Skip to main content
Kirsten Gillibrand's picture

As the mother of two young boys, food safety is extremely important to me, as I know it is to all of you. I'm sorry to say though, that right now, the statistics are startling. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), every year an estimated 87 million Americans are sickened by contaminated food, 371,000 are hospitalized with food-borne illness, and 5,700 die from food-related disease. Of these illnesses, 1 million are caused by salmonella and another 70,000 are due to E. coli.

According to a recent report from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 1 out of every 300 samples of ground beef contain E. coli. And while the number of annual recalls nationally of ground beef and other beef products contaminated with E. coli is in the double digits, there is no federal requirement for meat grinders to test the raw beef they receive from slaughterhouses for E. coli.

Contaminated food is particularly a threat to our children whose school cafeterias are too often the unwitting host of food borne bacteria. USA Today recently released a study that found that more than 470 outbreaks of food-borne illness at schools between 1998 and 2007 sickened at least 23,000 children.

In America, in 2009, it is unconscionable that food is still going straight to our kitchens, school cafeterias and restaurants without being properly tested to ensure its safety. It’s time for a new approach to food safety regulations that focuses on preventing outbreaks before they start and more quickly preventing further illness when an outbreak is detected. That's why I’ve proposed a comprehensive plan to overhaul the country’s food safety laws for the first time in over a century.

First, we must strengthen inspection and surveillance.
The cornerstone of my plan is a bill I authored called the E. Coli Eradication Act, which would require all slaughterhouses and ground beef plants to test their products regularly before they are ground.

As The New York Times recently reported:

The bill, the E. Coli Eradication Act of 2009, is focused on the slaughterhouse trimmings and other meat components commonly used to make ground beef. It would require testing at the slaughterhouses and then at grinding facilities before the trimmings are mixed.

A few companies, including the retail giant Costco, already test incoming trimmings at their grinding facilities, but most of the industry relies on slaughterhouses to test their own trim. Grinders that do their own spot checks typically wait to test the finished product after the trim is mixed, which prevents identifying the source of contamination.

Currently there is no federal requirement for companies to test incoming trim. It is time to employ the best practices across the industry.

It should be noted that ground beef isn’t the only food infecting people with E. coli and salmonella. Fruits and vegetables can also be contaminated. That’s why we must also overhaul the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ensure the agency has the tools and the resources to keep our foods safe. The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act would make comprehensive improvements to the safety of fruits and vegetables by increasing food inspections, providing federal access to records of food facilities, and employing high quality testing labs to ensure the safety of our food.

Second, we must improve the safety of imported food. 15 percent of America’s overall food supply is imported from overseas, including 60 percent of fruits and vegetables and 80 percent of seafood. America imports $5.2 billion worth of food from China alone – including 10 percent of our shrimp. To ensure that the safety of food we import matches the standards of food grown and processed here at home, I have called on the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to prioritize the hiring of additional inspectors to protect consumers from contaminated imported food.

Third, we must improve recall response. A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report revealed that food items being pulled off of grocery store shelves are still being served to millions of schoolchildren through the federal school lunch program. I have introduced legislation called the Safe Food for Schools Act that would ensure that schools are swiftly alerted when foods are contaminated. I will also work with my colleagues to give the FDA the authority to order mandatory recalls of food products when companies fail to voluntarily recall the product upon the FDA’s request. Right now, all recalls are voluntary – an arrangement that protects the companies, not the public.

Lastly, we must improve public education and ensure that information about food-borne illnesses and recalls are distributed accurately and efficiently. I am authoring the Consumer Recall Notification Act – legislation that would improve communication among states, state and local health departments, food distributors and vendors to provide consumers with faster and more complete information. For example, we must post all recall notices on the very grocery store shelves and freezers where a recalled product would have been bought. This will help consumers receive vital information in a timely manner.

We need to do a better job of catching contaminated food before it ever comes close to a kitchen table, a school cafeteria or a restaurant. It's imperative that parents throughout the country have confidence that the food they serve their kids at home and the food they're getting at school are safe.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of strongly encourages our readers to post comments in response to blog posts. We value diversity of opinions and perspectives. Our goals for this space are to be educational, thought-provoking, and respectful. So we actively moderate comments and we reserve the right to edit or remove comments that undermine these goals. Thanks!