High costs of failures in U.S. food safety simply cannot be ignored

salmonella_salmonellosis-300x228While regular folks may tolerate the occasional sickness that follows a catered company event, church potluck, or dining on take-out or sit-down meals from all manner of meal providers, all-too-common food-borne illnesses must get greater attention from public health officials because of the major but less publicized damage that tainted foods can cause.

Consider what happened family and friends who attended a funeral reception in Texas that included store-bought chicken (rotisserie and fried) and potato salad. As ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative site reported, hours after the event, “dozens of the attendees were stricken by illness, overcome by nausea, cramping, vomiting and diarrhea, according to an investigation by Austin Public Health, which found that at least 61 people reported symptoms of food poisoning.”

The situation worsened and stayed bad, ProPublica found, reporting in its follow-up:

“The health agency would eventually identify 84 people who attended the funeral reception. At least 26 of them were hospitalized, some for more than a week. The youngest person hospitalized was 1, the oldest 92. Servers who tasted the food also ended up sick.”

An absence of preventive progress

Those who required medical treatment were left with tens of thousands of dollars in bills that they struggle still to pay. Some of those sickened have sustained digestive problems and kidney dysfunction. Their saga, though, shows how difficult it can be for authorities to pinpoint the causes of food-borne illnesses and to safeguard consumers against what is a major, debilitating health problem that, despite decades of campaigning, is not diminishing. As Maryam Jameel of ProPublica reported:

“Hundreds of people die every year in the United States after eating food tainted with salmonella [illustration, shown above], listeria, and other dangerous pathogens. As wrenching as those deaths are, though, they are only the tip of the toll that food poisoning takes on the United States, where millions more people are sickened each year. Salmonella is a leading culprit, with an estimated 1.35 million infections a year, resulting in thousands of hospitalizations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For many of those victims, the effects can be life-altering. There can be kidney or gastrointestinal troubles that persist for years. There can be staggering hospital bills that for some patients, especially those without health insurance, seem to never let up. “And long after the worst of the illness has passed, anxiety about eating and the frustrating, often futile, search for answers can linger.”

Taxpayers, as well as those suffering from food-borne illnesses, pay a hefty price for the nation’s lagging food safety efforts, Jameel reported:

“The rate of illnesses caused by salmonella hasn’t lessened in 25 years in the U.S., which continues to lag many countries in curbing the spread of the pathogen. A ProPublica investigation of the U.S. food safety system found that federal regulators don’t have the power to stop meat and poultry contaminated with risky strains of salmonella from being sold to consumers. When the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees meat and poultry, detects the pathogen, the agency can’t issue recalls or halt plant operations. It can only act if it is able to tie a case or cluster of cases of foodborne illness to a particular product. Inhibiting oversight further, a total of 15 federal agencies have a hand in food safety, with much of the responsibility split between the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration, a fragmented structure that critics say has impeded progress. Nationally, the price tag in costs of treatment, lost work hours and premature deaths is estimated at $4.1 billion a year, according to the USDA. ‘Salmonella is a very expensive pathogen, partially because it causes a lot of illnesses and partially because it can cause pretty severe disease as well,’ said Sandra Hoffmann, a senior economist at the USDA. ‘You think, “Oh, foodborne illness is just a bellyache,” but it is quite costly.’”

Not good. In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damages that can be inflicted on them by defective and dangerous products, including tainted foods.

In home handling and preparation, thoughtful cooks, of course, can take important steps to ensure the cleanliness and safety of everything we eat.

As ProPublica pointed out in its article on food poisoning, victims sometimes seek justice for harms they have suffered through the civil justice system with lawsuits against vendors, including big chain grocers and restaurants, if evidence can be developed to demonstrate their negligence and liability. This isn’t easy.

Consequences of big easy for Big Ag

It also should be clear in recent events connected with the coronavirus pandemic that Big Agriculture and its pro-business politicians — most of them Republicans — have not done the public any favor with the hygiene, safety, and working conditions with the people and products in the nation’s food supply chain.

In recent times, Big Ag has gotten big rollbacks in inspections of its manufacturing facilities, with its advocates relaxing oversight to the point that the industry is, in too many cases, all but self-policing itself.

At the same time, meat, pork, and poultry producers have sent the country a strong message about their consolidated power and attempts to enforce safety and hygiene oversight: Their facilities saw some of the worst outcomes with coronavirus infections, but owners and operators basically told regulators, well, so what. Big Ag told Americans that hundreds of packing plant workers could get sick and die with the virus or grocery stocks could dwindle and prices could rise.

Funny thing, though, the same Big Ag allies who pushed for relaxed food safety measures also favored fewer, bigger processing operations. Inflation and skyrocketing prices for food? Critics point out that with fewer companies slaughtering and producing beef, pork, and chicken, they can increase prices — which they have — with little worry about competitive pressures. And, no, the farmers and ranchers who typically are held up as salt of the earth folk who deserve better compensation for their work aren’t benefitting from the current soaring prices.

The Biden Administration has tried to reduce the price squeeze and increase competition with more federal support to smaller producers. But we have much to do to safeguard our food supplies, ensuring they are safe, hygienic, and plentiful.

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