7.13.2012, 06:00 AM
America is hungry for safer food
Over the past few months, foodborne illness outbreaks linked to E. coli and salmonella in seafood and produce have sickened hundreds of people nationwide and, tragically, killed at least two children.
Yet Washington is taking its sweet time when it comes to plugging major holes in the safety of our food system.
If you’ve never been touched by the debilitating effects of consuming contaminated food, count yourself among the fortunate. Six summers ago, I was sickened by bad spinach.
It was the beginning of my junior year of college; I was a healthy 20-year-old who exercised regularly and ate a nutritious diet. Two days after eating bagged spinach, I began experiencing body aches, headaches, stomach cramps and diarrhea.
After initial tests at the hospital revealed nothing, I went home to my parents and continued to experience pain. Days later I began to hemorrhage and was admitted to the hospital. My arms soon became purple from the endless pricks of needles, as doctors tried to find a cause, fearing my colon might have to be removed.
Following almost a week in the hospital, I returned home to learn that I had been sickened in a nationwide foodborne illness linked to E. coli-contaminated spinach.
I returned to the hospital for a second time due to complications; after another week, I was finally released and spent the next three months recuperating, forcing me to miss an entire semester of school.
Although my age and overall health were on my side, I am living proof that no one is immune to foodborne illness. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year, one in six Americans suffers from a foodborne illness, resulting in more than 120,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths — many of them young children and senior citizens, who are most vulnerable.
It’s not as though Washington has been totally oblivious to the problem. In January 2011, President Obama signed into law the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act.
The law is full of long-overdue reforms. It requires every domestic manufacturer to identify potential food safety problems, adopt practices to avoid any dangers and keep records of steps that can be reviewed by government inspectors.
Additionally, every food importer must prove that its overseas suppliers are subject to food safety standards and practices comparable to those in the United States. And the FDA will be inspecting food manufacturing facilities — especially those abroad — more frequently.
Considering that nearly two-thirds of the fruits and vegetables we eat — as well as 80% of the seafood — are imported, these safeguards are critical.
Yet despite broad support for the law from Republicans and Democrats as well as food safety advocates and industry representatives, the White House has needlessly delayed implementing these safeguards.
Rules regulating imports and produce have languished for more than six months, well after they were supposed to be issued. Similarly, a July 4 deadline for additional rules has come and gone, with no action taken. Only the President can explain the administration’s sluggishness.
Those rules are not the only roadblock to protecting Americans from contaminated food. It is also still unclear whether sufficient funding will be available for the FDA to do its job. Congress is considering appropriations bills that will fund the FDA’s new food safety responsibilities, and with the budget ax out, it is unlikely the agency will see much of an increase — despite a sizable additional workload.
As we enter the summer months — the peak time for foodborne illness outbreaks — we remain at risk. What could be taking so long?
Bush is a student at NYU’s Wagner School for Public Service. She is unrelated to the former President.