According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in six Americans becomes sick every year after consuming contaminated foods or beverages. In 2018, at least 22 foodborne illness outbreaks have been investigated by the CDC, with many more recalls and warnings being reported in the mainstream media. From romaine lettuce to whole turkeys and even pet food, the general consensus is that our food supply may not be as safe as we thought. Or is it?
There are three main types of contaminants that can cause unsafe food: biological, chemical, and physical. Cases of foodborne illness like listeria and E.coli are caused by bacteria that can be found in contaminated water or soil. They often show up in undercooked meat and in raw vegetables. So while studies have found that those who replace meat with plant-based foods have a 20% lower mortality rate, vegetarians and vegans still need to be careful.
Not even our four-legged friends are necessarily safe. In addition to the lettuce, cauliflower, beef, eggs, vegetables, and even processed foods that were recalled over the last year, there’s a growing list of cat food and dog food brands that have experienced FDA recalls, too. That’s certainly unwelcome news for the 44% of households in the U.S. that own dogs, but it’s frightening for everyone who thinks they know what’s in their food. And while not all of the recalls were due to bacterial outbreaks, a lot of Americans are wondering: what’s the deal? And should we be worried all the time?
The Food and Drug Administration says no. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb recently told CNN that it’s actually our technological improvements that are to blame. As we become better at detecting these unsafe instances, widespread reporting increases — thus why we feel like food contamination is worsening. The FDA says that our current surveillance and technology systems can better detect and respond to outbreaks than we could decades prior, which means that more recalls are happening and the public perception is one of confusion and slight panic. And it’s certainly true that the number of U.S. infections from foodborne pathogens has decreased by 30% since 1996. The FDA has also been granted additional power thanks to the Food Safety Modernization Act, meaning the agency is paying closer attention to (and taking action against) unsanitary locations.
However, the FDA’s public statement conspicuously leaves out the fact that legislation created by the FDA during the Obama administration — which would have required the resting of farming irrigation sources to identify sources of contamination — has been put on hold by the current administration.
Wired reported: “Six months before people were sickened by the contaminated romaine, President Donald Trump’s FDA — responding to pressure from the farm industry and Trump’s order to eliminate regulations — shelved the water-testing rules for at least four years… Despite this deadly outbreak, the FDA has shown no sign of reconsidering its plan to postpone the rules. The agency also is considering major changes, such as allowing some produce growers to test less frequently or find alternatives to water testing to ensure the safety of their crops.”
Ultimately, it may be at least partially good news that we’re seeing more reports of outbreaks; if nothing else, this allows consumers to protect themselves and become more aware of the issues facing farmers and suppliers. But chalking up the entire issue to public perception and improvements in technology may be leaving out a critical piece of the puzzle.