Science Progress | Where science, technology, and progressive policy meet

Battling Back Bacteria

A New Plan to Protect Farmers and Eaters Alike

close up up hand holding partially eaten burger SOURCE: Fifty years after we figured out how to keep astronauts’ food from making them sick, the time has come to commit to keeping the rest of us as safe.

Once you’ve made the decision to encase a few men in a metal pod and shoot the vessel into space, what you don’t want is to have something they eat make them sick. Astronauts in space already have suppressed immune systems, and the added complications of food poisoning and its attendant symptoms—dehydration, diarrhea—when both water and privacy are limited likely goes without saying. That’s why, in the late 1950s, just as NASA was embarking on the era of manned space flight, the agency went to its food supplier, Pillsbury, with a request: ensure that the food we’re feeding astronauts won’t have enough bacteria and other contaminants to make our astronauts sick. Pillsbury came through, crafting a science-based system that, for the first time, examined step-by-step how food was made, rather than the final product, with a focus on the riskiest ingredients and processes. By 1959, the problem of food-sickened astronauts was effectively kicked.

Back here on the ground, though, it’s still 1958.

As things stand in the United States, food producers do very little to keep bacteria, as well as other common food contaminants such as viruses and chemicals, in check. Dr. Marion Nestle is a New York University food specialist who has worked with the Food and Drug Administration to create food policy. “Right now, we don’t have a food safety system,” she tells Science Progress. But that is poised to change. This spring, the House of Representatives passed a plan to finally apply the same sort of risk-based strategy to our food supply as NASA uses for astronauts. (The legislative vehicle in the House is H.R. 2749, the Food Safety Enhancement Act.) The Senate is set to take up the debate in the next few weeks.

The fact is, there’s a crying need for some sort of strategic intervention. Odds are that you have a few unpleasant memories of eating something that made you sick—according to the Centers for Disease Control, 76 million Americas get sick from food each year, some 325,000 of whom end up in the hospital. “These are way more than tummy aches,” says Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who specializes in food outbreak cases. During the infamous 1993 Jack in the Box outbreak, Marler represented a seven-year-old girl who spent 42 days in a coma. Once she came out of it, she had to learn to walk again. Then there are the 5,000 or so Americans who actually die each year from something they ate. People like Kyle Allgood, a two-year-old Utah boy whose mother fed him shakes blended with spinach in a bid to slip something healthy into his diet. The spinach, alas, was infected with a mutant strain of E. Coli known as 0157:H7. Kyle’s kidneys were under attack, and proved outmatched.

Safe food for the rest of us

The genius of the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points system, as NASA’s approach is known, is that it forgoes the myth that all foods are created equal and all food processing is equally risky. Vegetables often eaten raw, like the spinach Kyle Allgood ate, deserve to be tracked with a closer eye than produce that is, in common practice, heated to a kill point before it gets to the table. Fruits that producers cut into on the farm are also a risk—for instance in operations where harvesting and processing happen in the same space. The HACCP plan takes what science knows about what makes certain foods and certain processes a risk and uses our limited food safety resources to zero in on those weak points in the system. With those points identified, the Food and Drug Administration can, finally, come up with a plan that directs its attention where it is most needed The mind-blowing truth is that the FDA today inspects food facilities somewhere on the order of once a decade. Under the bill currently up for debate in Congress, low-risk facilities would see that rate increase to one visit every year and a half to three years. Higher-risk facilities would be inspected every six to twelve months.

The fact of the matter is that not knowing where what we eat comes from causes all sorts of problems.

There are a number of other provisions in the plan that aim to do one simple thing: give us more knowledge about where what we eat is coming from. As things stand, our dinner plates are really black holes of information. Where did that tomato come from? That avocado? That grated cheddar cheese? The truth is that that information is so scattered, so hard to find, that it very nearly doesn’t exist. No more, should advocates in Congress get their way. If the plan does pass, food will have a history. Under new traceability provisions, anyone who produces food in the United States will have to keep records of where the food came from before it got to them, and where it went when it left their shop. (There are exemptions for small farmers and direct-to-consumer operations like farm stands. More on that below.) Big operations will have to keep those records electronically, which is enormously helpful as public health officials start to look for patterns when outbreaks occur. And food facilities will—amazingly, for the first time—get unique identification numbers, so we know who’s who.

