- Challenges in food safety have evolved over the past decade, with outbreaks often linked to foods not previously associated with food poisoning, like spinach and peanut butter.
- Consolidation within the agricultural industry and an outdated food-surveillance system hinder possible improvements in food safety monitoring.
- The increasing preference for fresh produce adds to the variety of foodborne illness outbreaks, as uncooked foods carry the risk of exposure to harmful bacteria.
- Mega-farms and large agri-businesses can exacerbate contamination issues, as their size means that small-scale contaminations can quickly become large-scale problems.
- Government oversight agencies, like the FDA and USDA, face an uneven distribution of resources and responsibilities, thereby potentially compromising the effectiveness of food safety protections.
It seems that unease over the safety of the food American’s consume is on an incline. This unease is not without reason, given the number of nationwide recalls of various food products over the past decade, due to contamination. While this food pyramid of tainted items includes everything from meats and vegetables to fast food and even desserts, the variety of food causing outbreaks remains a significant area of concern among scientists and health officials.
Emerging Challenges in Food Safety
“The past 10 years presented a roller coaster of challenges in food safety,” advised Dr. Robert Tauxe, a reputable expert in foodborne bacterial and mycotic diseases. Some of these challenges involved outbreaks linked to foods previously not associated with food poisoning, casting a surprising spotlight on items such as spinach and peanut butter.
Another concern amongst scientists and health professionals is the necessity for improved tracking and identification of potential contamination sources before the food becomes available for purchase in grocery stores.
A surge in high-volume producers consolidating the agricultural industry is considered one of the impediments to improvements in oversight. This concentration means that even a small-scale contamination can quickly balloon to a large-scale problem. Added to that is a somewhat outdated, unequally balanced food-surveillance system that struggles to effectively oversee the nation’s entire food supply.
Food Safety and the Changing American Diet
Americans’ evolving diet, which includes an increased appetite for more raw fruits and vegetables, can be attributed to the increasing variety of foodborne illness outbreaks. Despite the presence of potentially dangerous bacteria, the public’s love for fresh produce is also adding to the issue.
In recent years, fresh produce has been the focal point of most food safety conversations, mainly due to the increasing interest of consumers in consuming uncooked fresh foods. While highly nutritional, these carry the risk of exposure to harmful bacteria. One of the largest undocumented sources of contamination was the E. coli outbreak linked to spinach in 2006. This event gave a glimpse into the possible ways contamination can occur, with factors such as proximity to cattle or wild animals and contaminated irrigation systems coming into play.
The Role of Industrial Agriculture in Food Safety
The ongoing revolution in agriculture, highlighted by the rise of mega-farms, mega-distribution centers, and mega-transporters, implicitly links to the food safety issue. Larger production and distribution units mean that any contamination incident automatically becomes much worse.
The approach to food production has increasingly become more concentrated, complex, and paradoxically, fragmented, as larger agri-businesses dominate the market. Post-production problems can surface once the produce leaves the field. Critics argue that the current government oversight is insufficient, with a decline in government agency resources hampering the ability to conduct necessary inspections for food safety.
The Divided Responsibility of Food Safety
Understanding how government oversight operates highlights some peculiarities. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are tasked with protecting the country’s food supply, yet there is an imbalance between the two. Despite receiving 20 percent of the food safety budget, the FDA is responsible for 80 percent of the work, leaving critics to question whether they have adequate resources to protect public health effectively.
Though some could argue that overlapping responsibilities between the USDA and FDA could be beneficial, the reality shows an oversight gap with different safety standards applied inconsistently. Yet, despite criticism and room for improvement, the general consensus is that the U.S. food system remains notably safe, considering the volume of food consumed.
The Increasing Threat from Imported Products
Coming Soon: Keep an eye out for our upcoming article exploring the growing threat of imported products in relation to food safety.