Foodborne illness victims lobby Washington for passage of food safety reform legislation

By Courtney Brein, Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

Today, as part of the Make Our Food Safe coalition’s coordinated events this week, 45 foodborne illness victims and their family members are meeting with senators from their 23 home states to advocate for the passage of FDA food safety reform legislation,  S. 510.

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions unanimously passed this bipartisan piece of legislation in November 2009. Now, in order to make food safety reform a reality, the Senate must bring the bill to the floor for a vote as soon as possible. In July, the House overwhelmingly passed H.R. 2749, its version of the FDA food safety reform, which does even more to strengthen the food safety system than does the Senate bill.

For the individuals who traveled from across the country to urge their senators to act, the pending legislation is highly personal. At a dinner following the advocates’ training session yesterday afternoon – an event that both first-time and seasoned advocates attended, to prepare for their legislative visits and share their stories – I had the opportunity to speak at length with a number of the incredible people with whom senators are currently meeting. Their stories are heartbreaking.

The woman to my right, a vivacious stay-at-home mom from Virginia, told me all about the various athletic pursuits of her ten-year-old twins, children she felt particularly lucky to have in her life. In her fifth or sixth month of pregnancy, she contracted listeriosis from a contaminated food product, an infection that spread to her unborn babies and sent her into early labor. The twins faced severe medical complications and an extensive hospitalization. Thankfully, both mother and children recovered. Across the table sat two girls, chatting with each other and the group alternately: a 12-year-old who contracted E. coli O157:H7 during the 2006 spinach outbreak, fell deathly ill, and recovered to become a seasoned advocate; and a college senior visiting Washington, DC to lobby for the first time after spending a week in the hospital last year fighting illness caused by contaminated Nestle Toll House chocolate chip cookie dough.

What none of these incredible individuals mentioned over our pasta or bread pudding were the medical consequences that remain for many who suffer from foodborne illness: life-changing conditions such as paralysis, kidney failure, seizures, and hearing impairments. Furthermore, these survivors are the “lucky” ones. Another advocate, a soft-spoken dad from Tennessee, came to DC. on behalf of his six-year-old son who passed away from foodborne illness in 2004. With the pain that comes from the loss of a child clearly written on his face, he said to me, “He got sick, and two weeks later he was gone.”

As the brave advocates will underscore to their senators today, no one should have to suffer, or watch a loved one suffer, as a result of something as necessary and basic as eating. Many of the individuals in the room came to DC this week – and return again and again – to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves: parents and grandparents, children and grandchildren, whose lives were cut short by eating contaminated commonplace foods such as peanut butter or spinach.

In addition to the human face of foodborne illness, this week the Make Our Food Safe Coalition has drawn attention to the economic consequences of foodborne illness outbreaks. Utilizing data from a new report that places the cost of foodborne illness in the United States at 152 billion dollars annually, Make Our Food Safe has created an interactive, online map that enables users to explore the costs of foodborne illness state by state. Both the report and the map underscore the financial consequences of a food safety system that does not adequately protect the public from contaminated products.

On Tuesday, HELP Committee Chair Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) stated that, if all goes according to plan, food safety legislation is likely to reach the President’s desk by May. It is the hope of the National Consumers League, the Make Our Food Safe Coalition, and the victim advocates on the Hill today that our efforts this week will rededicate the Senate to vote on the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, S. 510, and move food safety reform one step further towards becoming a reality.

Eating 2010: The food issues that will matter most for American consumers

Update: Late in the day on Monday, January 25, 2010, President Obama announced his intent to nominate Dr. Elisabeth Hagen for the position of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Under Secretary for Food Safety.  Dr. Hagen currently serves as the USDA’s Chief Medical Officer.  For more information, see the official USDA News Release.

By Courtney Brein, Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

While issues such as the recession, the unemployment rate, and the health reform debate ruled the airwaves in 2009, a number of food-related issues nonetheless grabbed the attention of American consumers. From the mass peanut product recall to the news coverage of the White House garden to the rising hunger rates, food issues not only made the news but directly impacted millions of Americans last year. Here, in a four-part series, we present the food issues that we anticipate will affect American consumers the most – in addition to attracting media attention – in the coming year.

Food Safety

As the recent outbreaks of foodborne illness linked to contaminated spinach, peanut butter, and cookie dough underscore, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not currently possess the authority, funding, and capacity to adequately ensure the safety of food consumers purchase, whether it be imported items or those produced in the United States. Making food in the U.S. significantly safer than it is now will require FDA reform legislation, a goal towards which the National Consumers League has been working, along with fellow members of the Make Our Food Safe coalition.

