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People often ask me how I manage to eat, given what I do for a living.  It’s true—by all rights, I should be starving. As the lead author of the new report just released from Center for Science in the Public Interest, The Ten Riskiest Foods Regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, today is another day when I’ll have a tough time putting anything in my mouth.

We’ve been hearing the incessant drumbeat of foodborne illness for years. For this new report, CSPI analyzed foodborne-illness outbreak data compiled since 1990, and finds that these ten foods—some of America’s favorites, mind you—account for almost 40 percent of all the outbreaks linked to FDA-regulated foods.  To put that in context, picture your local grocery store.  Remove the fresh butcher case, the packaged meats, and the poultry, and nearly everything left in that store is regulated by FDA. Want to avoid the riskiest foods left in the store?  Take out leafy greens, eggs, tuna, oysters, potatoes, cheese, ice cream, tomatoes, sprouts, and berries: the culprits in 40 percent of foodborne illness outbreaks from FDA-regulated products.  If you had eggs for breakfast and salad for lunch, you’ve already had numbers 2 and 1 respectively.

Unfortunately for consumers, many of the foods containing dangerous pathogens are not usually cooked, or are routinely undercooked—so the pathogens are not destroyed. In many ways, the food industry is like the automobile industry: sure, consumers can practice defensive driving, but if the car is primed to explode in a crash, we’re doomed.

This is not to say that all the problems are with FDA.  Meat, poultry, and other animal products—regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)—have their fair share of problems too, and it would be hugely disrespectful to the families of those who have experienced the devastating effects or have died from eating a contaminated hamburger to suggest otherwise. Even just looking only at FDA-regulated products for today, we all should be wondering: what in the world is safe to eat anymore?

Let me explain about the numbers in this report.  CSPI analyzed data only from those outbreaks that had both an identified source (the food) and an identified pathogen (e.g., Salmonella, E. coli O157:H7).  If a hundred people got Salmonella but the health department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) couldn’t determine what food they all ate, it was not included.  So it’s safe to assume that the outbreaks and illnesses discussed in the report are the tip of the iceberg of foodborne illness in this country.  In fact, experts at CDC say that for every reported case of salmonellosis, another 38 cases go unreported.

Of the outbreaks analyzed for this report, one of the best foods for you nutritionally turns out to be the riskiest in terms of foodborne illness: leafy greens.  Though it was the 2006 spinach outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 that really put leafy greens on the map as a high-risk food, the truth is that everything about large-scale leafy green agriculture makes it a perfect vehicle for pathogens. Big leafy-greens production is similar to ground beef production, the longtime standard-bearer for E. coli contamination.  One infected cow can, during grinding, contaminate thousands of pounds of ground beef.  Similarly, bring one head of contaminated lettuce to a cleaning tank with thousands of others—the ultimate tossed salad—and pathogens can spread throughout the washing system. Although all manner of chlorine rinses and other high-tech interventions can be applied at this stage, scientists have used a tracking device called Germ-Glow that showed the pathogens remain in the wash tanks—and bind themselves to the greens—from one lot to another, out to a full day’s production.

We can’t avoid facing the realities about foodborne illness. We have to think about it, because we can’t avoid it. We have to eat—most of us—several times a day.  Think about how many individual food items went into your mouth today.  Count everything, even the condiments. That’s approximately how many different items need to be safe for you not to get sick today. We can’t avoid food safety, ignore it, or wish it away.  And we shouldn’t be waiting for the next big outbreak (of peppers, peanuts, cookie dough) to get serious about it.

Consumers can practice defensive eating” at home to minimize their risk.  Frequent and proper handwashing, separate cutting boards for meat and produce, and cooking foods to proper internal temperatures are good places to start.  But ultimately, we must rely on food producers to provide us with safe food.  Which is why Congress needs to step in.  The food laws currently on the books are over 100 years old.  They were written in a different time, literally. If the laws governing automobiles still assumed that all vehicles were horse-drawn, that would be a problem, wouldn’t it?  So are food laws that assume things are as bucolic as they were a century ago, rather than as they are now in agri-business.

The House passed H.R. 2749, the Food Safety Enhancement Act, on July 30, 2009. It would make great strides toward modernizing the food safety system, by ensuring food processors design and implement food safety plans, providing for safety standards for food production and processing, and requiring FDA to visit high-risk plants every 6 to 12 months, and most other facilities every 3 to 4 years.  The bill also put new safeguards in place for imported foods, making importers ensure that foreign food meets the same high safety standards as domestically grown and processed food. The Senate now needs to pass S. 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act.  And Congress should complete its critical work on food safety legislation before the end of this year.

Until then, consumers will be rolling the dice—three times a day.

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