Fairly simple changes, but a significant enough shift from the current state-of-play to be revolutionary.

Because the fact of the matter is that not knowing where what we eat comes from causes all sorts of problems, particularly in a day and age where we might be eating a West Coast cucumber, East Coast corn, and soybeans from China all in the same meal. (Food importers will have to abide by many of the same requirements as domestic food operations.) To be fair, part of the challenge is that nature makes it tough to track exactly what of what we’ve eaten is making us ill. Common food-borne bacteria—E. Coli, Listeria, Salmonella—incubate for up to a few days. Donna Rosenbaum started Safe Tables Our Priority, or S.T.O.P., after her seven year-old daughter’s best friend was the first life claimed during the ’93 Jack in the Box outbreak. “What you’re throwing up today isn’t what made you sick,” she explains. But the bigger problem is that knowing so little about where and how our food was made means that, when coupled with a distributed food supply, what could be limited eruptions of food poisoning turn into full-blown outbreaks and public health debacles. In one 2007 case, more than 1,300 people in 43 U.S. states got sick from a strain of Salmonella. Researchers soon found that all had eaten fresh salsa. Beyond that, though, mystery and confusion reigned. First jalapeño peppers became the scapegoat. Then tomatoes.

Said Colorado Democrat Rep. Dianna DeGette during one congressional hearing, in a statement that would be comic if not for the thousand-plus people who suffered from the outbreak, “We could never really figure out what’s wrong with the salsa.”

“If you had better data,” says Bill Marler, “you could say ‘It’s from this lot from this day and this facility,’ rather than, ‘We’re recalling all the tomatoes.” That confusion brings tragedy. In Kyle Allgood’s sad case, the FDA knew for days that something was making people sick, but lacked enough information to pinpoint the particular cause and ask producers to pull their spinach from the market. Under current law, food recalls are all voluntary. Under the new plan, the FDA would be newly empowered to order a recall when conditions warrant.

Better data, especially in electronic form, would give public health officials a fighting chance at detecting and stopping outbreaks at their front end, rather than resort to simply cleaning up a mess once it has gotten out of hand. The plan before Congress would direct the CDC to develop a new epidemiological surveillance system that scours the data for signs of troubles in the food supply. What’s more, the public would be given access to generalized sets of that data. The Reverend Henry Whitehead, a medical amateur, played a role in determining how cholera works when he used publicly available data to track it back to its source during London’s late-19th century cholera outbreak. Who’s to say that, with food data posted online, one of us might not help to spot and stop an outbreak before it spirals out of control?

Seasoning a plan for the national appetite

By anyone’s measure, government officials, especially those in the FDA and CDC, would be given considerable new power. When it comes to food safety, there will be more officials with more fingers in more pies, and that has some people worried. When Congress was considering H.R. 2749, there was an explosion of interest in the bill in the sustainable food movement, with a particular worry over how it would impact small farmers and farmers markets—exactly the sort of personal, people-centered food production and distribution many of us would like to see flourish.

And then there was the response on the political right, where the bill was read as an attempt by the federal government to wrap its hands around the American food supply, a particular sensitivity for those who prefer small government. (References to H.R. 2749 as the “Hitler Act” aren’t even the most heated thing you’ll read about it if you spend time on conservative blogs.) On the political right, what causes the most ire was the ID numbers for food facilities and the bill’s “traceability” requirements—which shares many of the same outlines as the National Animal Identification System, now voluntary, which some worry might shift into a mandatory livestock tracking program.

But for food safety advocates, the concerns with the new plan, and the Internet clamor that accompanied them, are misguided and overblown. Negotiations in the House dropped the annual per-facility registration fee from $1,000 down to $500 in deference to representatives from coastal farm states worried that the cost—an attempt to provide FDA with a steady pool of funding to pay for increased inspections—would simply be too burdensome for the small local cheese maker or family farm. Some small producers, particularly those who deal directly with consumers, are exempt from many of the plan’s more demanding requirements.

