Expert: U.S. Food Inspection Among Best

Jorgen Schlundt, director of food safety, zoonoses and food-borne diseases at the World Health Organization, says that in some ways the U.S. has the best food-inspection practices in the world. He says, however, it could improve oversight of how food is produced.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This year's salmonella outbreak with peanuts follows last year's salmonella scare, initially thought to be linked to tomatoes. Investigators later traced the contamination back to jalapenos. Before that, it was spinach and E. coli. And we wondered how the U.S. compares with other countries when it comes to food safety and inspection. Jorgen Schlundt is director of food safety with the World Health Organization. He joins us from Geneva. Thanks for being with us.

Dr. JORGEN SCHLUNDT (Director of Food Safety, World Health Organization): You're welcome.

BLOCK: And can you point to one country that you would consider to be the gold standard for food safety?

Dr. SCHLUNDT: No, we don't have that. We have countries that have tried to introduce new systems, and they have improved their systems, and therefore, also, they have less disease. But we have very, very poor measurements as to that.

BLOCK: Poor measurements because?

Dr. SCHLUNDT: Most countries don't really link disease cases directly to the food that people got sick from. This is something that's relatively new, that it's - many countries are now getting better at doing that. So we will see more and more cases where human cases can be linked to some specific food.

BLOCK: Where would you say the U.S. falls in the continuum of food safety and food inspection around the world?

Dr. SCHLUNDT: In a number of areas, U.S. is in the forefront, especially over the last 10, 20 years. There has been some new concepts where you go to the industry and say, you know, we have a common responsibility. We should look into your system and improve it. And - but in other areas, maybe some of the European countries in the northern Europe are more in the forefront. Actually, following the directions of the U.S. from the mid '90s where it was said that it's very important to look at the whole food production chain all the way from farm to fork.

BLOCK: Farm to fork means you're overseeing the entire food production system?

Dr. SCHLUNDT: You try to oversee the food system. Because what happens, for instance, in the peanuts or in the spinach cases is that you use animal manure on the farm, and animal manure can also contain salmonella bacteria. And then if you don't do it in a sensible way, you end up with a salmonella bacteria in the kitchen, and people eat them and some will get sick.

BLOCK: You know, for American consumers who are looking at these repeated food safety problems, one after the other, with some basic foods that we all eat. They're listening to this and thinking, if we're considered at the top of the pack and we're still having all these problems, something is really wrong.

Dr. SCHLUNDT: I wouldn't say that something is really wrong, but I would say that something could be changed in many, many countries, and also in the U.S. to improve the situation dramatically. You know, if we were really going after the big problem foods and if we were using new technology to make sure that we understand what the connection is between the food and diseaseā€¦

BLOCK: What are you talking about when you say new technology?

Dr. SCHLUNDT: Well, the new technologies are, for instance, in the U.S. you now have a very efficient system that can link different cases. I mean, you can take some cases in Kentucky, and some in Ohio and some in California, and you can link them together because they're caused by the same salmonella. You couldn't do that before and you can't do that in many other countries.

BLOCK: But again, you're still talking about identifying a problem after there's been contamination, not about preventing the contamination in the first place.

Dr. SCHLUNDT: Yeah, but preventing the contamination, for instance, in this case, would be that we say, okay, where does it originally come from? And we know that we use animal manure in many, many different places in agriculture production. Then we should change the rules that are defining how we use animal manure. But you cannot say that the more you test, the more safe it is. That is really not the case. You have to go to the way that you're producing food and then improve that way, and that's the real way of getting rid of the food-borne disease cases.

BLOCK: Jorgen Schlundt is director of food safety with the World Health Organization in Geneva. Thanks so much for being with us.

Dr. SCHLUNDT: You're welcome.

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