Public Health

Questions Hang Over Safety Of Nation's Food Supply

Eggs were at the center of a big salmonella outbreak in 2010 that brought more attention to food safety. i i

Eggs were at the center of a big salmonella outbreak in 2010 that brought more attention to food safety. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Eggs were at the center of a big salmonella outbreak in 2010 that brought more attention to food safety.

Eggs were at the center of a big salmonella outbreak in 2010 that brought more attention to food safety.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Just when you thought it was safe to pull up to a table to eat, infectious disease expert Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota says think again.

Sure, the FDA Food Safety Mobilization Act was signed into law in early January. And double-sure, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this winter came out with lower estimates of how many people wind up in the hospital — or dead — because of food they ate.

But there's a story behind those stories, Osterholm argues in a piece just published by the New England Journal of Medicine.

First, the food safety legislation. After a tortuous, years-long ride through Congress, interest groups ranging from food manufacturers to consumer advocates finally cheered its passage.

But Osterholm — and others – point out that while the stars may seem aligned, there's something missing: enough money for more inspections of food processing plants and check-ups of food manufacturers' safety plans. The Food and Drug Administration asked for $326 million for new food safety activities in its next budget. But Republican leaders have been expressing great reluctance about coming up with the dough.

And then there's the issue of how many people actually get sick. In 1999, the CDC estimated 76 million illnesses a year, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths. In the CDC's latest estimate published last month, all the numbers are down: 48 million illnesses, 128,000 hospitalizations, and 3,000 deaths.

Hooray hooray? Nope, says Osterholm. Different methods and underlying assumptions were used to come up with each set of numbers, and so "we cannot draw inferences," he writes. And the CDC acknowledges the different estimates can't be used to call a trend..

So with the FDA maybe not getting enough money to pay for the enforcement of new food rules, and with food-borne illnesses maybe not down quite as much as you might have first thought, what's an eater to do?

Same as it ever was — clean, separate, cook, and chill. That is, make sure your food is prepared in a clean environment, don't use the same tools to work with raw and cooked foods, cook to proper temperature, and refrigerate promptly.

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