In July, the House overwhelmingly passed H.R. 2749, its version of FDA food safety reform, which would increase the regulatory powers of the FDA, require food from other countries to meet the same safety standards as food produced in the United States, establish a national food tracing system, and require all food processing facilities to implement food safety plans. The Senate bill, S. 510, contains many of the key provisions in the House bill, although it lacks the strength of that legislation in several areas, including inspection frequency and oversight of imported foods. Nonetheless, S. 510 would give FDA the authorities it needs to create a food safety system focused on preventing foodborne illness, rather than on simply responding to outbreaks as they occur. The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) unanimously approved this bipartisan piece of legislation in November. Now, as soon as possible, the Senate needs to bring the bill to the floor for a vote, in order to make food-safety reform a reality. The Make Our Food Safe Coalition and victims of foodborne illness and their families will continue to call for Congress to enact food safety legislation until it does so.

Once food safety legislation passes, consumers should look to Michael Taylor, the newly named FDA deputy commissioner for foods, to implement the new laws designed to prevent outbreaks of foodborne illness. This new position – Taylor is the first to hold it – will help to increase the focus on food in the agency, which also regulates drugs and medical devices.

While the position of FDA deputy commissioner for foods is now filled, numerous other food-related administration positions continue to remain vacant. The top food safety post at USDA, that of Undersecretary for Food Safety, is the most significant of these empty spots, but four other USDA positions – general counsel; chief financial officer; undersecretary for research, education and economics; and administrator of the Foreign Agricultural Service – have not yet been filled. Several of the vacancies require presidential nomination and Senate confirmation; the USDA requires individuals in all of these positions in order to best ensure the safety of meat, poultry, and other USDA-regulated food products. Consumers should expect – and demand – that these vacancies be filled in early 2010. Contact the White House and ask President Obama to nominate individuals for the two undersecretary and general counsel positions.

Coalition Calls for Congressional Support of FDA Action on Tainted Oysters

By Courtney Brein, Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

Each year, dozens of American consumers fall ill – and half of those individuals die – from eating raw Gulf Coast oysters contaminated with Vibrio vulnificus bacteria, present in oysters harvested in the region during the summer months. These illnesses and deaths can be prevented, while still allowing consumers to enjoy oysters when the weather turns warm, with one simple measure: post-harvest processing. Vibrio vulnificus contamination is not simply a case of an upset stomach. I have read numerous horror stories of individuals who managed to survive oyster-induced illnesses, only to face fluid-filled blisters, significant skin loss, and multiple amputations. The National Consumers League and fellow members of the Make Our Food Safe Coalition today urged Congress to support FDA efforts to protect the public from contaminated oysters.

In October, the FDA announced that, as of 2011, oysters harvested from the Gulf of Mexico during the warmer months will have to be treated before reaching consumers, in order to kill the Vibrio vulnificus bacteria that are most prevalent at that time. Since 2001, the agency has expressed concern about the bacteria to the oyster industry and has made it clear that, if the industry’s voluntary efforts to reduce illness and deaths from contamination did not succeed, it would require post-harvest processing. In 2003, California began requiring post-harvest processing of Gulf Coast oysters sold in the state during the summer months; not a single person has fallen ill or died from consuming Gulf Coast oysters in California since.

The oyster industry, however, is exerting its powerful lobby to block these doable, life-saving requirements. Concerned about job loss in their home state of Florida, despite the fact that the FDA regulation will only affect a small portion of Gulf Coast oyster production, Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Representative Allen Boyd (D-FL) have each proposed legislation to hamper the FDA’s efforts. We understand that they are trying to protect a hometown industry, but NCL believes consumer health and safety must come first.

“I like raw oysters as much as the next person, but consumers should be able to enjoy the delicacy without putting their lives in danger,” stated Sally Greenberg, Executive Director of NCL. “Post-harvest processing is estimated to cost as little as 2 cents per oyster, and has little or no impact on flavor. The industry can, and should, implement this life-saving measure, which will only be necessary for less than one quarter of the Gulf Coast oyster harvest.”

