Public Health

Food-Safety Inspectors Struggle to Keep Up
By: Dylan Scott on October 25, 2012
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Salmonella in your peanut butter. E. coli in your spinach. Listeria in your cantaloupes. With all the foodborne illnesses going around these days, it’s fair to wonder why anyone eats anything at all. It’s also putting pressure on local, state and federal officials to produce more stringent food safety policies and more vigorously enforce them.

The multi-state outbreaks of the last few years -- linked to lapses by large food distributors -- might lead some to believe that they’re better off shopping local and heading to a neighborhood farmers market this fall. But not so fast, experts say. Just because you don’t hear national news reports about outbreaks linked to roadside stands doesn’t mean they don’t happen. They’re just harder to trace back to the original source.

“There are some foods that inherently have risk, whether they go through some mass production or whether they're being sold at a farmer's market,” says Joe Russell, public health officer at the Flathead City-County (Mont.) Health Department and head of the National Association of County and City Health Officials food safety advisory group. “What happens is the ones that get caught at the national level have usually gone on for a long time. But with one hospitalization in one community, it's really hard to tell.”

So who can you trust? Well, let’s put it this way: nobody and everybody. One in six Americans contracts a foodborne illness every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but it’s important to remember that those infections lead to a combined 3,000 deaths. You’re more likely to die from choking on your food than just eating it. Still, the issue has consequences: Foodborne illness costs the United States an estimated $77 billion annually.

And, in recent years, there are fewer and fewer government resources to combat it. Specific figures are hard to pin down, but a 2008 survey from the Association of Food and Drug Officials found that state public health officials performed about 32,000 fewer inspections that year than they did in 2001. To compound the issue, an estimated 34,000 public health jobs were cut during recent years because of the broader state and local budget crisis. The federal authorities have dealt with similar shortfalls. The Washington Post reported in 2010 that the number of FDA regulatory actions fell from 614 in 2004 to 283 in 2008, as staff numbers dropped.

Federally, Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act in January 2011. The law is supposed to craft more rigorous regulations for interstate food distributors by asking companies to implement government-approved plans for identifying and mitigating potential sources of infection. But the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), responsible for creating guidelines based on the law, has been caught up in the rulemaking process. The Pew Charitable Trusts Health Group highlighted an editorial this month that noted 14 foodborne illness outbreaks have occurred since the bill was signed.

The delay prompted a group of more than 70 pediatricians to send a letter to the White House earlier this month, asking them to expedite the process, according to American Medical News. Noting that children are often more susceptible to foodborne illness, the doctors wrote: “If fully implemented, this law could help reduce the number of sick children who come through our doors and ease the suffering they experience.”

At the local and state level, which takes responsibility for the cottage industry, the rules vary across boundaries, but follow some general rules, Russell says. If a vendor at a farmers market is selling only preserved foods (breads, pastries or, say, apple pies this time of year), they can typically forego state and local licensing and food safety laws. In theory, those selling potentially hazardous foods (meats or fruits and vegetables) are at least subject to food safety inspections, but they’re often still exempt from licensing laws.

As Governing reported last year, states are often weighing competing interests: they want to support a growing industry (the number of farmers market grew 64 percent in the last five years, and the industry now nets an estimated $7 billion in sales) while protecting the public’s health. No comprehensive data is available, but the Farmers Market Coalition gives the example of a New Orleans farmers market that generates an estimated $150,000 in annual sales tax to demonstrate the industry's potential impact.

That growth has coincided with the dip in public health resources, from the federal down to the local level.  As state revenues recover, some hope that federal, state and local governments will begin to shore up their food inspection ranks and, in turn, reduce the amount of foodborne illness, whether locally grown or nationally distributed. But for now, officials say they’re doing their best with what they have.

“Things don't go unnoticed generally, but they may go unregulated,” Russell says, noting that he has a staff of only seven to oversee a county with more than 90,000 residents. “My job is to protect the public’s health. But it’s always a moving target.”

This article was originally published by Governing.

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