About 48 million Americans, one in six, get sick each year from tainted food, including 128,000 who have to be hospitalized and 3,000 who die, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The new estimates, issued last week, are timely. Legislation that would strengthen the Food and Drug Administration's role in preventing foodborne illness is close to final passage but also in trouble in Congress.The bill was part of a controversial omnibus spending bill.
Erik D. Olson, director of food programs for the Pew Charitable Trusts' Health Group, hopes to see it revived.
"We believe foodborne illness is preventable if we put our minds to it," Olson said.
In many ways, he said, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act is as big a deal as the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which gained traction from Upton Sinclair's exposé of sickening practices in Chicago slaughterhouses.
We've come a long way since The Jungle, but hazardous conditions such as contaminated rinse water too often get corrected after consumers get sick. And as factory farms and processors ship nationally, if not globally, eggs, lettuce, and hamburger can be as insidious as biological weapons.
"We've focused on tracing back to the source of contamination after the fact," Olson said. "The whole purpose of modernizing the system is to prevent people from getting sick in the first place."
The FDA, which now inspects plants about once a decade, would have to do it more often under the new law. Big producers would be required to have plans for identifying and correcting safety lapses. (Small farms and facilities would be largely exempted.) Imported foods would be subject for the first time to U.S. standards.
The FDA would also have authority to recall foods linked to illness. The need for that was clear last year, when Westco Fruit & Nut Inc. refused for weeks to recall peanut products possibly contaminated with salmonella, even as thousands of consumers nationwide got sick.
Another reason prevention is crucial comes from the CDC report: 80 percent of illness linked to food is due to agents that haven't even been identified.
"We just keep discovering more and more organisms that make people sick," Olson said.