The people who work on food safety are pretty excited these days, or I should say they're excited in the cautious, constantly vigilant manner of people who have spent their careers worried about deadly microbial pathogens. At an event last night sponsored by the D.C. Science Writers Association, experts from academia, government and advocacy groups met to discuss the implications of the recently signed Food Safety Modernization Act and other projects expected to improve food safety.
"Passage of the bill was a huge victory," said Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The "modernization" part of the name is apt; as Smith DeWaal and others pointed out, the current laws guiding food safety are based largely on legislation passed in 1906. The push for new legislation was inspired in part by high-profile outbreaks of foodborne illnesses: E. coli was found in ground beef and cookie dough; Salmonella in spinach, eggs and peanut butter; Listeria in chicken. The CSPI has a disturbing but strangely fascinating "Outbreak Alert!" database that tracks these things, and they've ranked the ten most dangerous foods. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated last month that one in six people in the United States contracts a foodborne illness each year.
The new law requires companies to assess and minimize hazards, increases and prioritizes Food and Drug Administration inspections of food producers, and authorizes the FDA to recall food and shut down producers. The law is just the first step, though. Big scientific and data-management questions remain, such as how to define a high-risk food; how best to reach the public; and how to standardize the methodologies for tracking food, catching outbreaks early, and identifying their sources. Currently, fewer than half of foodborne disease outbreaks are fully solved, with both the contaminated food and the pathogen identified.
One intriguing tool for either identifying outbreaks or alerting customers to recalls is grocery store customer loyalty cards. David Goldman of the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service said that comparisons of retailer databases with USDA databases have been "huge contributors to successful investigations." (The FSIS is responsible for monitoring food safety before the product gets to market; it monitors slaughterhouses, for instance, and provides the USDA stamp of approval. The FDA is responsible for food once it comes to market. Sometimes the division doesn't work and foods fall through the cracks, like eggs. Better coordination among the various federal and state agencies in charge of public health is another improvement in public health that is supported by the Food Safety and Modernization Act.)
One important factor in food safety is consumer education, and Goldman pointed out that the USDA has a help line with 24-hour automated responses and frequent live help chats about food safety. (I got a kick out of the name, "Ask Karen," which is what I do when I have a cooking question because my mom's name is Karen.)