Food safety touted amid concern over listeria recalls
WASHINGTON — First ice cream, now hummus.
The nation is seeing another series of food recalls. This time, the culprit is a type of bacteria called listeria.
“It is a very, very tricky bug and it requires a great deal of diligence,” says Dr. Robert Lawrence, director of the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
One of the big problems with listeria is it can crop up almost anywhere. It is found in soil, water and can contaminate meat, poultry, some dairy products and produce. But listeria can also turn up in food processing plants and other points along the food chain.
The government’s food safety website — FoodSafety.gov — says ready-to-eat deli meats and hot dogs are prone to listeria, as are soft cheeses made with unpasteurized milk, pate’s and other meat spreads
Good cooking hygiene can help cut the risk of food poisoning. Lawrence suggests rinsing produce well and towel drying as well as keeping unopened hot dogs, deli meats and the like in the refrigerator for no more than five days.
No one is 100 percent sure where the recently recalled food products — BlueBell ice cream and Sabra hummus — might have come in contact with listeria, which is odorless and tasteless. And when it comes to processed foods like these, experts say the best way to prevent contamination is through rigorous food safety inspections.
But there is a problem.
“The FDA is scrambling to do the best it can with an underfunded staff of inspectors,” says Lawrence.
In 2010, Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act, which was designed to give the Food and Drug Administration more tools to prevent outbreaks of food-borne illnesses. But the legislature never provided the money needed to do the job.
“It’s a classic paper tiger,” says Lawrence, adding the main thing the FDA needs to really tackle food safety is a sufficient budget,.
The FDA does the bulk of food production oversight, but not all. There are more than a dozen different federal agencies working on the issue, and Lawrence says some restructuring to create one food safety operation might make the whole process more efficient.
In regulating the food industry, the FDA also works with the states. In Virginia, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs is involved in food safety inspections.
Pam Miles, program supervisor with the Office of Food Safety and Security, says when signs of listeria were found in Sabra hummus “they actually informed the Virginia Department of Agriculture and we have been working with FDA on this investigation.”
Miles emphasizes that listeria can be very dangerous — especially for older adults, pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year 48 million people get food poisoning, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die from foodborne illnesses
Johns Hopkins’ Robert Lawrence says those numbers help put the debate over full funding for food safety improvements into context.
“If you add in all the health care costs, all the lost wages, all the decreased productivity, we are actually responsible, I think, for neglecting huge opportunities for prevention and for actual cost saving.”
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