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From E. coli-infected romaine lettuce to Salmonella-tainted beef, contaminated foods lead to illnesses that sicken as many as 1 in 6 Americans annually. In 2018, this epidemic helped spur major recalls, which caused stores and restaurants to toss millions of pounds of meat and produce. CoPIRG Foundation’s new report How Safe is Our Food?, released today, reveals how fundamental flaws in our current food safety system have led to a jump in these recalls since 2013.
“The food we nourish our bodies with shouldn’t pose a serious health risk. But systemic failures mean we’re often rolling the dice when we go grocery shopping or eat out,” said Danny Katz, CoPIRG Foundation director. “We can prevent serious health risks by using common sense protections from farm to fork.”
According to data on food-borne illnesses from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), from 2013 to 2017 Colorado experienced 186 outbreaks, 5,021 illnesses, 924 hospitalizations, and 19 deaths. However, these numbers only reflect what was reported.
Since the passage of the nation’s last significant food safety law, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) in 2011, many types of food recalls have increased substantially. While better science and more thorough investigations under FSMA account for some of the increased recalls, CoPIRG Foundation found serious gaps in the food safety system throughout the same time period.
Key findings from this year’s report include:
- An 83 percent increase in meat and poultry recalls that can cause serious health problems: US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Class 1 recalls “involve a health hazard situation in which there is a reasonable probability that eating the food will cause health problems or death.” This includes recalls of beef for E. coli, poultry for Salmonella, and others.
- Food recalls overall increased by 10 percent between 2013-2018: From crackers to children’s cereal to lettuce to meat, we’ve seen the total number of food recalls increase over the last six years.
- Archaic laws allow meat producers to sell contaminated products: It is currently legal to sell meat that tests positive for dangerous strains of Salmonella. A case study of the recent recall of 12 million pounds of beef sold by JBS could likely have been prevented if it this policy was changed.
- Bacteria-contaminated water used on vegetables and produce: A case study helps demonstrate how irrigation water polluted by fecal matter from a nearby cattle feedlot likely contaminated romaine lettuce with E. coli in the spring of 2018.
- Some food recalls did not remove potentially dangerous food off shelves fast enough: A case study on the salmonella outbreak involving Honey Smacks cereal found that even though at least 135 people were made ill and 34 were hospitalized, potentially contaminated boxes were found on store shelves two months after a recall was issued.
“These recalls are a warning to everyone that something is rotten in our fields and slaughterhouses. Government agencies need to make sure that the food that reaches people’s mouths won’t make them sick,” finished Katz.
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