The Dangers in Our Food Supply Are Worse Than You Think

Food-borne illnesses are escalating in the United States, and it’s not because of a few unwashed spinach leaves. Foul conditions, lax regulations, and too few inspectors are threatening our safety.

By Barry Estabrook from OnEarth Magazine
Also in Reader's Digest Magazine May 2014

canteloupeLucas Zarebinski for Reader’s Digest, Jon Valk for Reader’s Digest

With the exception of E. coli infections, the rate of outbreaks from other pathogens tracked by the CDC rose from 2007 to 2011. The decline in E. coli–related illnesses is in part the result of strong actions taken by the USDA. Following an outbreak caused by tainted hamburger that killed four children in 1993, the agency declared E. coli 0157:H7, the strain that sickened the children, an adulterant, making it illegal for companies under USDA jurisdiction to sell food contaminated with the bacterium. But potentially fatal bacteria other than E. coli have yet to be declared adulterants.

It would be truly impossible for any government agency to prevent every case of food poisoning in our country. But in report after report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has uncovered woeful shortcomings within the FDA. Its product-recall process is ineffective and confusing. It has done a poor job of dealing with the overuse of antibiotics in livestock feed. It lacks the scientific capacity to perform its duties. Even when it uncovers health violations at food-processing plants, the FDA takes enforcement action in about half of the cases and almost never imposes fines, making it logical for corporations to risk making people ill, since the worst they can expect is a warning letter.

By the time doctors diagnosed Schwarz with listeriosis, the FDA had zeroed in on the source of the contaminant—a farm in Colorado owned by brothers Eric and Ryan Jensen. Inspectors descended on Jensen Farms three times during September 2011. Conditions could hardly have been more favorable for listeria, which thrives in moist areas. There was no system for precooling the picked cantaloupes; this allowed condensation to form on their rinds as they were refrigerated. Water stood in puddles on the floor. The washing and drying machinery was rigged in a way that made it all but impossible to clean, so corrosion, dirt, and “product buildup” remained even after the machinery supposedly had been sanitized. Finally, Jensen washed its fruits in only water, using no chlorine or other antimicrobial solution that might have killed the listeria.

Jensen issued a recall on September 14, but the damage had been done. On October 18, more than a month after its initial investigations, the FDA issued a warning letter to the company (which eventually filed for bankruptcy). If there ever was an example of too little too late, this was it.

Until people started dropping dead, the Jensen facility had never once in its 20-year history been inspected by the FDA, even though the agency considers fresh produce to be “high risk” and a priority for inspection. Like most produce companies, Jensen used third-party auditors to certify its handling systems. On July 25, at about the same time the first people were sickened by contaminated cantaloupe, one auditor visited Jensen for four hours and blessed the plant with a “superior” rating of 96 percent.

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