2018: The Year of Foodborne Illness
Though it’s too late for the side salads of countless Thanksgiving dinners, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is finally rolling back some of their warnings about E. coli in romaine lettuce. Whether “you should be fine as long as you don’t eat any from California” will be enough to reassure consumers about romaine’s safety remains to be seen; I for one will certainly be side-eyeing the options at the salad bar for the foreseeable future. If one thing can be sure, it’s that much like November, December is going to be a great month to own an iceberg lettuce farm.
Unfortunately, mass food producers in general have seemed to be having a rough time lately. News organizations like the Chicago Tribune were already calling this year an alarming rise in food contamination all the way back in mid-June, which has concerning implications for where we are now in early December. At the time the scare was outbreaks of salmonella, most alarming of which was the recall of over half a billion eggs after more than one thousand people fell ill. Thankfully far fewer have been found with an E. coli infection — 43 in the United States, 22 in Canada - though that’s less reassuring than it could be considering how much more dangerous of an infection is is than salmonella.
The FDA has reassured consumers that the increase in outbreaks isn’t necessarily due to food being “less safe” now than it has been in the past, but due to their and the Center for Disease Control’s increased ability to track down outbreaks of human illness and trace them back to a common pathogen. While the advancement in technology is certainly good news, it’s still clear that there’s an unhealthy high level of contamination in our current system. When food is produced and shipped on a grand scale, any small problem in an individual farm or plant can become a catastrophe as infected products come in contact with the rest of the food supply, resulting in mass recalls like that we’ve experienced for eggs and romaine.
While proposed solutions like the FDA’s plan to have companies label products like romaine with the exact date and regions of their harvest should certainly help with tracking pathogens and lower the amount of stock that has to be recalled, they don’t do much to attack the problem of food being frequently contaminated in the first place. In a system where any small problems can have dangerous and far-reaching consequences, it’s important to have strong regulations preventing those problems from happening. Though legislation to ensure such regulation has been attempted in the past, such as the 2010 Food Safety Bill stalling from senators and protests in defense of “small farms” have prevented real change from happening.
It isn’t small farms that would need to be regulated by such legislature. If a batch of eggs from a local organic farm turns out to be dangerous, its a minor problem that can be solved relatively quickly. If a batch of eggs from a farm that produces millions of eggs a day turns out to be dangerous, it’s a public health hazard that can hospitalize people across the country. Refusing to regulate the latter out of claims that it could hurt the former is more than just foolish — it’s irresponsible.