Is Our Food Safety Process Broken?

April 30, 2015
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by Jason M. Breslow Digital Editor

A grocery store manager arranges packages of pork in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Each year in the United States, a staggering 48 million people become sick with a foodborne illness. Roughly 128,000 end up in the hospital, and 3,000 die.

Many of those illnesses can be traced back to the meat we eat. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 22 percent of food-related illnesses and 29 percent of deaths are attributable to meat and poultry.

On Tuesday, a new report from the Consumer Federation of America put a share of the blame on what it described as “ongoing challenges” with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s primary food safety program.

A Failure to Develop Effective Food Safety Plans

In the U.S., meat and poultry that is sold to consumers comes with a USDA seal that reads, “inspected and passed.” But as the study points out, government inspectors are not inspecting every single piece of meat that winds up in the grocery store.

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has more than 7,000 inspectors in meat and poultry plants across the U.S., but through an inspection program known as the Pathogen Reduction/Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, or PR/HACCP, companies are asked to identify for themselves points along the production chain that might leave food open to contamination. The program was originally pioneered for the relatively small amounts of food that NASA astronauts would take with them to space; meat and poultry producers later adopted it on a mass scale.

The trouble, according to the report, “is that too often plants fail to adequately design their HACCP plans,” leaving the U.S. exposed to an estimated $7 billion per year in illness-related costs.

For example, the HACCP system until recently did not require plants to treat salmonella as a “hazard likely to occur” and does not currently designate specific strains of E. coli as a hazard. (E. coli 0157:H7, an illness-causing strain, does have to be accounted for.) And in cases when plants choose not to identify particular pathogens as a hazards, they are not obligated to address them.

This gap in federal standards, the report argues, was on display in a nationwide outbreak of antibiotic-resistant salmonella that sickened 634 people across 29 states — 38 percent of whom were hospitalized. The outbreak was eventually linked to the California-based poultry producer Foster Farms, which had not designated salmonella as a hazard that is reasonably likely to occur — even though an investigation by the FSIS later found that nearly a quarter of poultry samples tested positive for it.

HACCP plans are submitted to the FSIS for review, but the agency is not required to approve the plans, so plants are largely free to determine what is and is not a hazard. Nonetheless, the FSIS “has repeatedly refused to consider” recommendations to approve such plans, the study notes, “saying that approval of HACCP plans goes against the ‘philosophy of HACCP.'”

Few Consequences for Repeat Offenders

Another area of concern, according to the report, is that food-processing plants are frequently cited for recurring safety violations with little if any consequence.

From 2008 to 2011, for example, the FSIS issued 44,128 noncompliance records to 616 plants participating in a swine inspection pilot program. However, only 28 plants were ever suspended, despite an inspector’s general report that found “some plants repeated violations as egregious as fecal matter on previously cleaned carcasses.” Moreover, the inspector general found that a fifth of noncompliance reports at the 20 most cited plants were for repeat violations.

“USDA needs to provide better assurance that plants are reducing contamination of meat and poultry products and that the agency is effectively enforcing its regulations,” said Chris Waldrop, the report’s author and director of the Consumer Federation’s Food Policy Institute. “Enforceable standards would allow the agency to take decisive action when a problem is first identified rather than after an outbreak has already occurred.”

In a statement to FRONTLINE, FSIS spokesman Adam Tarr said that the agency “is continually taking steps to improve the effectiveness of HACCP, including recently requiring all poultry slaughter plants to consider salmonella to be a hazard likely to occur in their HACCP plans.”

Strengthened efforts on the part of the agency, Tarr added, resulted in nearly 33,000 fewer cases of salmonella from USDA-regulated products in 2014, and approximately 41,000 fewer illnesses from three major pathogens — salmonella, E.Coli 0157:H7 and listeria monocytogenes — in products regulated by FSIS.

“Overall, Americans eat 285 billion servings of meat and poultry per year and 99.99 percent of them are consumed safely,” said Mark Dopp, senior vice president of regulatory affairs and general counsel for the North American Meat Institute, in a statement to FRONTLINE. The Consumer Federation report, he said, failed to highlight “many significant food safety improvements,” including “a 93 percent reduction of E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef since 2000, significant reductions in salmonella across a majority of meat and poultry products and a greater than 80 percent reduction in listeria monocytogenes in ready-eat-meat products.”

Nevertheless, lawmakers in Congress have introduced calls for more oversight of the nation’s food safety. One bill, introduced jointly from Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) would establish a single food safety agency to consolidate the oversight that is currently shared by 15 separate government offices, including the FSIS. But passage in the face of industry pushback and turf battles among sparring agencies is far from certain.

In the meantime, said Waldrop, the risks in the inspection process are not going away, and regulators are unlikely to act more aggressively to close problematic plants.

“It takes a pretty substantial problem,” said Waldrop. “They can make those threats and the plants tend to respond but it’s never really a decisive action.”

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