Until the oyster industry starts processing oysters during the summer months, consumers will continue to fall ill and die. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, since 2001, more than 250 individuals on vacation, celebrating special occasions, or simply enjoying a restaurant meal have ordered and consumed raw Gulf Coast oysters, and have become ill or died as a result. Even greater numbers have looked on as family members suffered after consuming contaminated oysters. As Vicki Peal of Florida, a tireless advocate for protective measures on oyster consumption, has stated, “Vibrio vulnificus is a deadly bacteria that eats you inside out like gangrene. Seventeen years ago I took my father out to a dinner of raw oysters that killed him. I had to watch that sweet kind man die like a dog. …Kudos to the FDA for finally requiring procedures to ensure the safety of Gulf oysters. And shame on any elected official who would get in the way of this overdue public health protection. The only good oyster is a safe oyster and FDA’s action will save limbs and lives.”

It is long past time that FDA, the consumer watchdog on the shellfish industry, stepped in with this important regulatory requirement. NCL applauds the agency for its efforts to make Gulf Coast oysters as safe as their colder water counterparts, no matter the season in which they are consumed.

Making Sense of Food Scares

By Courtney Brein, NCL Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

While the recent outbreaks of foodborne illness from contaminated peanuts, cookie dough, and spinach have increased concern about the failings of the food safety system in the United States, two high-profile news articles published this week have shed light on the extent of the problem, calling into question the safety of a much broader range of foods that Americans routinely purchase and consume.

The New York Times exposé of the flaws in the beef inspection system published this past Sunday highlights the problematic nature of USDA’s responsibility to both the industry’s interests and the public’s health. Due to resistance from the meat industry, the agency does not require meat processors to test the trimmings that they receive from suppliers and use to manufacture ground beef. While a few big ground beef producers, such as Costco, test their meat for E. coli before grinding it, most do not, testing only the final product. This practice both decreases the likelihood of detection and increases the difficulty of finding the source of contamination should an outbreak occur, due to the industry practice of combining meat from multiple sources in the creation of ground beef. While most individuals who consume ground beef do so without ever becoming ill, for those unlucky enough to eat a hamburger tainted with E. coli, the experience can be deadly.

Following on the heels of the Times article, the Center for Science in the Public Interest released a report on Tuesday that names the 10 riskiest foods regulated by the FDA. This group contains healthy products most Americans eat on a regular basis, such as eggs, tuna, potatoes, cheese, berries, and leafy greens. Combined, these items have caused tens of thousands of reported cases of illness, in addition to many of the countless cases that go unreported each year.

These articles reveal very real problems with the food safety system in the United States.

So, what is the consumer to do?

It is imperative that consumers push for more comprehensive USDA testing requirements and contact their senators to urge them to vote for improved FDA oversight of the food safety system. The National Consumers League, as a member of the Make Our Food Safe Coalition, has joined other consumer groups, public health organizations, and victims’ groups in calling for the passage of legislation reforming the FDA side of the food safety system by the end of this year – a message we brought to senators and their staff members yesterday, during our Food Safety Action Day.

In the meantime, however, consumers should take measures to improve food safety in their homes. The following practices can help individuals to protect themselves and their families from foodborne illness:

  • Instead of buying ground beef, purchase a piece of meat and have your local butcher or grocery store grind it for you
  • Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water before preparing or consuming food
  • Use a meat thermometer, and ensure that meat is cooked to the following temperatures:
  • Ground Beef: 160°F. Many people assume that when a hamburger turns brown in the middle, it is done, but this is not the case. 1 out of every 4 hamburgers turns brown before reaching an internal temperature of 160°F. Always use a meat thermometer!
  • Steaks and Roasts: 145°F
  • Fish: 145°F
  • Pork: 160°F
  • Egg Dishes: 160°F
  • Chicken Breasts: 165°F
  • Whole Poultry: 165°F
  • Avoid cross-contamination between cooked and raw food in the refrigerator:
  • Store food in clean, non-toxic, washable containers
  • Properly cover all food
  • Keep raw foods separate from ready-to-eat foods
  • Follow other smart kitchen practices:
  • After preparing raw foods for cooking, thoroughly wash hands, utensils, cutting boards, countertops, and any other equipment you have used
  • Sanitize cutting boards with a solution of two teaspoons bleach per quart of water
  • Equipment used to prepare raw foods that will not be cooked should be washing thoroughly both before and after use
  • Keep hot food hot and cold food cold; do not consume any foods that have been sitting at room temperature for more than two hours
  • If you have any doubts about raw foods, such as fruits and vegetables, boil them, cook them, peel them, or choose not to eat them