03/31/2011 - In 2006, a 2-year-old Idaho boy named Kyle Allgood ate spinach tainted with E. coli bacteria. From this simple, everyday act, he quickly became sick and died. In fact, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 48 million Americans each year contract a food-borne illness that may lead to lifelong medical disabilities and, in about 3,000 cases like Kyle’s, death.
But that should soon change. In January, President Obama signed into law the first overhaul of U.S. food safety regulations since the Great Depression. With partners that ranged from families of victims, including Kyle’s, to such industry groups as the Grocery Manufacturers of America, the Pew Health Group led a coalition that advocated for the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act.
Now, for the first time, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for safeguarding about 80 percent of the country’s food supply, has the authority to recall tainted food. The law also calls for far more frequent and stringent inspections of food processing plants both in the United States and abroad. These and other provisions should help health officials trace a source of contamination fast enough to prevent people like Kyle from getting sick or dying.
Yet even with these brighter prospects for safer food, what our children eat remains a concern. Every day, millions of kids are served high-calorie, low-nutrition meals at school, which is a significant factor in the childhood obesity epidemic facing this nation. In partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Pew Health Group is launching an initiative to tackle outdated federal school-meal standards and underfunded, poorly equipped cafeterias.
This collaboration, the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Campaign, is urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture to upgrade its school-food standards in accordance with the Institute of Medicine’s current recommendations and federal dietary guidelines. To ensure more healthy diets, these recommendations include maintaining specific minimum and maximum calorie levels; increasing the amount and variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains; and reducing saturated fat and sodium. Food safety also remains an issue in schools. According to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 1998 and 2007 there were at least 23,000 cases of students becoming sick from school meals. The campaign is advocating for better testing of school food, quicker responses to contamination outbreaks and better enforcement of food safety standards.
Another hidden health risk from our foods is the rising resistance to the healing effects of antibiotics. The eroding efficacy of these life-saving drugs has been caused by their overuse and misuse in humans and food animals. As a result, more and more bacteria are outsmarting antibiotics, thereby making it harder for doctors to treat pneumonia, tuberculosis, staph and other dangerous infections. This trend creates the potential for a post-antibiotic world in which infections may spread unfettered.
We are committed to saving antibiotics so that they can continue to save lives. The Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming, a joint program of Pew’s Health and Environment groups, is addressing the connection between antibiotic resistance and industrial farming. Over the past five decades, the method of producing food animals has grown into a system of vast, intensive operations in which livestock are tightly confined in structures that resemble factories more than traditional barns. Antibiotics have become the foundation for this system in that they are used to not only to treat sickness, but also to spur animal growth and compensate for the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions inherent in these practices. Indeed, as much as 70 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States are administered to healthy swine, poultry and cattle. The Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming is urging Congress and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to slow the spread of antibiotic resistance by curbing the injudicious use of these life-saving medicines on industrial farms.
Reducing the medically unnecessary use of antibiotics is only part of the solution. The Pew Health Group recognizes the need for a robust pipeline of new drugs to replace those that have become obsolete. Because fewer pharmaceutical companies are creating antibiotics, Pew’s Antibiotics and Innovation Project is advocating for policies to encourage the development of new drugs. At a time when an increasing number of infections are resistant to existing medications, advances in antibiotics are crucial to preserve this diminishing global resource
A significant part of the Pew Health Group’s broader effort to promote high-quality, rigorous science is the Pew Scholars Program in Biomedical Sciences, which celebrated its 25th anniversary this year. Since its inception, the program has assisted more than 500 scientists early in their careers, encouraging innovation and creative research. With three Nobel laureates among them, the community of Pew scholars has produced a compelling portfolio of discoveries and contributions to the biomedical field, demonstrating our commitment to support groundbreaking research in the hope of improving human health.
Sixty years ago, Joseph N. Pew Jr. recognized that an essential element of the American character is to embrace the challenging work of creating a better life. The Pew Health Group continues to follow his lead, relying on science to guide our endeavors in eliminating the unnecessary health risks that people all too often experience in their everyday lives.
Shelley A. Hearne
Senior Advisor, Pew Health Group
Read more about Pew's work in Pew Prospectus 2011 (PDF).