7 Things We Learned About Food Safety Oversight From A Foodborne Illness Expert

Foodborne illness outbreaks have dominated the news in recent months: E. coli and norovirus at Chipotlelisteria in prepackaged Dole salad mixes, and salmonella in cucumbers. These outbreaks have sickened — and in some cases killed — consumers,  and one food safety expert says that inadequate safety oversight is at least partly to blame.

Bill Marler, a lawyer specializing in food-borne illness, shared his insights and observations on the food safety industry after working in it, or alongside it, for more than 30 years with the Washington Post.

In the interview, Marler touches on just how perplexing the foods safety industry is, and why consumers often prefer to forgive and forget after outbreaks.

The piece offers a wealth of information on why the system could be improved and why things are they way they are. While you should check out the interview, we’ve compilied seven things you should know about the way our food is monitored.

1. Different considerations for different pathogens: Current food safety laws allow for the recall of “adulterated” meat products containing poisons, toxic pesticides, unsafe food additives, or any “deleterious substance which may render it injurious to health.” But since bacteria, even some that may be harmful, is commonly found on raw meat, the presence of a pathogen does not automatically mean it’s adulterated.

But in the wake of the deadly 1993 E. coli outbreak at the Jack In The Box burger chain, the USDA declared that E. coli is an adulterant in hamburger meat. The beef industry fought the decision, but a court ultimately upheld the USDA’s decision.

2. Salmonella is one of the biggest health threats to consumers: Because it’s not considered an adulterant, you’ll find salmonella on raw chicken products regulated by the USDA. However, salmonella is a no-no on food items overseen by the FDA.

Part of the reason salmonella outbreaks aren’t always treated with the same urgency as those involving E. coli, is because there hasn’t been a crisis like there was at Jack in the Box, Marler says.

That’s not to say there haven’t been large salmonella outbreaks. In 2013, hundreds of people from all over the country got sick from eating salmonella-tainted chicken from large poultry producer Foster Farms. But falling ill from eating food cooked at home doesn’t seem to carry the stigma of food poisoning from a big-name restaurant chain.

When it comes to salmonella, the mentality, Marler says, is that there’s really nothing that can be done about it, “it’s really the consumer that is at fault if anybody gets sick, it’s their problem.”

3. The system works, but then again it doesn’t: The public health system is made up of 51 separate departments of public health — the CDC and 50 states.

But that doesn’t mean the system isn’t safe. In fact, Marler puts the U.S. food safety system in the middle of the road: not the safest, but not the worst in the world.

4. It’s not always about the why: To Marler, the U.S. does a good job of monitoring foodborne illnesses. But like the case with Chipotle, it doesn’t necessarily find the root cause, it just keeps track of people who have positive stool cultures. But that isn’t always enough.

5. A lack of manpower: The government lacks sufficient resources to allow for a level of inspection that should be required for products.

For example, while there is one inspector for every meat plant in the U.S. – overseen by the USDA – there is a much smaller number of inspectors working on the FDA side, which oversees 80% of U.S. food supplies and imports, and has a much smaller crew of inspectors.

“Most of the foodborne illness outbreaks that I have been involved in over the past 20 or 30 years, most of the manufacturing facilities have never had an FDA inspector in them,” Marler says.

6. Half-hearted backup: Third-party audits are also part of the system: companies like Walmart, Costco, and McDonald’s tell their supply chains they need to pay for an audit of their businesses.

So in essence, the companies are paying for their own audits, and according to Marler this is a problem because the “likelihood that you’re going to get a bad or unfavorable audit is remarkably close to zero.”

7. Outbreaks are a result of a broken system: Foodborne illness outbreaks vary in size, causes, and responses depending on where they start. But, Marler says that each issue is more or less the result of a system that allows these things to happen in the first place.

Why a top food poisoning expert won’t ever eat these foods [The Washington Post]