Tons of Foods Recalled and Thousands Sickened as Senate Stalls on Food Safety

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Tons of Foods Recalled and Thousands Sickened as Senate Stalls on Food Safety

Consumer Groups, Survivors of Foodborne Illness, Call on Senate to Pass FDA Reform Legislation This Month

WASHINGTON - As the nation reels from the impact of a massive egg recall that has
sickened well over 1,500 people, survivors of foodborne illness and
consumer advocates say that antiquated laws and poor enforcement are to
blame. According to a new report, the massive egg recall
is only the latest—but largest—of 85 recalls that companies made while
food safety reform legislation has been pending in the Senate, and since
similar legislation passed the House in July of 2009. All told, at
least 1,850 people have been sickened from foods subject to a recall,
according to a report issued today by three consumer groups. And since
foodborne illness is dramatically underreported, the actual toll of
illness is almost certainly in the tens of thousands.

“Recalls and outbreaks are the most public consequence of our
‘horse and buggy’ food safety system,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest.
“Consumers are sometimes sickened and everyone up and down the chain
has to check for, remove, and destroy the contaminated products. Only
Congress can fix the underlying problems by passing legislation that has
been languishing in the Senate for over a year.”

In the 13-month period since the House passed H.R. 2749, the
Food Safety Enhancement Act, researchers from CSPI, Consumer Federation
of America, and U.S. Public Interest Research Group identified 85
separate recalls linked to at least 1,850 illnesses. 36 of those
recalls were due to Salmonella contamination of lettuce, alfalfa
sprouts, green onions, and ground pepper. Hydrolyzed vegetable protein
contaminated with Salmonella spurred the recall of a wide variety of
soup and dip mixes, dressings, and seasonings. 32 recalls, mostly from
contaminated cheeses, were due to dangerous Listeria bacteria. E. coli
bacteria on shredded romaine lettuce sickened at least 26 people in 23
states and the District of Columbia.

At a press conference
in Washington, representatives from the consumer groups said that the
Senate needs to take up food safety legislation immediately after it
reconvenes. A conference committee will then have to craft a final bill
before it can be sent to the President.
For survivors of foodborne illness and their families, the wait has
been too long.

“I want to know that the food on my plate is safe,” said 13-year-old Rylee Gustafson,
of Henderson, Nev. In 2006, Rylee spent two-weeks on life support and
was hospitalized for a month after eating spinach contaminated with E.
coli. Since her illness, Rylee has been active with Safe Tables Our
Priority (S.T.O.P.), which assists victims of foodborne illness and
advocates for reform. “I hope that the Senate can finish work on the
food safety bill, and that other kids won’t have to suffer from a
foodborne illness like I did.”

Both the House-passed bill and the bill pending in the Senate
require food manufacturers to develop written food safety plans and to
implement preventive measures. Both bills give the FDA a mandate to
conduct inspections of food processing facilities, and to conduct
microbial testing. Under current law, many facilities go for five or
10 years without an inspection. The Senate bill would require high-risk
producers to be inspected more frequently. Both bills give the agency
the authority to order companies to recall potentially tainted foods.

“Most Americans probably assume that FDA inspects farms and
food processing plants are inspected regularly and that when problems
arise, FDA can quickly order tainted eggs or spinach off the market,”
said Chris Waldrop, director of the Consumer Federation of America’s
Food Policy Institute. “In fact, neither of those assumptions is true.
The Senate food safety bill would give the FDA the authority it needs
to do its job.”

“Unfortunately, the FDA is often in reactive mode, chasing
down the source of an outbreak long after much of the food in question
has been sold,” said Elizabeth Hitchcock, public health advocate for
U.S. PIRG, which is activating its nationwide grassroots network to push
for a vote on S. 510. “We need this food safety reform legislation so
that the FDA can focus on preventing contamination in the first
place—before the food ends up in Americans’ cupboards and
refrigerators.”

In 2009, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid assured young
Rylee, the survivor of the 2006 spinach outbreak, that food safety was a
priority. “We’re going to do everything we can to get this legislation
done,” Reid said. A month later, the bipartisan food safety bill was
unanimously reported out of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and
Pensions Committee. But more than a year—and 59 recalls—later, no vote
has been scheduled.

“My Salmonella infection from eggs was the most devastating
thing I have ever been through,” said Sarah Lewis, a mother of two from
Freedom, Calif. “I would hate for anyone else to have to go through
anything like it, especially if they have small children who need care.
The fact that this egg outbreak could happen on such a large scale
makes it clear to me that food regulation needs to be improved.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that
76 million people suffer from foodborne illness each year. 325,000
will be hospitalized. And approximately 5,000 Americans will die.
Children and the elderly are most likely to experience severe cases of
illness and death from foodborne pathogens.

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Since 1971, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has been a strong advocate for nutrition and health, food safety, alcohol policy, and sound science.

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