Are Current Food Safety Practices Making Food Any Safer?

With so many food recalls of late, from dog food, lettuce and macaroni and cheese dinners to baby food, beef and pork, Elizabeth Grossman raises a good question in a recent yahoo.com article, questioning whether our food is any safer now than it was nearly 10 years ago. Lately, the news has been about spinach, as supermarkets across North America have been taking frozen organic spinach–and assorted products containing spinach, such as frozen dinners and spinach dip, off the shelves. All the spinach in question, which may have been contaminated with Listeria, comes from a single California-based vegetable processing company.

Thankfully, though the spinach incident was a major recall, so far, the CDC has not reported any illnesses as a result. But it was so widespread that it has affected nearly 30 products, and crippled half a dozen companies, from Amy’s Kitchen to retailers such as Costco, Terra Fina, Wegmans, Target and Giant Eagle.

Coastal Green Vegetable Co., Oxnard, Calif., the source of the contaminated spinach, said to be in business for about a year, alerted is customers, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was notified.

The incident had widespread effects. So is it enough to alert the public in the event of such a recall, where the potential risk to public health is great? For the food manufacturer, it means taking immediate action, alerting consumers to the problem so that they can take preventative measures, and having the products removed from stores as quickly as possible while absorbing the related costs associated with the recall.

Voluntary food safety guidelines for companies that sell leafy greens in California were initiated after an earlier spinach recall in 2006. This and other rulings led more recently to the federal revisions known as the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which Grossman says are under-funded and are still being finalized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Noted United Fresh produce Association senior vice president for food safety and technology, David Gombas of the 2006 spinach recall, "Many produce industry leaders came to realize that a whole lot of information was missing" about the food we eat. "Not only on leafy greens but for fresh produce in general."

Product traceability processes can be quite effective at tracing food back through the supply chain to its origins and pinpointing the sources of problems should they arise. And in the current spinach case, Coastal Green was identified, and took steps to were efforts successful at what happened from there, such as tracking where the spinach was grown, where it was frozen, further processed and packaged?

Ideally, the FSMA can improve the situation, but the act has not yet been completely implemented, due to lack of funding. The FSMA includes provisions for improving the safety of both domestic and imported food, so imagine all the imported food we receive, which includes seafood, fruit and vegetables. Right now, the government agencies lack the ability to properly inspect all but a small percentage of imported food for contaminants without more funding.

There are other questions, such as would tariffs do any good? Or will the food industry take on more of a partnership Would the public be willing to pay even more than they do now for safer food? Do we have a choice?