CSPI report recommends single food safety agency

WASHINGTON—Sloppy farm practices may be largely responsible for making fruits and vegetables one of the top causes of foodborne illnesses, according to a report released today by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the nonprofit food-safety watchdog group. Of the outbreaks of foodborne illness tracked in the Center’s database, contaminated produce is responsible for more than 18,000 cases of illness—more than any other food source.

“While ‘more is better’ is the rule when it comes to eating fruits and vegetables, our research indicates that contaminated produce needs an urgent government response,” said CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith Dewaal.

Earlier this summer, an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7-contaminated lettuce sickened 29 people in Washington state. Last spring, cantaloupe contaminated with Salmonella sickened 50 people in at least four states. Salmonella and E. coli are most frequently linked to animal waste which can contaminate crops through dirty irrigation water and untreated manure applied to fields.

CSPI’s report, Outbreak Alert 2002, documents 2,472 outbreaks between 1990 and 2002. Of those, CSPI found that:

  • Seafood caused the most outbreaks, 539, and 6,781 cases of illness.
  • Produce caused 293 outbreaks and the most cases of illness, 18,084.
  • Eggs caused 277 outbreaks and 9,349 illnesses.
  • Beef caused 251 outbreaks and 9,195 illnesses.
  • Poultry caused 235 outbreaks and 9,612 illnesses.
  • Multi-ingredient foods, like pizza, salads, and sandwiches caused 330 outbreaks and 11,500 illnesses.

The report cites improvements made by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which is responsible for collecting reports of foodborne illness, but says critical gaps still need to be filled. Mandatory reporting by state health authorities and rapid reporting of outbreaks would be especially important, considering heightened concerns over bioterrorism, according to CSPI.

“In the 3 years we’ve been publishing Outbreak Alert, CDC has made great strides,” Smith Dewaal said. “But the threat of terrorists attacking the food supply raises the stakes, and that means CDC and the states have to do even more to identify problems early.”

CSPI also recommends bringing the ten federal agencies that currently regulate food into a single, independent food-safety agency. Such an agency should operate under a single new statute that replaces some 35 separate food-safety laws now on the books, says CSPI. Under the present system, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates beef, pork, and poultry products, but dairy, produce, eggs, seafood, and most other foods fall under the Food and Drug Administration’s purview. Both the National Academy of Sciences and the General Accounting Office have also called for a single food agency in recent years.

“It’s silly to have USDA regulate cows but FDA regulate their milk,” Smith Dewaal said. “Or to have USDA regulate chickens but FDA regulate eggs. A single agency would not only bridge regulatory gaps, but it would end regulatory redundancies.”

The report also calls for increased inspections of food-processing facilities, and for new government authority to recall contaminated foods. Currently, food companies only recall contaminated foods on a voluntary basis. CSPI also recommends a government mandate to require feedlots, factory farms, and other livestock producers to raise and transport animals in ways that help prevent microbial contamination.