 2018. In contrast, the recalls of produce and processed food increased only by 2% since 2013.
One explanation for this increase could be that the increase in the ability to connect infections and trace them back to their source has significantly improved, due to novel technologies such as the Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS). However, this does not negate the issue of supplying the public with safe food.
According to the report, the CDC estimates that each year 1 in 6 of US residents gets foodborne illnesses due to E. coli, Salmonella, Clostridium, Campylobacter, and Toxoplasma gondii, with 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. These numbers raise a concern about the effectiveness of the current policies.
The data in the report shows that within the FDA regulated products, there was a reduction in outbreaks since the implementation of FSMA. More data is required to see if this trend holds over time.
Failures of the Recall System
The report highlights several examples of major recalls that the system failed to prevent or minimize.
Romaine lettuce recall from Yuma Arizona: the outbreak of E. coli in March of 2018 sickened over 200 people and killed 5. Eventually, the FDA concluded that the outbreak was most likely caused by contaminated irrigation water. A nearby animal feed operation could have been the source.
Foster Poultry Farms Recall: Federal inspectors cited Foster Poultry Farms more than 480 times for safety failures at three plants in Central California in 2013. The sited plants were the source of drug-resistant Salmonella outbreak in 29 states and Puerto Rico that sickened 634 people and hospitalized 240.
When contaminated products make it to stores, it needs to be ensured that all products are quickly removed from the shelves and consumers’ homes. The report cited several recent examples showing that improvements are required. For example, Honey Smacks cereal was recalled due to a Salmonella outbreak. Since some stores failed to remove the recalled cereal from their shelves, the FDA had to issue two additional notices. In March 2016, Soy Nut Butter spreads and granolas were recalled due to E. coli causing 32 illnesses and 12 hospitalizations (9 of which with HUS). After the recall, the FDA found online companies and some stores still selling contaminated butter spreads.
The report suggests a significant boost to the food safety system. Among the suggestions is an increase in irrigation water testing for pathogens in the produce industry. For the meat and poultry industries, increased inspection and monitoring, addressing the safety plans, establishing enforcement consequences for recurring violations, and declaring antibiotic-resistant strains of Salmonella as an adulterant in meat and poultry. Improve traceability through the food system, utilizing technologies such as blockchain. Increase recalls effectiveness by setting a timeline for the recall and granting USDA similar mandatory authority like the FDA. Panelize sellers of recalled products. Establish a system to recall products from home.