Statement of CSPI Deputy Director of Regulatory Affairs Sarah Sorscher

CSPI welcomes yesterday's introduction of the Expanded Food Safety Investigation Act of 2019 by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. A companion bill is expected to be introduced in the House by Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, chair of the Congressional Food Safety Caucus, later this year. The bill authorizes the Food and Drug Administration to test for E. coli, Salmonella, and other pathogens on large animal farms in order to investigate outbreaks of foodborne illness.

Including animal farms as part of the outbreak investigation is critical because farm animals carry germs that can contaminate not just our meat and poultry, but also our fresh fruits and vegetables. Investigators must have the ability to track outbreaks back to the farm so we can understand how these pathogens move through the food system, which is ultimately the key to preventing future outbreaks.

The CDC estimates that each year nearly one in six Americans are sickened, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne disease. Many Americans would be surprised to learn that no federal agency currently has the authority to investigate outbreaks on animal farms, even though these farms can serve as a source of foodborne illness. That means the farm owners can block access to investigators, even though the information from these farms could be crucial to understanding how food became contaminated.

The measure comes as Thanksgiving is approaching, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and FDA are working with state officials to investigate an outbreak traced to ready-to-eat romaine lettuce salads. In the week leading up to Thanksgiving in 2018, federal officials warned consumers not to eat romaine lettuce due to an outbreak. The 2018 Thanksgiving outbreak closely followed another deadly E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce harvested in Yuma, Arizona earlier that year.

Investigation following the Yuma outbreak failed to identify the ultimate source of the outbreak. Federal investigators traced the outbreak strain back to an irrigation canal that supplied water to many of the romaine farms in the area, but were limited in their ability to test for pathogens on a large concentrated animal feeding operation that sits adjacent to the canal. In another case, federal officials were blocked from investigating pig farms that had produced pork tied to an antibiotic-resistant Salmonella outbreak in the summer of 2015 in which nearly 200 people were sickened.

The Expanded Food Safety Investigation Act of 2019 will provide critical information to help investigators identify the root cause of foodborne illnesses, including illnesses from antibiotic-resistant pathogens, and recommend solutions to prevent repeated outbreaks.