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The Illusion of Food Safety: Disproportionate FDA Response Misses Big Opportunities

Safe or not safe? (photo: -Gep- via Flickr)

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration shut down the Estrella Family Creamery, a small family farming business in Washington State with limited numbers of customers and a relatively small distribution. The farm produced raw milk and cheese made from raw milk. The farm has tested positive for listeria over the past year; it’s not clear from various reports when the last positive test was taken as the family claims its products were free of listeria now based on recent samples, while reports indicate investigators’ tests showed persistent contamination.

Meanwhile, a mega-commercial egg producer with a history of contaminated products was permitted to ship their product to a substantial number of grocery stores across a number of chains affecting a sizable portion of the country. During the recent egg-borne salmonella outbreak resulting in an estimated 1813 reported illnesses, at least half a billion eggs from two different producers shipped to at least 14 states, involving 47 brands of eggs and two egg noodle products were recalled. The ensuing fear of egg products cuts into sales of other egg producers with far better track records of hygiene and safety.

And the FDA got involved in AUGUST 2010 only well after people became sick; the first illnesses were originally reported in APRIL 2010 with one cluster of salmonella reported in MAY.

What is wrong with this picture?

The response is disproportionate between this small farm and the mega-corporate businesses.  . . .

Here’s a snapshot of foodborne illness from a 2008 report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control:

In 2008, a total of 18,499 laboratory-confirmed cases of infection in FoodNet surveillance areas were identified. The number of infections and incidence per 100,000 population were reported as follows:Salmonella (7,444; 16.20), Campylobacter (5,825; 12.68), Shigella (3,029; 6.59), Cryptosporidium (1,036; 2.25), STEC O157 (513; 1.12), STEC non-O157 (205; 0.45), Yersinia (164; 0.36),Listeria (135; 0.29), Vibrio (131; 0.29), and Cyclospora (17; 0.04)

A report from the Department of Food Safety at Kansas State University dated 2007 cited these stats for raw milk illnesses:

CDC reports that from 1998 to 2005 there were 39 outbreaks associated with unpasteurized milk or cheese.
– These outbreaks resulted in an estimated 831 illnesses, 66 hospitalizations and 1 death (Source:

That’s roughly 120 people sick in each of seven years with one death over that period of time.

Contrast with the peanut butter-borne salmonella outbreak between September 2008-January 2009; in a five-month period, 500 people were sickened and eight people died because of a single commercial peanut butter producer, Peanut Corporation of America.

For five months the outbreak was not resolved; children actually ate this same peanut butter in their taxpayer-subsidized public school lunches.

You’d think there would have been a bit more speed and agility in responding to the most recent peanut butter-salmonella outbreak. There had been an earlier peanut butter-borne salmonella outbreak in 2006, during which more than 600 people in 47 states became sick after eating Peter Pan and Great Value brand products.

In the case of the egg-borne salmonella outbreak this summer, four months passed before the FDA got involved; the first cases of illness were seven diners who’d contracted salmonella in Minneapolis, eating the same egg-containing products which originated in Iowa.

Meanwhile we haven’t heard of a single case of actual illness coming from Estrella’s farm. All kinds of sampling has been done at this single dairy, too.

Where were the samples from the PCA peanut butter plant?

Where were the samples from the Iowa egg producers?

Why weren’t these mega-sized producers shut down based on the results of samples long before anybody got sick?

Why doesn’t the public get warnings about the possibility that foods like peanut butter and eggs aren’t safe and should be consumed with caution, like the warnings published in September about Estrella’s milk products?

Food safety in this country is an illusion. A substantive majority of people in the U.S. merrily chow down on corporate-prepared food stuffs thinking they are safe. Those relatively few people who seek out raw milk products generally realize they may be taking a risk with consuming raw milk. They choose the raw milk because they think it’s healthier and safer for them than the corporate food stuffs on the corporate grocers’ shelves.

Given the numbers and the disproportionate response of the FDA to safeguarding foods from small producers versus large producers, who can blame them for choosing different odds?

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Blogger since 2002, political activist since 2003, FDL community member since 2005, geek since birth.

Fan of science and technology, wannabe artist, decent cook, successful troublemaker and purveyor of challenging memetics whose genetics may be only nominally better.

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