Food Safety Issues Lead the News in 2012

food safetyFood safety issues were prominent in 2012 with several serious bacterial outbreaks topping the news as well as government agency and regulation troubles. These issues have consumers concerned about the ability of the government to protect the food supply.

Some consumer groups are concerned about the termination of the USDA’s 11-year-old Microbiological Data Program (MDP). The program provided 80% of the testing for food-borne pathogens on fresh vegetables and fruit available for consumption in the United States. Who will pick up the slack and protect the public? That remains to be seen.

Another government cutback came in the form of the USDA’s new “trust without much verification” policy. The policy has an influence on foreign meat products. This new policy introduces a significant reduction in foreign site visits by USDA inspectors. What does this mean for the U.S. public? In 2012, an outbreak of E. coli was traced to a beef processing plant in Alberta, Canada. This incident brought to light the lack of USDA inspection of the facility producing beef for U.S. consumption.

The E. coli outbreak itself was discovered during random testing by the USDA at the international border with Canada. In September 2012, the bacteria was discovered, and the tainted beef sickened 18 people in Canada. The beef was recalled, including 2.5 million pounds, which were exported to the U.S.

Politics and Food Safety

A September 2012 outbreak of Salmonella found in peanut butter, sickened 42 people in 20 states. The peanut butter recall began with Trader Joe’s Creamy Salted Valencia brand but quickly spread to include many other products sold through additional retailers under well-known brand names. The recall eventually included several other nut products. The source of the salmonella bacteria was traced back to Sunland Farms, based in New Mexico, the nation’s largest processing facility for organic peanut butter. Sunland Farms now has the distinction of becoming the first facility in the United States to have its registration suspended under the new Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

The FSMA, which has been held up in political wrangling between the White House’s Executive Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, was passed two years ago and has faded ever since. The pulling of the Sunland Farms food facility registration was the first use of the new regulations by FDA Commissioner, Margaret Hamburg. This may finally signal some action on the food safety front for 2013.

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