Food safety falls short in the U.S., consumer group says

Image: Beef in a butchers department of a supermarket in New York on April 25, 2015.

Contaminated beef makes 333 people sick. Kosher poultry carrying Salmonella kills one person and puts 11 into the hospital. And, perhaps most startling, federal health officials tell Americans to stop eating all romaine lettuce because of an outbreak of E. coli.

If it seems like there are more food recalls lately, it’s because there are. And a new report Thursday from the Public Interest Research Group argues that federal health officials can and should be doing more to protect the U.S. food supply.

“These recalls are a warning to everyone that something is rotten in our fields and slaughterhouses. Government agencies need to make sure that the food that reaches people’s mouths won’t make them sick,” said Adam Garber, the group’s consumer watchdog.

Why you must avoid romaine lettuce

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PIRG found a 10 percent increase in food recalls of all types between 2013 and 2018 across the U.S. Broken down by food type, there was a 67 percent increase in meat and poultry recalls and a 2 percent rise in produce and processed food recalls, according to the group’s analysis of federal government data.

And while the government says the U.S. food supply is very safe, the consumer group says it could be safer.

“There are systemic failures in the food system, which means that we are still rolling the dice when we go food shopping,” PIRG’S Viveth Karthikeyan, who worked on the report, told NBC News.

“Americans should be confident that their food is safe and uncontaminated.”

The Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention argue that much of the increase in recalls is due to better detection and monitoring. Genetic fingerprinting means that what looked like many unrelated cases of illness can now be traced to a common source, and that can prompt a recall that protects thousands more.

“We do agree that some of the recalls are due to the government being better at monitoring and surveillance,” Karthikeyan said. But he said the government has not implemented rules that would make food even safer, and retailers are not doing enough to make sure customers learn quickly about recalls.

Other groups have made similar complaints. Earlier this month, the Pew Trusts’ Sandra Eskin said the two recalls of romaine lettuce this year demonstrated that FDA needs to move quickly to implement rules about testing water for contamination.

Some of the beefs that PIRG has with the food safety system:

  • Meat production is largely self-regulated
  • Produce growers are not required to check their irrigation water for bacteria
  • Food producers or retailers are not punished for repeat offenses
  • There’s no coherent system for warning people they may have purchased contaminated food

The U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees the safety of meat and poultry, and tells consumers to expect that chicken carcasses, for instance, are likely to carry salmonella. That’s why people are warned against allowing raw meat to touch anything that might go straight to a person’s mouth, and that’s why there are so many guidelines about cooking food to germ-killing temperatures.