Ongoing Listeria Outbreak Illustrates the High Stakes of Food Safety Regulation

The multistate outbreak of listeriosis, linked to cantaloupes from Colorado-based Jensen Farms, is the deadliest foodborne disease outbreak in a decade. Infections caused by listeria have taken 23 lives, caused at least one miscarriage, and sickened over 100 people in 24 different states. The grim effects of recent foodborne illness outbreaks illustrate the need for continuous improvements to our food safety programs. Public health depends on agencies having the authority and resources to issue necessary safeguards, conduct adequate inspections, and enforce food safety rules.

As the number of dead and ill from this recent outbreak continues to climb, the totals near the most fatal listeria outbreak in U.S. history, the 1985 listeria cheese outbreak that caused 29 deaths.

Listeria outbreaks are particularly alarming because symptoms can take up to three months to appear. In addition, listeria poses the greatest risk to the most vulnerable – pregnant women; people with weakened immune systems, cancer, diabetes, or kidney disease; and the elderly. On Sept. 14, Jensen Farms voluntarily recalled its whole cantaloupes produced from the end of July to Sept. 10, but infections and outbreak-related fatalities are still being reported. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is conducting a root-cause investigation, which it says can lead to preventative practices in the future.

On the same day Jensen Farms announced the recall, FDA launched the Coordinated Outbreak Response and Evaluation (CORE Network), “created to manage not just outbreak response, but surveillance and post-response activities.” One of the goals of CORE is to enhance preventive food safety practices by utilizing all of FDA’s field resources. Prevention is also an integral part of the 2011 FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which “aims to ensure the U.S. food supply is safe by shifting the focus of federal regulators from responding to contamination to preventing it.”

House members are also calling for an investigation into the outbreak, along with a hearing to better understand how to prevent similar foodborne illness outbreaks. Reps. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Diana DeGette (D-CO), ranking members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, respectively, requested an investigation and hearing in an Oct. 3 letter to Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) and Subcommittee Chairman Cliff Stearns (R-FL). Waxman and DeGette wrote that taking such measures could help “understand actions that could be taken by industry and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to prevent similar outbreaks in the future.”

The letter also urged Upton and Stearns to request, as part of the investigation, a list of documents from Jensen Farms including the dates that company officials first notified, or were notified by, federal, state, and local officials of the contamination, all inspection records related to Jensen Farms facilities, and all communications to or from the FDA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), or Colorado state authorities concerning inspections of Jensen Farms facilities or possible listeria contamination.

Remaining Challenges

Despite the importance of FDA’s focus on preventing contamination, some advocates worry that food safety will continue to suffer from funding cuts to regulatory agencies, inadequate rules, and lax inspections. As part of the 2011 Food Safety Project, a News21 investigation found that “food safety in the U.S. depends on ineffective regulations and underfunded government agencies that lack the authority to protect consumers.”

At the annual National Food Policy Conference on Oct. 4, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg discussed the major challenges facing the agency, including budget restrictions. "While in recent years we've seen some increases that have been valuable . . . there remains a very large gap between what we have and what we need," she said. Hamburg also emphasized the importance of regulatory compliance assurance. "If we want to ensure that our food is safer, we need to be able to invest in compliance. . . . We need to educate and train our own work force, because we’re asking them to inspect facilities with an eye on prevention and problem-solving— not just effectively writing ‘speeding tickets’ for infractions."

An effective and consistent regulatory system also benefits food producers by providing regulatory certainty and maintaining consumer confidence in food safety. Unfortunately, there are plenty of illustrations of the unanticipated costs of allowing contaminated food to reach consumers. Only two months ago, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced the recall of ground turkey linked to a salmonella outbreak that sickened over 100 and killed at least one. In response to the outbreak, the producer of the ground turkey, Cargill Meat Solutions, issued a voluntary recall of its product and closed operations to conduct inspections. As a result, the company was forced to lay off employees at its Springdale, AR, plant. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced Sept. 29 that salmonella cases are still being reported.

It can be easy to take our food safety systems for granted until high-profile outbreaks and recalls highlight remaining weaknesses and regulatory failures. The need for effective rules, inspections, and enforcement has never been more evident. Consumers are counting on policymakers and regulators to strengthen food safety efforts and prevent the devastating consequences of foodborne illness outbreaks in the future.

Image in teaser by flickr user News21-usa, used under a Creative Commons license.

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