Safety Bill Stalls As CDC Reports On Food-Borne Illnesses

What's your reaction when you see this headline: "New Estimates of Food Poisoning Cases"? That's what sits atop William Neuman's report in the New York Times that the Centers for Disease Control has revised its thinking about how many people get sick and/or die from tainted food this year.

My reaction was: I wonder if this will remind the United States Senate, where a compromise bill on the food safety act is stalled, that politics is the art of getting things done.

I must admit that I figured that the number of food poisoning cases had surely gone up. We're all influenced by anecdotal evidence and what the public remembers are headlines like the 2006 E. Coli outbreak in spinach that cost five lives, or the peanut recall in January 2009 after eight people died and more than 700 got sick in 46 states. Then there's beef, eggs and even Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein, whatever the heck that is. "What's safe?" you begin to wonder.



Well, the CDC actually says that fewer people get sick or die from food poisoning than it thought. In 1999, when it issued its last report on the subject, the CDC figured that one in four Americans became ill from food each year and that 5,000 died. Now it says that the figure is one in six and 3,000.

But that's small comfort, of course, if you or a loved one is one of those afflicted. And the CDC was adamant that the new figures don't necessarily mean that incidences of food poisoning are decreasing. It says its data collection is improving.

"The difference is largely the result of improvements in the quality and quantity of the data used and new methods used to estimate foodborne disease ... ," it says. "Because of data and method improvements, the 1999 and current estimates cannot be compared to measure trends."

"Foodborne illnesses and deaths are preventable, and as such, are unacceptable," says FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg. "We must, and can, do better by intensifying our efforts to implement measures that are prevention-oriented and science-based."

Of the estimated 48 million Americans who get food poisoning each year, 38 million are poisoned by unknown pathogens, Lyndsey Layton reports in the Washington Post.

The fact that so many illnesses are being caused by unidentified pathogens "really ramps up the need for better scrutiny, better surveillance and better prevention techniques and better screening tests for pathogens," says Marc Siegel, associate professor of medicine at New York University in New York City. Siegel says a lot of the problem is due to sloppiness in food processing, according to Health Day's Steven Reinberg.

"I'm not a big-government guy, but there could be stronger standards," Siegel says.

Bu the question remains whether S.510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, will pass the lame-duck Congress after a whole lot of bickering and bantering over the legislative session.

"The Senate approved the legislation last month and the House essentially agreed to the Senate's version," as Neuman reports in the Times, "but the bill was sidetracked by a procedural snafu that imperiled its final passage."

When the bill moved to the House a few weeks ago after having been substantially tweaked in the Senate, the Community Alliance with Family Farmers sent an email urging its members to support its passage under the theory that it was about as good as it was going to get for family farms.

"Many farmers I have talked to do not want the FDA regulating farms," wrote CAFF Policy Director David Runsten. "Unfortunately, the FDA already has this authority and is actively using it. S 510 will actually provide some protections for farmers, while at the same time strengthening FDA's authority over food processors and imported foods, the real sources of food safety problems in produce."

But, as Runsten also points out, major lobbying groups such as Western Growers, United Fresh Produce Association and Produce Marketing Association still oppose the bill. So do other organizations representing the little guys like the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, which represents the raw milk movement.

I personally subscribe to the theory that if nobody is in love with a piece of legislation, it probably has been properly vetted and amended. Let's hope the Senate can get it done.

"People expect food to nourish them, not to harm them," says Christopher Braden, director of CDC's Division of Foodborne, Waterborne, and Environmental Diseases. "So we need to intensify efforts to decrease the number of illnesses and deaths due to foodborne diseases."

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