Food-borne pathogens are not cooperating with the Republican shutdown of the U.S. government.
In fact, they are busy sickening and killing Americans in more than 18 states, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are scrambling to recall furloughed employees to deal with a dangerous food-borne salmonella outbreak and a lethal Hepatitis outbreak in Hawaii.
The dual outbreaks have been linked to contaminated Foster Farms chicken products and the Dallas-based USPLabs LLC dietary supplement, OxyElite Pro. The outbreaks have sickened more than 300 people so far, killed one and hospitalized 87, with reports of antibiotic resistance for the precipitating strain of salmonella Heidelberg. No recall is currently in effect for Foster Farms chicken, but USPLabs has ceased distributing the supplement until the FDA investigation is complete.
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The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety Inspection Service inspectors have not been affected by the ongoing government shutdown as many meat and poultry facilities cannot legally operate without a USDA inspector on site. But more than 45 percent of all FDA employees have been furloughed, leaving daily operations such as crucial inspections of food imports on hiatus until the government reopens.
The CDC, which functions as the detective agency for the FDA and Inspection Service, was down to a skeleton crew of just 10 employees in its food-borne illness division when the latest outbreaks occurred.
Since the government shutdown began 11 days ago, these 10 employees have been struggling to maintain the constant updates required by the CDC’s nationwide PulseNet database for tracking food-borne pathogens and outbreaks. All federal and state agencies across the United States rely on this database for their work on food safety.
The U.S. Food Safety Modus Operandi
There are three U.S. government agencies charged with keeping our food safe through inspection and prevention programs. The FDA is the main agency conducting inspections, followed by the Inspection Service meat inspection program under the USDA and the CDC in its capacity as epidemiological detective agency.
The food-borne illness divisions of all three agencies are underfunded and understaffed even during times when the government is fully operational. Many food safety experts believe a chronic lack of funding is putting Americans at risk on a daily basis, to which 3,000 deaths, 128,000 hospitalizations and over 48 million reported annual instances of food-borne illness bear witness. The federal shutdown has pushed the Inspection Service, FDA and CDC into crisis, endangering Americans in all 50 states.
In addition to the dangerous underfunding at the FDA, privatized meat inspection programs have slashed the number of USDA inspectors at pilot plants around the nation. This larger trend of chronic underfunding and privatization reveal a systemic negligence that had contributed to making food safety a low priority even before the government shutdown.
The entire multi-agency U.S. food safety program currently operates on a reactive model, in which after-the-fact recalls and outbreak containment have replaced prevention and aggressive inspections. For example, only 6 percent of domestic food producers and 0.4 percent of food importers were inspected in 2011, a typical year.
With a federal shutdown, we are seeing the catastrophic effects of this reactive model and its cost in damaged and lost lives. The current crisis demands a clear understanding of how food safety has been compromised and the implementation of smart solutions, many of which are already on the table.
How Did We Get Here?
In January of 2007, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) identified federal oversight of food safety as a “high-risk” area that needs further action and attention, stating that “the patchwork nature of the federal oversight of food safety calls into question whether the government can plan more strategically to inspect food production processes, identify and react more quickly to any outbreaks of contaminated food, and focus on achieving results to promote the safety and integrity of the nation’s food supply.”
The report identified several problems that weaken oversight of the U.S. food safety system, including spending resources on overlapping food safety activities, where jurisdiction between the FDA and the USDA is not clearly defined; limited authority to compel companies to carry out recalls; fiscal challenges including budget cuts; and vulnerability to biological terrorism. Overall the GAO called the U.S. food system fragmented:
This federal regulatory system for food safety evolved piecemeal, typically in response to particular health threats or economic crises. During the past 30 years, [the GAO has] detailed problems with the fragmented federal food safety system and reported that the system has caused inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient use of resources. [The GAO’s] most recent work demonstrates that these challenges persist.
In 2007, another report was released, authored by academics, industry experts and other government agencies, finding the FDA was so underfunded and understaffed, it is putting consumers at risk. The report concluded that a plethora of problems plagued the food safety system, including inadequate inspections of food manufacturers, a broken food import system, a depleted FDA staff with added responsibilities, and other wide-ranging problems.
While some of the problems identified in the 2007 GAO report, such as oversight authority issues, will theoretically be mitigated with the full implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act, which became law in 2011, the food safety system remains on the GAO’s list of high-risk areas in 2013. The GAO could not be contacted for this story due to the ongoing government shutdown.
