March: Biodefense & food supply safetyCongress urges companies to do more on food safety

Published 4 March 2008

There are 303,556,795 million people in the United States, according the U.S. Census Bureau (the figure is accurate for yesterday, 3 March); of these, 76 million people — that is, 25 percent — get sick every year with some sort of foodborne illness; 5,000 die; as food imports increase, these grim figures increase apace; Congress wants industry to be more diligent

U.S. food suppliers are overhauling their own food safety rules, executives from companies involved in recent food recalls said on last week, but lawmakers said the industry must do more to prevent future outbreaks.

A series of headline-grabbing food safety scares in the past two years — including spinach tainted with E. coli and peanut butter and pot pies with salmonella — have aggravated concerns among consumers, Congress and federal health regulators. Just last week, California-based Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company recalled 143 million lbs of beef because it butchered “downer” cattle in violation of federal rules. Plant workers were caught on videotape forcing unfit cattle to slaughter. It was the largest meat recall in U.S. history (see HSDW story).

The National Post’s Christopher Doering writes that

food executives told a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee they are implementing a series of initiatives to improve food safety at their facilities. “The fact our industry has had recalls should not be viewed as an indication of complacency,” said David DeLorenzo, the chief executive of Dole Food Company. In recent months, Dole has stepped up its testing and tracking of produce to prevent outbreaks of E. coli such as the one linked to bagged spinach two years ago that sickened hundreds and killed three. Lawmakers, though, told industry officials that while foodmakers have apologized, they have not done enough to prevent future recalls and unsafe products from reaching consumers. “If you don’t join us in changing the current system, I can assure you that this will not be the last time you join us in testifying about another recall,” said Representative John Dingell (D-Michigan), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

ConAgra Foods battled its own recall problems in 2007, including salmonella contamination found in Banquet pot pies, and in Peter Pan peanut butter which sickened 600 people. The packaged food company has increased training for plant employees and is conducting food safety audits across all its facilities. “Taking any kind of food safety risk is a really bad business decision,” said ConAgra chief executive Gary Rodkin, who said food safety is a top priority for the company. “It’s a big, big financial burden” that damages consumer perception of your brand and the company’s relationship with retailers, he added. “We count on you folks to make this food supply safe,” Representative Mike Doyle (D-Pennsylvania) told industry executives. “It’s a scary thought that any parent or child, when we go and buy things in our stores, should have to worry about whether or not this meat is going to make us sick or kill us.”

Lawmakers have introduced more than a dozen proposals in recent months designed to improve various aspects of the food supply, covering both imported and U.S.-made goods. Among the measures from Congress include combining the 15 government agencies that handle food safety under one roof, and giving the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Agriculture Department the ability to conduct a mandatory recall. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has estimated that 76 million people in the United States get sick every year with some sort of foodborne illness and that 5,000 die. The Bush administration also issued a report last November that highlighted proposed changes, but critics say it lacks the money and force to get any real change to occur.