Feds Playing Politics with Food Safety is Enough to Make You Sick | Civil Eats

Feds Playing Politics with Food Safety is Enough to Make You Sick

Rarely does the mainstream media bother to connect the dots when it comes to our broken food safety system. Consider these two recent headlines:

• Foodborne Outbreaks Falling Short of U.S. Reduction Goals

• USDA to purchase $170 million worth of meat to help farmers struggling with drought

The latter story celebrating government action to “help farmers”—prompted by this U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) press release—was trumpeted by major media outlets across the nation without any questions raised. Of course American farmers need help during times of drought and that effort is well worth supporting, but is the indiscriminate buying up of meat really the best and only idea the feds can come up with?

What else have you got, Mr. President? Where is the action on issues that will actually impact the nation’s food supply, like our lax food safety oversight? Lately, the administration has been lacking “commitment” in preventing foodborne illness outbreaks. Why stop at PR-driven offerings of economic support when the nation’s public health is at risk?

Data Shows Lack of Food Safety Progress

Last month the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released its annual foodborne illness data and the numbers are less than encouraging. Here is how Food Safety News reported it:

While the data showed a promising five-year decline of E. coli O157:H7 and Shigella infections since 2007, infection rates stagnated or slightly grew for a number of other notable bacteria, including Salmonella, Campylobacter and Listeria.

Specifically, Salmonella, Campylobacter and Listeria continue to infect in numbers well beyond 2010 goals set by the federal government. Included in the USDA drought purchase is $50 million in “chicken products.” Guess where Salmonella and Campylobacter are commonly found? Poultry products.

The only good news coming from the CDC is the decline in E. coli 0157, which is largely due to that form of bacteria being designated as an “adulterant” by USDA, which makes it illegal to sell contaminated meat. Not so of either Salmonella or Campylobacter, thanks to a meat industry that likes it that way, as I wrote about last year. This same meat industry is now receiving $170 million in government largesse in the name of “drought relief.” How about a little “bacteria relief,” Mr. President?

Produce Recalls and Demise of Testing Program

Of course meat is hardly the only food to worry about getting sick from these days. Everything from spinach to melon to sprouts has caused death and illness. Just to name a few recent alarming recalls:

We’ll bring the news to you.

Get the weekly Civil Eats newsletter, delivered to your inbox.

  • Cantaloupe – 189,000 melons, recently expanded to “all of this growing season’s cantaloupes and honeydew melons distributed in 18 states because they may be contaminated with Listeria;”
  • Cilantro – 1,643 cases recalled, suspected of Salmonella contamination;
  • Apples – 293,488 cases and 296,224 individual units of fruit, vegetable and sandwich products that may be contaminated with Listeria.

For bonus points, included on the list of places where those apples slices went? McDonald’s–just in time for the inclusion of apple slices in all Happy Meals. (Burger King is also included in the recall.) This is the danger of industrialized fruit production: one bug can get shipped nationwide.

We do have at least one program that actually works to prevent such outbreaks. Yet it now represents another failure of the Obama Administration on food safety: witness the impending demise of the Microbiological Data Program (MDP), a critical $5 million fresh produce testing program tucked away at the USDA.

As I wrote about in February, the fresh produce industry has worked its lobbying magic to get Congress to cut the program. Seems those pesky recalls didn’t sit well with the likes of Dole and Del Monte. So far, the Obama Administration has given MDP a six-month reprieve but did not request funding in next year’s budget, so the program remains on life support. This, despite multiple outbreaks being prevented by early detection thanks to the cost-efficient program. Dan Flynn, editor of Food Safety News, says that “Big Fresh has the blood on its hands,” and gives industry credit for “killing the nation’s only produce surveillance program.”

Food Outbreaks Change Lives Forever

Let’s not forget last year’s devastating listeria outbreak in cantaloupe that killed at least 30 and infected 146 across 28 states. These are real people whose lives were changed forever by the simple act of eating a melon. Here is how food safety attorney Bill Marler (and publisher of Food Safety News), who is representing some of the victims and their families, describes the devastation:

Every person and family has a story–all of them quite horrible and heroic. If we told them one by one, they would take up every page of Food Safety News through the end of the year… These families collectively have incurred to date over $8 million in medical bills… If you then add in the pain of the loss of a spouse or living your life with the after effects of Listeria meningitis, you are talking much, much more.

Where is President Obama’s “commitment” to these families?

Whither the Food Safety Modernization Act Regulations?

The Obama Administration has also been stalling on long overdue food safety regulations. The Food Safety Modernization Act was enacted in 2010 to expand the authority of the Food and Drug Administration, but the regulations needed to implement the law have been languishing for months at the White House.

Of course, things won’t be any better if the Romney-Ryan team takes over. As Food Safety News reported recently, Congressman Ryan voted against the Food Safety Modernization Act, despite strong bipartisan support for the bill.

Thank you for being a loyal reader.

We rely on you. Become a member today to read unlimited stories.

But don’t expect President Obama to make food safety part of his reelection campaign. His administration is far too skittish to do anything that smacks of regulating business, apparently even if lives are at stake. How many more outbreaks will occur while the President continues to play politics with the safety our nation’s food supply?

Postscript: Since filing this article, the federal government has reported that two people have died and 141 were made sick from salmonella, in yet another cantaloupe outbreak, this one in 20 states.

Photo: Hamburger, by Shutterstock

Originally published by the Center for Food Safety

Michele Simon is a public health lawyer specializing in food industry marketing and lobbying tactics and author of Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines our Health and How to Fight Back. She is also the president of Eat Drink Politics, a consulting firm on food and beverage industry tactics, based in Oakland. You can follow her blog and find her on Twitter. Read more >

Like the story?
Join the conversation.

  1. Lauren Bush
    Thanks for highlighting this issue, Michele! As a food borne illness victim of e-coli 0157 several years ago myself, it is important not to let this fall by the wayside. I was part of the movement to pass the Food Safety Modernization Act and I grow impatient with the Administration's lack of focus in finding funds. Food is not an option or something we can choose and CLEAN food is a basic right we all deserve. Thanks again!
  2. If you work it backwards, private money flowing into Congress is the source of most of our country's problems. It greases Congressmen to vote for legislation that is favorable to the payer. I blame not so much the people in Congress, than I do the system that allows it.
      Better late than never, Joe Arrigo. I have to reply to something you said: The people in Congress are all adults who have absolutely no excuses. No matter how corrupt the system that allows Congress to do what they should not do, they cannot shift the blame on the system. Congress built the system to be what it is and is not, make no excuses for them.

More from

Food Safety


hickens gather around a feeder at a farm on August 9, 2014 in Osage, Iowa. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

What Happened to Antibiotic-Free Chicken?

With the biggest poultry company in the country backtracking and other commitments to raising healthier birds unmet, the future is rockier than it once seemed.


Nik Sharma Offers His Top Tips for Home Cooks to Fight Recipe Fatigue

Nik Sharma baking at left, and tossing a chickpea dish at right. (Photo credit: Nik Sharma)

Far From Home, the Curry Leaf Tree Thrives

Zee Lilani of Kula Nursery stands among her curry leaf tree starts in Oakland, California. (Photo credit: Melati Citrawireja)

A Guide to Climate-Conscious Grocery Shopping

Changing How We Farm Might Protect Wild Mammals—and Fight Climate Change

A red fox in a Connecticut farm field. (Photo credit: Robert Winkler, Getty Images)