In late January 2020, the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, an independent research group, unveiled its second annual “How Safe is Our Food” report, which concluded that, over the past 10 years, lapses in food protection policies, enforcement, and inspection jeopardized the health of the U.S. population.
The report analyzed eight different instances of food recalls over the past decade, including recent recalls concerning Tyson chicken strip products and romaine lettuce, with U.S. PIRG offering advice on where improvements could be made.
“There have been chronic problems with E. coli contamination in romaine lettuce, with five outbreaks in the last three years,” says Dylan Robb, an associate with U.S. PIRG. “The FDA did an investigation after the 2018 recall and found that the likely source of contamination was a confined animal feeding operation that was next to contaminated canal water, near the contaminated lettuce.”
Since this finding, FDA has delayed implementation of the Agricultural Water Rule, which would require food producers to test the water they use to treat produce for dangerous bacteria. U.S. PIRG feels that FDA should implement the rule immediately.
The most recent food recalls suggests a gap between regulatory agencies USDA and FDA, says Robb, and this is likely a contributing factor to the number of contaminated foods still reaching consumers. “We saw some diverging trends between the two agencies that oversee our food safety,” Robb adds. “The recalls of produce and processed foods, which is overseen by the FDA, actually saw a 34 percent decrease since 2016, and recalls of meat and poultry, which is overseen by the USDA, remained at the high levels that they have been at since they peaked in 2015.”
Additionally, he notes that,while recalls due to hazardous meat and poultry have grown 85 percent since 2013, this can be attributed to such things as slow-moving regulatory guidelines involving water systems and outdated factory machines.
“The Food Safety and Modernization Act that was launched in 2011 overhauled the food safety system for the FDA, including things like requiring businesses to implement food safety plans and other regulations,” Robb says. “Meat and poultry, which are overseen by the USDA, were not included in the FSMA, and we think there are a lot of things that can be done to help out a lot.”
One example, the report noted, concerns the fact that USDA makes it legal to sell meat that has been proven to be contaminated with salmonella, and U.S. PIRG says this is a dangerous practice that should be changed immediately.
The organization would also like to see increased inspection of different facilities to ensure processes are properly protected against metals, plastics, or other extraneous materials contaminating the food source. Robb says that 15.5 million pounds of meat and poultry was recalled in 2019 due to this factor alone.