By Monica Charles
Food poisoning outbreaks in the first half of 2015 alone have been making headlines – Listeria in Blue Bell Ice Cream, E-coli in salad ingredients, Salmonella in sushi – and the World Health Organization chose food safety as its theme for World Health day in early April. The most recent national statistics estimate that one in six Americans will get a foodborne illness this year. What’s going wrong?
In the United States, food safety has been in debate since 1906. Now, more than a century later, the federal government is making a push to standardize food regulations in an official setting, rather than continue control as it is now: spread out among 15 different government agencies, as well as in regional health departments.
In 1906, health regulation was put on public display when investigative journalist Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, was published and widely read. It revealed countless health violations and unsanitary practices in the meatpacking industry in the United States. The federal government responded with the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, which formed the Food and Drug Administration and also included the Meat Inspection Act, which was concerned with meat production in sanitary conditions. As new pharmaceutical technology emerged, the legislation was proven to be ineffective, and former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act into law in 1938. The FDA looked to renovate these regulations in 2010, with FSMA, the Food Safety Modernization Act. The bill encouraged federal and state integration and set new standards that are to be fully implemented by 2016.
But with the fractured food safety standards passing through multiple governing bodies, concern has again reached the federal government. President Obama proposed $1.6 billion total for food safety improvements. This includes the proposal for a new agency within the Department of Health and Human Services that would set standards for food safety. The President was quoted saying that the new agency “would provide focused, centralized leadership, a primary voice on food safety standards and compliance with those standards, and clear lines of responsibility and accountability that will enhance both prevention of and responses to outbreaks of foodborne illnesses.”
Policymakers on the Hill haven’t been quiet, either. In January, senators and representatives in Congress introduced the Safe Food Act of 2015, legislation that proposes a new federal agency that would only work with the regulation of food: the Food Safety Administration.
The bill, which was introduced in late January, calls for a standalone agency to ensure focus on the issue. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) proposed the bill to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, and co-sponsors from senators in California, Connecticut, and New York. In the House of Representatives, Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-CT) introduced an identical bill to the House Committee on Agriculture, Energy, and Commerce, and it received 11 cosponsors. The bill emphasizes state and federal cooperation, in attempt to foster more communication and standardization in local food inspection services.
Shelley Feist, the Executive Director of the Partnership for Food Safety Education, has made efforts to keep the consumer in mind throughout these changes. The Partnership began after the Jack-In-The-Box outbreak in the mid 1990’s, when seven children died from E-coli poisoning. The group now focuses on reducing the risk of foodborne illness through consumer education and public-private partnerships with government agencies and industry names.
Feist sees how an agency solely committed to the cause would make sense in some ways. “I think from the standpoint of say, a consumer, the system we have now for who does what in food safety doesn’t really make sense or would seem to be kind of a Frankenstein,” she said.
The PFSE emphasizes consumer action, particularly in terms of handling meats and poultry – areas of food preparation that are especially risky but also, in many cases, preventable.
Darcy Brown, a student at American University, avoids meat in most situations because she does not trust local or federal regulations.
“I remember when hamburger meat was made with ammonia in it, and then there was the pink slime and all of that scariness, and then there’s McDonalds and what they do to their meat. It’s just so disgusting,” Brown said. “I don’t know why the FDA would let people eat that when it’s really not safe ingredients or chemicals… They’re our government and they’re supposed to protect us, but they’re not protecting what we eat.”
When Brown does purchase meat, she exercises caution when selecting grocery store and meat product. “When I go food shopping, I’ll only buy meat from Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, and I only buy white meat, I only buy chicken. I won’t buy red meat and I won’t cook red meat myself,” she said. “It’s hard to know where it comes from and if you can trust it.”
The head chef at Washington, DC restaurant Barrel, Garrett Flemming, holds that even Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, which are known for having the freshest products, are not always up to par.
“If you go through, say, Whole Foods, most fish that’s being held at Whole Foods is usually about a week old by the time you see it,” Flemming said. “If you go to Giant you’re usually at 8-10 days, you go to Safeway again about 8-10 days. And they keep it as well as they can, because they keep it on ice, just as you should, in a refrigerated area that’s super cold, but it’s not super fresh.”
At Barrel, Flemming says that the staff is willing to put in the extra money to get one-day shipping from different regions in order to have the freshest meats and fish.
“We go through probably one of the most famous pig farms on the east coast. It is probably the best example of a sustainable practice in terms of how they raise their animals and how they butcher them, and how it directly leads to a higher quality of pig and pork in terms of the kitchen.”
Flemming did express his trust in meat storage standards, explaining how important it is to keep meat over ice, “at a solid 35 degrees,” to extend shelf life. The risk of serving questionable product is always present, though.
“You’re never going to protect against stupidity. And you’re never going to protect against cheapness. So the people that are going to poison people can pass health code all day long… it’s that 1 in every 10,000 oysters is going to have some level of toxicity that’s going to make someone’s day a nightmare.”
Health code in the District is separate from the federal government, and it is held to its own standards. In 2002, District Council members approved legislation for a new Food Code. It required standardized training and standardized training and inspections that “evaluated the food facility holistically, including environmental factors, rather than focusing on individual components.”
The newly appointed director of the Department of Health, LaQuandra S. Nesbitt MD, MPH, did not respond to inquiries, but all health code violations can be found on the DC.gov website. Angelico’s pizzeria, a neighborhood, family owned Italian restaurant in Tenleytown, received a violation in January 2014. The inspection included nine total violations, one, regarding temperature that meat was being stored at, considered critical.
When asked about the violation, Angelico’s general manager Tayfun Uzun did not express concern.
“Yeah, we did receive some violations, but everyone does,” Uzun said. “It didn’t impede on any business and wasn’t a big deal.”
Angelico’s, which serves food characteristic of an Italian restaurant – including but not limited to lamb, pepperoni, bacon, and sausage – can be inspected at any time.
A few miles down the road, in Eastern Market, Union Meat Company has been running a family owned butcher stand at the market since 1946. The stand sells high quality meats including beef, lamb, pork, veal, and bison. Bill Glasgow, a co-owner of the stand, said they have never received a violation, and he is more or less satisfied with the health department.
“The city can inspect us whenever they want… Sometimes they come once a week, sometimes once a month, and sometimes every 3 months. It really just depends on when they want to come,” Glasgow said.
But Flemming, at the nearby Eastern Market restaurant, criticized the focuses of the inspections, citing what he considers to be arbitrary requirements for pH strips in all sinks in the kitchens of restaurants.
“Do you know how many times I’ve seen somebody check the pH of the water? Never,” Flemming said. “These kind of archaic throwbacks – they don’t even have the education in their own department to tell you what they need with it.”
“If they created the perfect food inspector and took an old beat up chef that’s been everywhere and done everything, maybe that could help. But then again he’d be selling everybody out,” Flemming said. “It’s highly unlikely that this would ever happen.”
In the past, policy change has been key in regulating food safety in order to make consumers safer in their day-to-day lives. The Safe Food Act bill is still in discussion, having been referred to sub-committees in Congress. Experts in the industry such as Feist, with PFSE, anticipate positive change to come in the next decade.
“I’ve seen an amazing growth in just the amount of collaborative engagement around food safety,” Feist said. “So I would think we’d see in ten years a lot of new things have been put in place to protect our food.”