October 13, 2011

Listeria Outbreak Occurs Against Evolving Food Safety Regulation

Recent reports of a widespread Listeria (bacterial) outbreak of food-borne illness (at least 116 infected, 23 deaths) from contaminated cantaloupes have generated renewed scrutiny of food safety protocols.  To date, the outbreak has been traced to a domestic source, a producer in Colorado, and consumers are advised that fruit from other sources is safe. Earlier this year, Congress did pass the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FMSA), which updates the regulatory powers of the FDA (by authorizing mandatory recall power), strengthens food tracing procedures, heightens scrutiny of imported food, and improves CDC surveillance of food-borne illness. The recent outbreak, however, originates from a domestic supplier. Industry pressure from retailers  is also a source of leverage against food producers who cannot assure their retail customers of the safety of their products.  Here is a useful backgrounder on the patchwork of regulatory powers dispersed among several government agencies.  Already, at least six lawsuits have been filed against Jensen Farms, the source of the contaminated cantaloupes.  Now, there are cautionary voluntary recalls of lettuce which may have contamination.  What's troubling is that, in the midst of one of the worst outbreaks of food-borne illness in the U.S., the laudable progress represented by the FMSA is still subject to the vagaries of federal funding, with pending budget cuts to the FDA likely to dampen the more energetic food safety efforts envisioned by the FMSA.

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