That said, those who have been tracking and bemoaning the rate at which American foods make Americans sick don’t see small size as a justification for not producing safe food. “Whether or not Kraft should meet the same standard as somebody who produces 20 pounds of cheese for their neighbors is one question,” says Rosenbaum, “but if you’re capable of producing a product that can kill someone, then you have to be on the lookout for that.” She cites so-called “bathtub cheese.” A delicacy in Latino communities in the United States, the homemade cheese also has a history of carrying dangerous levels of Listeria, and has been known to cause spontaneous abortions in pregnant women. When it comes to focusing on risky ingredients and risky ways of making food, “I can’t think of any reason why small farmers should be exempt from doing this,” says Nestle.

As for fears from the right that a risk-based food safety plan is Congress’s back door into a mandatory animal-tracking future, the truth is that thanks to the might of the agriculture industry and Congress’ weakness in the face of it, the plan stops well short of keeping tabs on every cow in America. In the United States, meat is the purview of U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the plan now before Congress limits itself to the Food and Drug Administration’s areas of oversight.

Concerns from the right, left, and middle need to take into account the fact that our current reactionary food system hurts farmers, big and small alike, and has a demonstrably negative impact on the ability of those who make food to live off their labors. When we can’t manage to figure out, as DeGette put it, “what’s wrong with the salsa,” everyone who grows or produces something that goes into the salsa suffers. When peanuts are making people sick, as we saw in this spring’s Salmonella bacteria outbreak that was eventually traced back to two peanut processing plants in Georgia and Texas, wary consumers swear off all peanuts, not just those that are actually no good. Produce rots in the fields. Good producers suffer. In the ’07 salsa outbreak, tomatoes were ultimately cleared, within the margin of reasonable doubt, with having anything to do with the Salmonella contamination. That was little consolation for the U.S. tomato industry, which lost an estimated $100 million as the situation dragged out for six long and destructive weeks.

With better data, government health officials are given better odds at detecting an outbreak early, isolating the cause, and issuing warnings that actually eliminate the threat without causing collateral damage on innocent producers. And what has happened in the past is that government safety officials, burned by having reacted slowly to outbreaks in the absence of solid information, drag their feet on lifting warnings once the actual health threat has passed—meaning that our reactions to dangerous foods in the United States now carry the double-whammy of both being too late for consumers and going on too long for producers. When bad food is making people sick, the goal, says Bill Marler, “is to hold the people responsible who are actually responsible”—both perfectly sensible and a sea change from how we currently do things.

A fresh start for FDA

Whether the plan, if it indeed passes the Senate as expected, manages to target food safety risks while allowing small producers to flourish and food producers of all sizes to thrive free from too much government involvement depends in large part on the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA’s track record when it comes to being smart about making food safe is, by general consensus in and out of the agency, decidedly mixed. But there are hopeful signs. Just last week, the agency opened the doors on a new online Reportable Food Registry where producers can quickly inform FDA when a case of food contamination crops up. And new administrators appointed by the Obama administration are pushing to make the agency more transparent and engage the public in its work. During this spring’s Salmonella peanut outbreak, for example, the FDA reaction reflected a more aggressive and considered approach, using its website to post as much as it knew about what was making people sick, in as timely a way as possible, including pointing out what outside scientific experts had to say.

The hope is that by calling on the FDA to use what NASA and others have figured out about managing food risks, and by providing them with the resources necessary to actually put that knowledge to use, we can shrink the number of outbreaks that occur, spot them when they happen, limit the damage they do, and return business back to normal as quickly as possible. It’s too late for Kyle Allgood and the many thousands of other Americans killed or seriously injured by what they ate. But we owe it to them to use the best of what science knows to give the rest of us a fighting chance.

Nancy Scola is a writer in Brooklyn, NY.

Tags: ,

Comments on this article

By clicking and submitting a comment I acknowledge the Science Progress Privacy Policy and agree to the Science Progress Terms of Use. I understand that my comments are also being governed by Facebook's Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.