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Contaminated Food: A More Watchful Eye Needed

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Contaminated Food: A More Watchful Eye Needed

Your Health

Contaminated Food: A More Watchful Eye Needed

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Next, what the Food and Drug Administration is doing to make our food safer. Food contamination causes about 75 million illnesses a year in America, a figure President Obama says is unacceptable. NPR's Joanne Silberner talks with a food inspector and shares some food handling tips to keep us from getting sick.

JOANNE SILBERNER: Imported food faces its first hurdle at ports like this one in Baltimore.

Mr. DEAN COOK (Food and Drug Administration): What you're looking at here is Point Breeze in the Port of Baltimore. And as you look out over the landscape you see literally thousands of containers.

SILBERNER: Dean Cook is a supervisor with the FDA. His office gets a list of what's in these containers - 190,000 food products a year. Candy from Argentina, rice from Thailand, olive oil from Italy, pickles from Vietnam, shrimp from Thailand, crab meat from China.

Before the ships even dock, workers have identified what they want to inspect more closely - about 7,000 products a year. What requires close inspection is brought to a centralized exam site a few miles away.

Mr. COOK: We look for labeling violations. We look for insect infestation. We look for bioterrorism issues.

SILBERNER: For swells or leaks in cans. Workers go over some of the containers with ultraviolet light to look for rodent urine. They pay special attention to products from importers that haven't been tested in a while or have tried to ship contaminated food in the past.

SILBERNER: A staffer opens a carton of soy sauce and picks six bottles at random to send out to an FDA lab for closer analysis - bacteria, pesticide residues, feathers. Detained products that prove to be contaminated or mislabeled are destroyed or returned to the importer.

Mr. COOK: The average detention rate of products in Baltimore district is probably about nine percent of all the products we look at.

SILBERNER: Doesn't that scare you about the products that you don't look at?

Mr. COOK: It does to some extent, but one has to hope that the products that we do target for examination are the ones that create the most health hazard and that's what we hope to accomplish.

SILBERNER: The government estimates that about 325,000 people are hospitalized each year with a food-borne disease; 5000 people die. Sixteen years ago, one of them was the son of Nancy Donley. He ate contaminated meat regulated by the Department of Agriculture, not the FDA. Donley started a group called Safe Tables Our Priority or STOP. And she wants contaminated food to be identified before it gets to the port of Baltimore or anywhere else.

Ms. NANCY DONLEY: We need to have strong standards in place that countries must meet - food safety standards - before they are allowed to ship food to the United States. We don't have that system in place yet.

SILBERNER: And she says, a closer watch is needed on domestically produced food as well. David Acheson of the Food and Drug Administration says the agency is working hard on food safety. It's expanded its philosophy.

Mr. DAVID ACHESON (FDA Assistant Commissioner): Which really means focusing on prevention. Traditionally FDA has reacted to problems. We continue to react to problems, but the key here is to prevent the problems in the first place.

SILBERNER: In the last year, it's opened up offices in China, India and several other places. It's increasing the number of inspections of farm food facilities from 100 to 1,000 a year. Still not a lot, he says, but it's something. It's working more closely with state agencies, and it's watching food safety legislation work its way through Congress. In the meantime, Nancy Donley of Safe Tables Our Priority now approaches food as if everything is contaminated. That may be more than what's needed, but what she does is what food experts and the FDA recommend.

Ms. DONLEY: I now use a meat thermometer, where I never used to before, and I make sure that I cook foods thoroughly to the temperatures that are recommended.

SILBERNER: She cooks her eggs fully. She uses separate cutting boards and utensils for raw meat and vegetables. She washes her produce thoroughly even if it is pre-washed, and she does these things all the time without fail. It's one thing to know what to do, she says, but in the end, you've got to do it.

Joanne Silberner, NPR News.

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