Over the past few months, food-borne illness outbreaks linked to E. coli and salmonella in seafood and produce have sickened hundreds of people nationwide and, tragically, killed at least two children.
If you’ve never been touched by the debilitating – and, at times, deadly – effects of consuming contaminated food, count yourself among the fortunate. For me, these ongoing outbreaks hit close to home. In January 2009, my mother died in Ohio after eating contaminated peanut butter.
As part of her nightly routine, she would make herself a peanut butter sandwich. But right around the New Year, days after eating another typical late-evening snack, she became ill and was rushed to the hospital because she was suffering from kidney failure. Soon she developed sepsis, which began to poison her organs.
Tests revealed she was sickened with salmonella found in a newly opened jar of peanut butter. My family and I watched helplessly as doctors told us there was nothing we could do as she suffered for another week before passing away.
Unfortunately, my family’s experience is not unique. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year, 1 in 6 Americans – 48 million people – suffers from a foodborne illness, resulting in more than 120,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. However, regulations that would greatly improve the safety of our food remain stuck in political limbo.
In an effort to combat this public health risk, in January 2011 President Barack Obama signed into law the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, the first update to our nation’s food safety framework since the Great Depression. Under the law, common sense approaches to preventing foodborne illness outbreaks would be put into place.
The new law requires every food manufacturer to identify potential food safety problems, adopt practices to avoid any dangers and keep records of those steps that can be reviewed by government inspectors. In addition, the law sets landmark safeguards that will improve oversight of imported food products, which is especially important considering that two-thirds of the fruits and vegetables we eat – as well as 80 percent of the seafood – come from abroad.
Despite widespread support for the FDA food safety law from Republicans and Democrats as well as food safety advocates and industry representatives, the White House has needlessly delayed important rules to implement these preventive safeguards.
But the rules are not the only roadblock to making food safety a reality. It is also still unclear whether sufficient funding will be available for the FDA to do its job and implement these rules once they are finalized. Congress is currently considering appropriations bills that will fund FDA’s new food safety responsibilities, but it is unlikely the agency will see much of an increase – despite the additional workload.
The public overwhelmingly supports strong food safety laws and adequate funding for this core function of government. A nationwide poll conducted last year by the Pew Health Group found that 66 percent of likely voters support additional funding for the FDA to carry out new responsibilities related to food safety and that 74 percent believe it is worth a 1 percent to 3 percent increase in the cost of food to pay for additional protections under the new law.
Summer is the peak time for food-borne illness outbreaks. All of our parents, children, siblings and relatives remain at risk unless the White House and Congress act. Hopefully, with the right safeguards in place, you and your loved ones will never have to experience the devastating consequences of foodborne illness as my family did.
Randy Napier lives in Raleigh.