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Many Americans Suffer Food Poisoning Without Realizing It; FDA a Failure at Food Safety

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The next time you have a case of diarrhea that lasts a day or more, chances are very good that you have food poisoning. Nearly 25% of Americans suffer a foodborne illness each year. Scientists have counted more than 250 food-related types of illness, which can range from viruses to bacteria to parasites.

Ten years ago, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) came up with a formula to determine how many Americans get food poisoning each year. Adjusted for the current population, there are close to 87 million cases in all—371,000 hospitalizations and 5,700 deaths.
The recent salmonella outbreak traced to the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) caused more than 640 confirmed illnesses in 44 states and has been linked to nine deaths. However, health officials assume that for every salmonella case, there are three dozen unreported cases. By that calculation, the latest peanut-related outbreak actually sickened closer to 20,000 people. Pregnant women, infants, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems are particularly susceptible.
Other widely publicized outbreaks of food-related illness include salmonella poisoning linked to hot peppers and tomatoes from Mexico that sickened more 1,400 last year; an E. coli outbreak from bagged spinach in 2006; and even deadly cases of hepatitis A from green onions in 2003.
Within weeks of the news that its facilities were contaminated, the processing plants at PCA were shut down, its customers have fled, the company has filed for bankruptcy, and civil lawsuits have been filed across the country, many of which are also holding the CEO, Stewart Parnell, personally responsible.
Much of the ire directed toward Parnell stemmed from his notably “cavalier attitude,” according to the Wall Street Journal, “as well as his company’s dodgy health record.” PCA was “unresponsive” to an order from health officials to recall all products ever shipped from its Plainview, Texas, plant after inspectors found dead rodents, feces, and bird feathers in a crawl space above a production area.
Of perhaps even greater concern, the FDA was completely unaware of the Texas plant’s existence, according to the Washington Post. The plant was not registered with the state and had never been inspected by health officials. State and federal officials learned about the plant only after the FDA began questioning company officials in connection with the outbreak.
Problems like this have prompted Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) to introduce a bill in Congress to move food oversight out of the FDA and create the new Food Safety Administration (FSA). The FSA would be provided with tools to enforce food safety laws through administrative detention, recalls, and civil and criminal penalties for food safety violations, and would provide special whistleblower protection as well.
While this might sound promising, DeLauro’s bill leaves supplements back at the FDA. If they went to a new agency, supplements might be subject to a host of new rules contained in the bill; but leaving them at the FDA would implicitly class supplements with drugs when they are in fact food supplements, and the FDA’s hostile treatment of supplements would only increase. AAHF is closely monitoring the DeLauro bill and also monitoring what happens in the Senate, where a similar bill is expected from Dick Durbin (D-IL). We will keep you posted on developments and of course may soon ask for your help with Congress.

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