Increasing the number of food product inspections would be a waste of money and would do little to improve food safety, says University of Illinois food science and human nutrition professor Bruce Chassy, an international expert on food safety evaluation and public policy. If lawmakers are serious about preventing foodborne outbreaks (like the recent contamination of cantaloupe with the pathogen Listeria), they ought to listen to scientists, he said in a recent interview with News Bureau life sciences editor Diana Yates.
Most of us think more eyes looking at food products before they go to market will cut down on the number of foodborne outbreaks. What's wrong with this logic?
You have to do the math to understand why inspection or testing of food products is not the best way to ensure food safety. Let's say that a food plant produces 100,000 cans a day, of which 0.01 percent are contaminated with a pathogen. Testing implies that you have to open the can, so that product is lost. Both the can and the test cost money so you decide to test 1 percent of the cans. Since one in 10,000 cans is contaminated and you are testing one of every 1,000 cans, you have only a one in 100 chance of finding a can that is contaminated. And of course you have to worry about false positives, false negatives, and the fact that you must hold the shipment for days until the test results come back. Food safety experts agree that you can never do enough product testing to ensure safety. Perhaps someday sophisticated biosensors will rapidly and inexpensively test each product for the presence of pathogens, but that technology lies far in the future.
Don't Food and Drug Administration inspectors also look at food-production facilities?
There are about 140,000 food processing and handling facilities in the U.S., and some 200,000 in other countries that import food into the U.S. that fall under FDA authority. FDA has a little over 10,000 total employees who regulate food, drugs and cosmetic safety. They conduct about 20,000 inspections per year; most of these are targeted at high-risk products and plants with a history of problems. The chances of any plant being inspected more than once every few years are slim, but this may change when the Food Safety Modernization Act that was recently signed into law goes into effect - if, and that's a big if, additional funds are allocated for inspections. The law mandates more inspections but in the current frenzy inside the beltway to cut the deficit it will be difficult to greatly increase any agency's budget. One mechanism that may be put into effect is to make the inspected company pay the FDA for the inspection.
How common are foodborne outbreaks in the United States?
The answer to that depends on what you define as an "outbreak." If you mean an incident like the current Listeria in cantaloupe recall, or the E. coli in German organic sprouts that recently killed more than 50 people, then the answer is that such outbreaks are fortunately not so common. They attract a lot of media attention because they involve products that are widely distributed so they affect a lot of people.
If you use the definition used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an outbreak of more than two people made ill from the same tainted product, then outbreaks are very common indeed. The best estimates are that 48 million Americans experience foodborne illness every year with 128,000 requiring hospitalization. Estimates of the number of deaths vary from a few dozen to 3,000 per year. Most illnesses, however, are unreported so these are only estimates. Experts believe that most episodes are self-inflicted through mishandling, cross-contamination, or inappropriate cooling, heating and storage of food products in the home.
Can you identify the leading causes of such outbreaks?
The great majority of infections are caused by three bacterial pathogens: Campylobacter, Salmonella and E. coli, but just counting numbers of outbreaks can be deceptive; most often outbreaks associated with these organisms cause few fatalities. Far fewer cases of Listeriosis and Toxoplasma are reported but they account for about half of all fatalities. Norwalk and similar viruses also produce significant numbers of cases of gastroenteritis. Very few outbreaks are caused by packaged processed foods. Uncooked produce, meat, poultry, eggs, seafood and unpasteurized milk are the primary routes of exposure to pathogens.
How would you go about designing a better system to prevent foodborne illness?
Issuing a call for more inspections is an understandable reaction to a foodborne outbreak but it will do little to improve food safety. We need to develop a culture of safety that does not depend on the FDA to inspect and police safety. FDA needs to be more of a teacher and adviser that helps companies develop and maintain safe processes that don't rely on testing to assure safety. Safety has to be built into the products and processes by design so we know that if workers are trained, raw materials meet specifications, the plant and equipment are sanitary, good records are kept, and processes function as planned, the food it produces will be safe. What does that mean in real terms? We know that milk that is exposed to a temperature of 161 degrees Fahrenheit for 15-20 seconds will be acceptably safe; cooking ground meat to a temperature of 160 degrees will eliminate E. coli. If the desired temperature and time objectives of the process are achieved, the product will be safe to eat.
Raw agricultural products pose special challenges because they come from less than sanitary environments into our food plants, restaurants and kitchens and they can bring pathogens with them. Special attention is being focused on on-the-farm safety efforts designed to minimize the risks from the raw materials. The consumer must be viewed as the last line of defense against organisms that hitchhike into our homes on raw materials. Often that means being very attentive to news sources for information about the latest food recalls. In a country that serves almost 1 billion meals a day, absolute zero incidence is a hard goal to achieve.