A history of underfunding stretches back through both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, especially the latter, which gutted much of the FDA inspection regime and cut its budget. More recently, the federal government under the Obama administration instituted a new statistical method for calculating food-borne deaths and illnesses that may understate the problem.
Additionally, a legacy of privatization during the Clinton and Bush administrations helped weaken USDA inspection in meat plants by experimenting with pilot programs such as the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point-Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP) which has been in place in some meat plants since the late 1990s.
The USDA recently announced plans to expand the HIMP pilot program, which would replace almost half the USDA inspectors in industrial meat plants with inspectors employed by those very same companies.
The USDA has allowed HIMP and similar privatized, experimental meat inspection programs to be used in meat plants in foreign countries, including Australia, Canada and New Zealand, whose products are for export to the United States. Pilot plants using the HIMP model in the United States, as well as meat plants using similar privatized inspection in foreign countries, have been plagued by an epidemic of contamination-related problems within the past two years.
The CDC has confirmed that outbreaks linked to imported food have been on the rise since the 1990s. With nearly half of FDA staff furloughed, about 91 percent of all imported seafood, nearly 50 percent of imported fruits and 20 percent of imported vegetables are going uninspected.
Many inspections in the United States are still being carried out through state and local agencies, but reporting any problems encountered at the federal level will prove challenging as the shutdown persists.
Responding to the Outbreaks
Affected food safety agencies are struggling to deal with the current outbreaks and other vital tasks amid the shutdown.
Wired magazine confirmed with the CDC before the government shutdown that the agency would not be able to track microbes that signal multi-state outbreaks of food-borne illnesses.
“I know that we will not be conducting multi-state outbreak investigations. States may continue to find outbreaks, but we won’t be doing the cross-state consultation and laboratory work to link outbreaks that might cross state borders,” a CDC staffer told Wired.
Since the agency brought back 30 furloughed staffers in its food-borne illness division, the agency has identified seven strains of salmonella related to the outbreak, with some of those strains exhibiting resistance to antibiotics, a CDC spokesperson told Truthout. The skeleton crew at the CDC is entering health information from those already sickened into their databases in an ongoing investigation.
“Different strains have different resistance profiles for different drugs. It’s concerning, and it could be contributing to what we know at this point in the investigation is an increased rate of hospitalization as compared to what you would expect in a salmonella Heidelberg outbreak,” CDC spokesperson Barbara Reynolds told Truthout.
According to Reynolds, the USDA has taken some steps relating to Foster Farms, but she was unaware of exactly what those steps were. The USDA could not be contacted for this story due to the government shutdown.
The agency is having trouble updating its nationwide PulseNet database for tracking food-borne pathogens and outbreaks. Rather than working through the centralized database, workers are being forced to contact health departments through email and by telephone to exchange information.
The Inspection Service originally alerted the CDC to the outbreak on Monday after issuing a safety alert. The CDC has now recalled 30 furloughed food-borne illness staffers shortly thereafter, but the Inspection Service has not been able to link the sicknesses to a specific production period or product. Instead, they reported that the troubled Foster Farms meat would have one of the following numbers on its packaging: P6137, P6137A or P7632.
California-based Foster Farms published a press release Monday warning consumers to cook their meat to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit and stating that they have not recalled their contaminated poultry products.
The Way Forward, Improving Food Safety
In the immediate short term, improvements in food safety must focus on regulation of the current internationalized agribusiness production system. Over a longer period, public support for existing policies that foster the growth of the U.S.’s small farmers and make agriculture more local and more organic is essential. In addition, a small but growing percentage of the U.S. food supply can be slowly diversified at the grassroots level over the next decade with incentives for families and neighborhoods to grow more of their own food closer to home.
One of the quickest ways to improve food safety within the current system is to enact and enforce Food Safety Modernization Act. This law was passed by both the House and Senate and signed into law by President Obama in 2011, but it has not yet been fully enacted. The Modernization Act represents the first major overhaul of the nation’s food safety laws in nearly 70 years. For the first time, it gives the FDA authority to legally mandate a recall of contaminated food.
Under the current system, each request for production records and/or a recall becomes a negotiation between the FDA and the food producer. Ultimately, recalls are voluntary for the producer, as is compliance with FDA recommendations to reduce risk and improve food safety after a recall is completed. The Modernization Act gives the FDA full authority to mandate recalls and hold food producers accountable for records transparency and corrective actions. It is urgently needed now.
