Feds Get Sued Over Sloth in Enforcing Food Safety Laws

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 3,000 deaths every year are caused by food-borne illnesses and about 48 million people—1 in 6 Americans—gets sick from food contamination.

A couple of nonprofit consumer advocacy organizations don’t believe the federal government is moving fast enough to address the problem, and last month they sued the feds for failing to implement and enforce a new food safety law.

According to Reuters, the Center for Food Safety and the Center for Environmental Health claimed that the feds repeatedly missed mandatory deadlines for issuing final regulations required by the Food Safety Modernization Act, signed in January 2011. They want a federal court to force the FDA and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to enforce the law.

"The bill,” Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety told Reuters, “is useless unless the agencies actually promulgate regulations that make it work. This is very serious. They are twiddling their bureaucratic thumbs while Americans become sick and die."

Indeed, outbreaks from food-borne illnesses are common. In July, cantaloupes were the culprit in a salmonella outbreak that has reached 22 states, according to FoodSafetyNews.com. The same source says 16 states and Canada have been affected by salmonella-bearing mangoes in recent weeks. E coli and listeria also can sicken people who eat food contaminated with those pathogens.

Diarrhea and abdominal cramps are common symptoms of food poisoning. But different sources determine other aspects of the illness.

People infected with salmonella typically also suffer from fever and vomiting. Generally, the symptoms present 12 to 72 hours after consuming the food carrying the bug. The illness usually lasts 4 to 7 days, and most people recover without treatment. But sometimes the diarrhea can be so severe that the ill person must be hospitalized for dangerous dehydration.

With an E. coli infection, diarrhea typically turns bloody within 24 after symptoms begin. Its incubation period (time from exposure to the onset of symptoms) usually is 3 to 4 days, but can be as short as 1 day or as long as 10. In rare cases, it can cause the bowel tissue to die and perforate. It’s more common in children, and E. coli infection is the most common cause of acute kidney failure in infants and young children. Most people get better in about a week, but the risk of dehydration remains.

Listeria symptoms also include fever and muscle aches, but diarrhea is less common. Incubation generally is between 3 and 70 days, and 21 days is typical. If the infection spreads to the central nervous system, symptoms can include headache, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance and even convulsions. Healthy people seldom become seriously ill from Listeria.

The Food Safety Modernization Act was the first time in more than 70 years that food safety laws had been overhauled. The act establishes standards for possible sources of contamination of fresh fruits and vegetables, and makes importers responsible for the safety of food they import. It also compels food companies to identify possible causes of contamination and develop ways to prevent them.

But if the act isn’t being implemented, it’s more a waste of ink than a protection of the food supply.

The lawsuit charges that the FDA has failed to meet hundreds of deadlines established by the legislation. "These are the basics on standards, procedures, traceability ... upon which the entire system is based," said Kimbrell. "They haven't done what is required to actually begin the process of getting this new food safety law in place."

The Center for Justice & Democracy at New York Law School bolsters the argument. In a white paper called “Our Fatal Food Attraction—Regulatory Failures and the Civil Justice System,” it notes that “food safety regulation and information, which, depending on the situation, involves the … FDA, the United States Department of Agriculture Food and Safety Inspection Service (USDA) and/or the … CDC, are failing to keep Americans safe, or even properly informed of foodborne illness dangers.

“In fact, when it comes to the FDA, some of its most critical functions have been privatized,
assigned to corporations subject to corrupting influences that can ultimately result in foodborne illness outbreaks. What’s more, even when the CDC is aware that a restaurant caused a large-scale foodborne illness outbreak, it has the discretion to conceal this information from not only the public, but also the actual victims of the outbreak.”

That’s grim, but even in the absence of regulatory monitoring and enforcement, you can help prevent food-borne illness:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water before preparing food.
  • Cook meat, poultry and eggs thoroughly.
  • Don't cross-contaminate one food with another (don’t use a common surface for cutting raw meat and vegetables unless it’s washed thoroughly between uses).
  • Refrigerate leftovers promptly.
  • Clean produce properly by rinsing fresh fruits and vegetables to remove visible dirt and grime and removing the outermost leaves of a head of lettuce or cabbage.
  • Don’t prepare food for others if you have a diarrheal illness.
     

In addition, always report suspected food-borne illnesses to your local health department—it might be a public safety issue. Locate your local agency here.