Preventing Food Poisoning in the Age of a Globalized Food Supply

The government can’t realistically put an inspector in every factory. So what’s the solution?

On Wednesday, The New York Times reported on some shady meat traders in China who had been “peddling tons of beef, pork, and chicken wings that in some cases had been frozen for 40 years.” It’s like a twisted version of a viral article: “Want to Feel Old? Eat This Meat!” Wait, no, don’t. Definitely don’t.

Atlantic senior editor Corby Kummer referenced the Times article on Thursday at the Aspen Ideas Festival’s Spotlight Health session, during a panel on food safety. In the United States, we may think ancient chicken wings are just a curiosity, but in fact, modern food supply chains are more global than ever. According to the Food and Drug Administration, in the U.S., 20 percent of the fresh vegetables people eat are imported, along with 50 percent of fresh fruits, and a whopping 80 percent of seafood. It’s not unthinkable that an outbreak of food poisoning in China could make its way around the world.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that one in six Americans get sick from foodborne illness each year, 128,000 go to the hospital because of it, and 3,000 die. There have been several highly publicized outbreaks in recent years, including an outbreak of Listeria in Bluebell ice cream, an outbreak of Salmonella in cantaloupe, and earlier this week, a recall of several brands of bottled water due to E. coli.

“We do have one of the safest food supplies in the world, but there’s still a burden of preventable disease,” Margaret Hamburg, who, until a few months ago, was the commissioner of the FDA, said at the panel. “We have to recognize that some of the foods that are being regulated in countries around the world that don’t have as robust of regulatory systems as we do [are being brought] into this country.”

Which is not to say there are no problems stateside. Hamburg and her co-panelist, the Aspen Institute vice president Daniel Glickman, reviewed the history of food safety in modern America, which dates back to Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle, in which he detailed the filthy conditions of early 20th-century meatpacking plants in Chicago.

Since then, Glickman said, the focus has mostly remained on meat. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, where Glickman used to work, has historically had more money and resources (for inspections on meat) than the FDA, which handles produce, among other food products. That’s changing, as the FDA prepares to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act, which passed in 2011. Among other things, this law gives the FDA the power to instate a mandatory recall of compromised food products.

“It’s the first time our approach to food safety has focused on prevention,” Hamburg said. “That isn’t the way our food-safety system has operated for decades now. You wait until there’s a problem and then you try to respond to the problem as quickly as possible. What we’re trying to do now is make sure systems are in place ahead of the challenge of an outbreak.”

Making this happen doesn’t mean just putting inspectors in every food-manufacturing facility in the nation. That’s not a realistic goal, anyway. Instead, the panelists said, there need to be standards based on science, and cooperation between not only the USDA and the FDA, but with the food industry, and with regulatory bodies abroad.

Glickman compared the problem to that of air safety, overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration.

“There probably wasn’t an inspector when you flew here,” he said.  But “the rules are rigorously followed. By and large we have the safest air system in the world, in large part because no airline wants to have a crash, and the government has done a pretty good job of keeping that from happening. But there’s not an FAA inspector on every plane.”

If government agencies develop a clear procedure for keeping food products safe, and companies cooperate, hopefully there wouldn’t need to be an inspector in every factory either.

“We are always operating on the verge of a disaster if we don’t invest in systems that are necessary,” Hamburg said.