The report, “How Safe is Our Food?”, was released Thursday and listed what the group called fundamental flaws that contribute to the epidemic of recalls, which sicken about one in six Americans each year.
The group found an 83 percent increase in meat and poultry recalls for E. coli, salmonella and other pathogens from 2013 to 2018.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 48 million people get sick from a food-borne illness each year, with 128,000 people hospitalized and 3,000 deaths.
“We have a lot of problems in our food system that can be remedied,” said Viveth Karthikeyan, a consumer watchdog associate for PIRG, at a news conference Thursday in Philadelphia. “Serious health risks are preventable through some commonsense protections."
The group wants more testing of water used for irrigation. It recommends declaring salmonella an adulterant in meat and poultry, to institute mandatory testing for the bacteria. If those products are found contaminated by salmonella and E. coli, they could not be sold to consumers, Karthikeyan said.
A recent recall of 12 million pounds of beef sold by JBS Tolleson, an Arizona meat producer, may have been prevented if the testing policy had been in place, according to the report.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has already implemented that policy regarding raw beef purchased for the National School Lunch Program, he said.
The report recommends meaningful penalties for companies that continue to sell contaminated products that have been recalled. It suggests a path be developed to directly notify customers who purchased the recalled products.
At Thursday’s news conference, Karthikeyan said the effects of the partial government shutdown on food safety are hard to determine and may not fully be known for a year. Even when inspections were ongoing, research showed that systemic failures were happening, he said.
However, some of the Food and Drug Administration workers who have been furloughed because of the shutdown were recently asked to return to work on facilities that produce higher-risk foods.
“The shutdown is putting our food supply at risk,” said Bill Marler, a Seattle-based attorney who specializes in food-borne illness litigation. The FDA doesn’t have enough inspectors, and not having them on the job is just “messing with the system,” he said.
Amanda Micucio, a pediatrician with Jefferson Nemours, is especially worried about one group most susceptible to food-borne illness: kids.
“Food-borne illnesses disproportionately affect children,” Micucio said. For example, diarrhea brought on by contaminated food can lead to serious health problems, such as kidney failure, in a short time in children, she explained.
Micucio recommends washing produce carefully, cooking meats thoroughly and choosing pasteurized products. If parents suspect their child may be sick with any food-borne illness they should contact their doctor immediately, especially if the child has diarrhea.
Brian Dimock, 28, of Bethesda, Md., was one of about 60 people sickened in the 1996 E. coli outbreak that killed one child.
Dimock was 5 when he drank about a half-bottle of unpasteurized Odwalla apple juice from a Colorado Springs bagel store. Later that night, the kindergartner was hospitalized with vomiting and bloody diarrhea. His parents were told he might not survive.
“I hit 98 percent kidney failure,” said Dimock.
It took a while before his doctors were able to determine he was suffering from a food-borne illness. And it was only by chance that the rest of the apple juice, still at home in the family’s refrigerator, was not finished off by his two older brothers.
After 18 days in the hospital, he was sent home. He missed most of the school year. While he does not have any permanent problems with kidney function, he did have some lingering health effects including memory loss and back problems he attributes to his bout with E. coli.
Food safety should be considered a priority, Dimock said.