New Regs to Reduce Foodborne Illness
Every year, about 76 million Americans get sick; 325,000 end up in hospitals; and 5,000 die from eating food tainted with salmonella, E. coli, and other contaminants. Salmonella from eggs alone causes 142,000 illnesses annually. In fact, food-borne illnesses cost Americans about $35 billion a year and account for one out of every 100 hospitalizations. And that's just in the United States.
But those dire figures may become a lot less alarming in the near future if the federal administration's just announced new food safety regulations work to clean up the food supply. In breaking the news, Vice-President Joe Biden commented that, "There are few responsibilities more basic or more important ... for the government than making sure our families in America eat food that is not contaminated. American families have enough to worry about today. They should not have [food safety] as a concern."
Eggs will be the first target of the stricter regulations. Right now, one egg out of every 200 tests positive for salmonella when the egg comes from a flock of fewer than 3000. Do the math: if you have two eggs for breakfast three days a week, your odds of encountering a salmonella-egg within one year are pretty high. If you eat the egg raw or undercooked, you'll get super sick. But those are the good numbers -- the numbers the Feds would like everyone to achieve. The figures are more dismal in larger flocks because of the disgusting conditions in large-scale commercial egg operations, where rodents and pests often run rampant.
And so, the new law will require rodent control measures. According to Darrell Trampel, a poultry veterinarian (yes, such a career path does exist) at Iowa State University, "Mice are notorious carriers of [salmonella] and, in the fall when it starts getting cold, the mice start looking for a warmer home and some of them make their way into chicken houses, and then they leave their droppings behind in the feed and so the chickens pick it up in that manner." (Don't think about that too deeply the next time you eat an egg.)
It also doesn't help that existing regulations don't require refrigeration of eggs until they reach store shelves. The new guidelines will require that eggs get refrigerated both at the farm and during shipment, starting 36 hours after being laid. And, farmers will need to start testing regularly for salmonella, which, apparently, they haven't had to do in the past. They also will need to clean and disinfect poultry houses where salmonella has been found, which it also seems they haven't had to do in the past.
If you're ready to gag just reading about the conditions that your morning eggs most likely experienced before reaching the frying pan, keep gagging for at least 12 months, when the regulations kick in for the largest farms. Smaller farms of up to 50,000 laying hens have up to three years to comply. In the meantime, if you do eat eggs, make sure they weren't cracked in the carton, that they were refrigerated, that you cook them thoroughly, and wash your hands well after handling. Better yet, get eggs from small, local, organic producers that you know, or buy your own chickens and keep a clean coop.
The FDA says the new measures will cost egg farmers about $81 million a year, but only add a penny to the cost of a dozen eggs, but consumers will save $1.4 billion a year in medical expenses, and salmonella cases from eggs should diminish by about 60 percent.
To implement the new regulations, the government will appoint a deputy commissioner of food safety who will spearhead better coordination and communication between regulators. Right now, 15 disparate agencies oversee food. The FDA oversees produce, for instance, while the USDA oversees meat. The new setup should prevent oversight from falling through the cracks.
High on the agenda after eggs will be cleaning up poultry. The USDA wants to establish new standards and reach 90 percent compliance in poultry houses by 2010. And that's good news given that a 2007 study by Consumer's Reports found 83 percent of the chickens they tested harbored either campylobacter or salmonella. The scariest part of that figure is that the research team tested 22 major brands, including Foster Farms, Tyson, and 10 organic brands, and the organic brands had far higher rates of salmonella contamination than the non-organic brands, though all tested about the same for campylobacter. So if you go organic, you win in avoiding antibiotic and pesticide residues, but have a greater risk of bacterial infection.
It would be interesting to know if the "organic" chickens came from the same farms as the non-organic chickens -- just from a different section. In other words, were the "organic lines" of huge poultry producers subjected to the same horrifying conditions as non-organic chickens except that they received organic feed with nothing done to control rodent populations? Or was it the lack of antibiotics in the chicken feed that made a difference? But before you decide that organic chicken isn't worth the price, consider that the diets fed to mass-produced chickens and turkeys include cannibalized parts from slaughtered chickens and turkeys infected with leukosis (cancer tumors), large amounts of antibiotics, and arsenic (yes, it's a government approved additive). Incidentally, over half of all the commercial poultry that you buy and eat is riddled with leukosis tumors. The point here is that bacterial contamination is not necessarily the only determining factor in the safety of the food we eat.
In any case, the good news here is that it looks like the new measures focus on basics like ensuring that food comes from clean facilities and that it receives prompt and adequate refrigeration -- things that most consumers have mistakenly taken for granted. It puts in place stricter inspection standards and better coordination of regulatory agencies. This represents a major improvement over taking shortcuts like irradiating food to "make it safer," or rushing to approve badly written legislation such as S 425/HR 875 that some people think will spell the end of organic farming and home grown produce.