05/15/2010 - At age 2, Kyle Allgood of Chubbuck, Idaho, became sickened by a deadly strain of E. coli O157:H7, from contaminated spinach. When Kyle's abdominal pains would not subside, he was flown to a Salt Lake City hospital, where his downward spiral ended in kidney failure, a heart attack and, ultimately, death.
The tragedy the Allgood family endured is far from rare. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year, food-borne illness strikes tens of millions of Americans, hospitalizes hundreds of thousands and kills several thousand—mostly young children like Kyle, the elderly or others who are especially vulnerable.
Despite these shocking numbers, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration—which regulates about 80 percent of the nation's food supply — does not require food companies, or the agency's own inspectors, to test products for bacteria. The FDA also has no authority to mandate that food companies recall products, or directly penalize those that violate the law.
A strong federal food-oversight bill was passed last summer by a bipartisan majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. Yet since then, there have been more than 60 separate recalls of FDA-regulated products that were known or suspected to be contaminated.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate food-safety bill was unanimously approved by its key committee before last Thanksgiving.
It is time for a final vote.
The need for Congress to pass this legislation is highlighted by the fact that the vast number of food-borne disease outbreaks in recent years were linked to FDA-regulated products such as spinach, peppers, peanut butter products and cookie dough. Any significant update to FDA food-safety law would be the first in more than 70 years.
When that outdated law was enacted, Americans ate less processed food, and meals often came from local producers. In the 21st century, any given meal can contain ingredients from across the nation and many countries around the globe. Yet the FDA annually inspects only about 1 percent of shipments of imported foods before they come into the United States.
FDA oversight of domestic food facilities is also in need of significant improvement. A recent Department of Health and Human Services inspector general report found that inspections of food companies' plants have decreased over the last several years, and that 56 percent of facilities did not receive an FDA inspection over a recent five-year period. The report recommended that FDA seek more effective enforcement tools and get better access to food facility records—both of which the agency supported in its response.
Furthermore, a recent study authored by a former FDA economist and published by the Produce Safety Project—an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts at Georgetown University—estimates the health-related impact of food-borne illness across the nation to be a combined $152 billion annually. This cost, coupled with the public health impacts of pathogens in the food supply, makes a vote on the Senate bill even more important.
The longer it takes Congress to pass food-safety legislation, the greater the likelihood that more Americans will unnecessarily suffer or die as a result of the nation's outdated food-protection authorities.
As Kyle's mother, Robyn Allgood, has said, it might be too late for her son, but "no family should have to go through this—we can save other children."
Erik D. Olson, director of Food and Consumer Product Safety for the Pew Health Group, can be e-mailed at eolsonpewtrusts.org.