In August, 2012, the nonprofits Center for Food Safety and the Center for Environmental Health sued the FDA and its commissioner, Margaret Hamburg, to force implementation of the new Modernization Act regulatory and inspection programs. U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton ordered the FDA to begin meeting Modernization Act deadlines immediately.
The FDA has until mid-2015 to fully enact the new law, but amendments introduced by Republicans in Congress threaten to weaken the Modernization Act, while budget delays and heavy lobbying by agribusiness interests in Congress could delay or gut the law’s implementation. Ensuring that the Act is fully implemented requires continued political pressure from voters, who can amplify their efforts by working through organizations such as the two nonprofit centers.
It is also essential that the Inspection Service begin moving away from the privatization model of meat and poultry inspection detailed above, in which an increasing number of meat producers self-inspect. This privatized inspection scheme, implemented under the guise of austerity, is failing to stop the production and distribution of contaminated meat and has resulted in multiple deadly salmonella outbreaks. A more activist model of prevention, inspection and epidemiological surveillance of meat and poultry producers similar to the Modernization Act is essential. At present, litigation by food safety advocates such as the Center for Food Safety is producing surprising success stories and needs to be supported until stricter laws are passed.
The Rise of Small Farms
From 1934 to 2001, the number of small farms in the United States declined steadily from a peak of nearly 8 million farms to a low of just over 2 million in 2001. However, from 2002 to 2007, the number of small farms increased 4 percent, the first increase since 1920, and the increase continued through 2010.
This increase in small farms is driven in part by a $1 billion boom in local farmers’ markets, which have doubled in number to a total of nearly 7,000 markets nationwide since 2004, according to USDA figures.
In an ironic twist, the increase in farmers’ markets is also driven by price pressure from large agribusiness producers. Small farmers are seeking more direct access to customers and offering more organic produce, meat and dairy products at slightly higher prices as a result.
This trend is likely to continue and can be encouraged by simple consumer choice. However, small farmers need to be more clearly defined, exempted from the expensive regulations imposed on large agribusiness producers and given special tax incentives.
The Obama administration has a publicly stated goal of adding 100,000 new farmers by 2016, and the administration requested $5 billion in annual funding for such a program in its 2011 and 2012 budgets. At the same time, the Farm Security and Rural Investment Program of the Obama administration has spent nearly $16 billion since 2009 to increase sustainable agricultural production and protect rural wetlands.
These are policies that help diversity our food production system with more local produce while increasing food safety and smart land stewardship. There are a number of organizations working to promote policies that help small family-owned farms and promote safer, more organic local food production. They deserve wide support for their efforts.
Individual and Community Solutions
Longer-term solutions center on the gradual reduction of our dependence on multinational agribusiness corporations and food distributors. With nearly two-thirds of fresh fruits and vegetables sold in the United States coming from food importers, there is an urgent need to begin moving toward a more diverse model of self-sufficiency.
History suggests that with the right government support and tax incentives, part of the solution to food safety can come from individual citizens and local communities. This is not wishful thinking. Even without policy and financial incentives, and lacking any public relations efforts, more than 31 percent of U.S. households, 36 million in total, participated in food gardening in 2008, growing vegetables, fruits, berries and herbs.
At the same time, the American Community Gardening Association estimates there are 18,000 community gardens in the United States, in spite of a lack of government support and competition with developers for open land. The benefits of community gardens are considerable, including their capacity to teach good environmental stewardship to families and children, build stronger communities, reduce food imports while increasing nutrition, reduce agriculture’s carbon footprint and even increase property values.
At many points in U.S. history, including the early 20th century, government educational and funding programs were in place to encourage home and community gardening. During World War II, for example, “victory gardens” were encouraged to increase self-reliance and homeland security. In 1944, these victory gardens produced 42 percent of U.S. vegetables.
Incentives for individual and community gardens, which are often categorized as “urban farming,” can be provided through federal grants to states that have developed smart programs to encourage home and community gardening, via state and local incentive programs such as California’s recent legislation to promote urban farming and through partnership with an enormous variety of nonprofit organizations across the United States.
Without continued pressure from voters to implement the kinds of solutions outlined above, the food safety system in the United States will remain in crisis even when the government is fully funded. The current shutdown and funding cutoff have exposed how a legacy of privatization and underfunding has created a reactive model of food safety that puts the well-being of all Americans at risk. We can and must do better.