Americans should look at European food safety practices

The Produce Safety Project published a report with recommendations on how to improve food safety. As food safety undergoes reform, key organizations band together to exchange information more fluidly.
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor

Food safety has been on my mind lately. Whenever I order food from a deli or restaurant, it really bothers me when people do not wear gloves! Honestly, when I see their hands pick apart the tomatoes, eggs, and the lettuce - I walk away with a rather unappetizing salad.

But in reality, contamination of the food can occur at any point from when it leaves the farm to when it hits my plate.

Besides the obvious health issues of having a so-so food safety standard, the price foodborne illness costs the U.S. is $152 billion annually.

The good news is that there is room for improvement. Americans can learn from the stringent European food safety measures put in place in by the Netherlands, Denmark, and the United Kingdom.

Enter The Produce Safety Project at Georgetown University, an initiative that wants to improve food standards, all the way from the “farm” to the “fork.” A new report, "Building the Science Foundation of a Modern Food Safety System," recommends publishing an annual report that would include all of the foodborne pathogens in humans, animals, and feed.

The report recommended the following:

  1. Produce, cross agency annual reports on foodborne pathogen surveillance
  2. Look at farm to fork for domestic and imported food
  3. Improve transparency and encourage public involvement
  4. Set up a cross-agency attribution group
  5. Coordinate food safety research
  6. Need to set up a standard way to keep records and push towards electronic record keeping

The Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture will contribute to the annual report. J. Glenn Morris, director at the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida said in a statement:

"We also believe there is an advantage to be gained by creation of an independent federal institute for food safety risk analysis," said Morris, co-author of the report. "It would be comprised of the majority of scientists and analysts currently within FDA, CDC and USDA food safety groups and tasked with supporting a risk-based food system through integrated research, data collection and analysis. That is the model from European countries with strong food-safety systems."

The mad cow disease incident motivated Europe to take food safety seriously. After countless food scares over microbiological contaminants in the 1980s and the 1990s, the Europeans also dealt with a public opposed to genetically modified organisms and the use of hormones in cattle, according to the report. To deal with the worried public, the European food safety organizations went through a period of reform.

The U.S. has had their fair share of food problems. From 2006 to 2009, there were 11 major foodborne illness outbreaks. Remember the raw cookie dough E. coli event in August-September 2009, that left 80 ill and 10 with Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome. And in February 2007, when the Salmonella tainted Peter Pan peanut butter incident left 425 sick in 25 states and cost nearly $60 million. Or when the bagged Spinach incident that killed 3, made 199 sick, and left at $300 million mark.

No wonder why 80 percent of Americans admitted to being concerned about food safety, according to Consumer Reports. CDC was worried about lack of progress in food safety, noting that bacterial and parasitic contamination in the food supply was not being resolved.

Indeed, recalling the tainted food offers a quick, short-term solution. However, improved food safety measures require a robust information system and a better way to exchange data.

The only way to know food safety is improving is to look at the data and track the progress. This cross-agency annual report will be a start to the much needed food safety reform.

Image: flickr/ Madonovan

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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