Lots of people got food poisoning this summer. Why?


As fall moves into full bluster, we look back on the summer months with wistful fondness. But there are some aspects we’ll not miss: the summer of 2015 was defined by a remarkably high amount of disturbing news for those of us who eat food.

The mountain of food poisoning reports and product recalls this summer is enough to pull a Michelle Pfeiffer, or even go off the grid completely and grow your own vegetables. In case you missed it, here’s some of the outbreaks that occurred this summer:

  • Food product recalls since July of 2015 include 22 cases of Salmonella, 9 cases of Listeria, and 1 case of Botulism.
  • Over 99 people were sickened by Norovirus at a single Southern California Chipotle restaurant, and at least 45 people have been made ill due to Salmonella from Chipotle locations in Minnesota.
  • At a Hardee’s in South Carolina, about 5,000 people were exposed to Hepatitis A. Thousands required vaccination.
  • San Diego-based produce company Andrew & Williamson has been linked with a Salmonella poona outbreak that has sickened over 558 people and killed 3.
  • The FDA banned imports of cilantro after they tested positive for Cyclospora parasite. Investigators found cilantro fields in Puebla covered in toilet paper and feces, without adequate washing facilities for workers. This year over 200 people were infected by Cyclospora in Texas alone.

On the heels of that gruesome streak of poor sanitation and hygiene, however, there have also been substantial victories in the fight for cleaner food in recent weeks. On September 21, Stewart Parnell, CEO of Peanut Corp. of America, was sentenced to 28 years in prison for his role in covering up Salmonella. The cover-up left 9 people dead and some 700 more sick.

After a lengthy trial culminating from years of investigation, with dramatic incidences including Parnell’s sister being booted from the courtroom for giving the victims the finger, it seemed like justice had finally been served.

“Life in prison (Parnell is 61), especially in a food case, it’s frankly unprecedented,” said Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney for the victims who specializes in food illness suits. “But the case itself, on a factual basis, is unprecedented.”

Food oversight greatly weakened

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 48 million people—or 1 in 6 people in the United States—get sick annually from foodborne diseases, where an estimated 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 people die.

In 1973, the FDA had an army of 35,000 inspectors, specialists, and food scientists, but by 2007 that number had been reduced to just 6,700. Considering that food imports had increased by hundreds of billions of dollars by the twenty-first century, this was clearly a problem. For example, in 2008, the U.S. inspection rate of seafood imports was about 5 percent to 2 percent of the European Union rate, depending on species.

The general attitude from the Bush administration and Congressional majority at the time was that the FDA and Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) were not using the resources allocated to them effectively. Rather than overhaul regulation, the Bush doctrine held, it was better to leave matters to civil litigation: Cut funding and regulations and let the courts duke it out as a deterrent to further bad behavior.

All this changed with the Peanut Corp. of America food poisoning scandal, and with the election of a new political establishment that was friendlier to regulation.

Regulatory authority in sight

On January 4, 2011, Barack Obama signed the historic Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA) into law. Touted as “the most substantial food regulation legislation in a century,” the host of laws will affect every sector of the food industry, from production to preparation.

After years of talks with food processors, farmers, consumers’ groups, and corporations, the FDA has finally implemented the first phases of FSMA. The initial steps of the law tighten regulations on the manufacturing of processed foods and pet foods. Most notably, the FDA will be inspecting food processing facilities every 3 years instead of every 10 years as they were previously.

Additionally, food companies of all sizes must have a written plan for dealing with potential contaminants and must take action to reach planned objectives. The FDA is also asking for a substantial budget increase of $105 million annually as a means of carrying out the rest of FSMA’s policy goals.

While the FSMA isn’t expected to be fully implemented until 2018, all of this is potentially good news if you are sick of all the stories about food sickness. The laws used to regulate how we handle the industry have remained more or less unchanged since 1907 or so, and thus a rethink of how we manage a diverse, global food economy seem due for an update.

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