Food safety is one of the U.S. government's greatest failures. The prevailing attitude is that food safety is too complex and that there are too many variables at play to keep all of our food safe all of the time. This is a defeatist attitude that results in thousands of people becoming ill or dying every year.
Are we resigned to let a random lottery decide whether we live or die after eating a piece of fruit? Certainly better oversight and more stringent food safety regulations are overdue.
Our problem now is mangoes. In late August, health officials in California detected an outbreak of salmonella among people who consumed mangoes. Now reports indicate that more than 100 people have been sickened nationwide. The result is that companies like Walmart, Starbucks and others have decided to recall the fruit. This is a daunting task because as many as 1 million mangoes are at "salmonella risk."
This is not the first time that the United States has had concerning outbreaks as the result of tainted food. In fact, these types of outbreaks appear to be increasing in frequency and intensity. Who can forget in 2011 when listeria-tainted cantaloupes killed at least 30 people and sickened at least 140? You would think that the lessons learned from that outbreak would have made it so that cantaloupes were safer - except you would be wrong.
Just this summer we had another outbreak associated with tainted cantaloupes and, you guessed it, more people died. These outbreaks add to more than a dozen similar outbreaks just for cantaloupe since 1990.
We've had tainted food outbreaks every year for the last five years in the United States, and it isn't just mangoes and cantaloupes, or even fruit for that matter. Last year alone, we had tainted food outbreaks with ground turkey from Arkansas, strawberries from Oregon and papayas from Mexico, to name a few. In 2010, more than 500,000 eggs were recalled because of salmonella contamination resulting in hundreds of illnesses.
Is it too much to hope for to have a year without a serious food-tainted outbreak?
While all premature deaths are heart-wrenching, these deaths are even more so because they are preventable. Advocacy groups around the country have been calling for years for new regulations and stricter food safety policies. The Food and Drug Administration has not done nearly enough to keep the public safe.
Poor agricultural practices are often to blame for these outbreaks. Solutions can be as simple as ensuring raw manure isn't used on farms, farm planning that ensures run-off from livestock fields can't contaminate fruit that grows at ground level, closer monitoring of farm workers to ensure they wash their hands after using the bathroom and educating farmers about the safest ways to clean fruit before it is sent to market.
While the risk of dying from tainted food is relatively small, this is little consolation to families who have lost loved ones after eating contaminated food. The FDA can and should do more to keep consumers safe from this risk. They can start by developing new regulations that have teeth that hold farmers and manufacturers more accountable for the products that they are selling. They can also encourage more innovative methods for early detection of tainted food.
One thing we know for sure is that more oversight is needed to keep the public safe from tainted food.
David J. Dausey, Ph.D., is a professor, researcher and epidemiologist who is an internationally known public health scholar. He is chairman of the Public Health Department at Mercyhurst University and founding director of the Mercyhurst Institute for Public Health.