Leafy greens, eggs, and tuna are on the top of a list of the 10 riskiest foods regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Those and seven other foods account for nearly 40 percent of all foodborne outbreaks linked to FDA-regulated food. That’s no reason to forgo the occasional salad Niçoise, says the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which authored the report, nor is there reason to pass up tomatoes, sprouts, and berries, even though those foods are also on the list. But the nonprofit watchdog group says the presence of so many healthy foods on such a list is exactly why the U.S. Senate should follow the House and pass legislation that reforms our fossilized food safety laws.
The FDA is responsible for regulating produce, seafood, egg and dairy products, as well as typical packaged foods such as cookie dough and peanut butter—nearly 80 percent of the food supply. More than 1,500 separate, definable outbreaks were associated with the top 10 riskiest FDA-regulated foods, causing nearly 50,000 reported illnesses. Since most foodborne illnesses are never reported, these outbreaks might only be the beginning.
“Outbreaks give the best evidence of where and when the food safety system is failing to protect the public,” says CSPI staff attorney Sarah Klein, the lead author of the report. “It is clearly time for FDA’s reliance on industry self-regulation to come to an end. The absence of safety plans or frequent inspections unfortunately means that some of our favorite and most healthful foods also top the list of the most risky.”
CSPI identified 363 outbreaks linked to iceberg lettuce, romaine, spinach, and other leafy greens, variously contaminated with E. coli, Norovirus, or Salmonella, and causing 13,568 cases of illness. Manure, contaminated irrigation water, or poor handling practices are all possible culprits in those outbreaks. The FDA does not currently require farms and processors to have written food safety plans, nor does it provide specific safety standards for even the largest growers to meet.
Eggs were linked to 352 outbreaks and 11,163 illnesses, tuna to 268 outbreaks and 2,341 cases of illness, and oysters—despite their limited consumption—to 132 outbreaks causing 3,409 illnesses. Outbreaks involving potatoes are linked to 108 outbreaks and 3,659 cases of illness. Cheese, ice cream, tomatoes, sprouts, and berries round out the top 10 list. The data come from CSPI’s Outbreak Alert! Database, which includes outbreaks from 1990 to 2006, using data collected from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other sources.
In July, the House of Representatives passed the Food Safety Enhancement Act with broad, bipartisan support. That measure would give FDA authority to require food processors to design and implement food safety plans, provide specific safety standards that growers would have to meet, and require FDA to visit high-risk facilities every 12 months or less, and most other facilities every 3-4 years. In the Senate, similar legislation, sponsored by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), is pending.