A little over a year ago, 6-year-old Owen Carrignan of Millbury developed a bad stomachache after returning home from a sleepover. The healthy first-grader was soon hospitalized with severe diarrhea and failing kidneys. He died less than a week later from a food-borne bacteria.
State health officials recently closed the investigation, unable to identify the culprit food that caused Owen and another Worcester county resident — an unidentified woman in her 30s — to become seriously ill with the same strain of E. coli bacteria around the same time last year.
“We want answers, but there are no answers,” said Michelle Carrignan, Owen’s mother. “I have a hard time food shopping because I keep thinking there could be something here that killed my son.”
Food-borne illnesses, which also include food poisoning, sicken about one in six Americans every year, leading to 128,000 hospitalizations, and an estimated 3,000 deaths, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Despite improved techniques to help trace the sources of food contamination, current food safety regulations have not prevented dangerous contamination from happening in the first place.
But with the introduction of federal laws to regulate food safety, including rules on how produce is grown, harvested, and distributed throughout the country, officials hope they will be able to better prevent some tainted produce from getting to consumers. New regulations will also require food processing plant manufacturers to fix hazards on the assembly line that could contaminate pasta, baked goods, and other packaged foods.
“We know that we won’t get to a zero-risk food supply,” said Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine. “But consumers have a right to expect that everything that can be done to prevent problems really will be done.”
The Food Safety and Modernization Act of 2010 directed the FDA for the first time to overhaul the agency’s monitoring of food safety, broadening its mission to include preventing pathogens from entering the food supply, rather than reacting after the fact. It has taken two years for the agency to determine how to implement two of its mandates; the FDA has issued a complicated set of procedures to regulate and inspect American-grown fruits and vegetables and food processing plants, due to be finalized in 2014. Guidelines to beef up inspections of imported foods will be published by early fall, Taylor said.
The new law mandates regular federal inspections of produce farms and food processing facilities and grants the FDA authority to shut down companies that have hazardous operations. It is hoped that such inspections will prevent deadly events such as a 2011 listeria outbreak — traced to cantaloupes grown on a Colorado farm that had poor sanitation practices — that killed 33 people and sickened nearly 150 more. The FDA will also be able to force a company to recall a potentially dangerous food; in the past, recalls have been voluntary.
The new procedures can’t come soon enough for Paul Schwarz, of Independence, Mo., who lost his 92-year-old father in 2011 to a listeria infection traced to a contaminated cantaloupe from Jensen Farms in Colorado.
“He was a dual purple heart recipient in World War II,” Schwarz said. “He was a fighter, but the illness was too much. It attacked his brain, and he no longer recognized my mother and his five children.” Schwarz has filed a lawsuit against Jensen Farms and private companies that audited its operations.
The new rules won’t address all food-safety concerns. The produce rules for overhauling the growing practices of farms to prevent contamination, for example, don’t apply to small establishments with less than $250,000 to
$1 million in annual sales — the exact amount has yet to be determined.
The rules also exempt produce that is normally not consumed raw such as corn and potatoes, because the likelihood of microbes surviving the cooking or canning process is low.
And the food safety law does not apply to 20 percent of the food supply — beef, chicken, pork, and processed egg products, like liquid egg whites — regulated by the US Department of Agriculture.
“We’re modernizing food safety but we’re not doing the same for meat and poultry, and that’s something Congress needs to look into,” said Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at the nonprofit Washington, D.C.-based Consumer Federation of America.
While slaughterhouses must have USDA inspectors on site at all times, those inspectors can’t shut down a slaughterhouse or meat processing plant if government standards aren’t being followed. Nor can they issue a mandatory recall.
Typically, companies issue voluntary recalls under pressure from the FDA or USDA after their products are linked to illness outbreaks. For example, 10 million pounds of frozen pepperoni pizzas, chicken quesadillas, and other meat-filled meals were voluntarily recalled by the Rich Products Corp. in April after the frozen foods were linked to 27 E. coli illnesses in 15 states.
USDA spokesperson Richard McIntire said the agency is working on new initiatives focusing on “prioritizing prevention” and strengthening surveillance of illness outbreaks. But Waldrop said the agency is in a difficult position of trying to both promote the beef and poultry industry while also trying to enforce safe food handling practices within the industry.
Despite the government’s best efforts, people won’t be able to completely avoid food-borne illnesses, and consumers need to be aware that sometimes tragic cases like Owen Carrignan’s will remain a mystery.
“We did talk to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about these two E. coli cases,” said Suzanne Condon, director for the state health department’s Bureau of Environmental Health. “They told us when you’re dealing with just a few illnesses, it’s often difficult to find a commonality.”
There are, though, important precautions consumers can take to lower their risk of getting a foodborne illness such as avoiding foods linked to a current outbreak.
Many people, however, don’t take food recalls seriously, according to a March study conducted by Harvard School of Public Health. In a survey involving 3,000 adults, the researchers found that fewer than half of respondents would be “very concerned” about getting sick from a severe foodborne outbreak that occurred in another state. Only 56 percent of those over age 65 — who are most at risk of dying from a food poisoning infection — would stop purchasing a potentially contaminated food in a store compared with 65 percent of younger people.
“It’s not clear that seniors know they’re more vulnerable to these infections,” said study leader Gillian SteelFisher, assistant director of the Harvard Opinion Research Program at the School of Public Health. “We also found that people don’t feel motivated to act unless they personally feel at risk.” Many of the survey respondents said that if an outbreak isn’t in their local area, they don’t worry as much, but that’s “not the best measure of risk,” SteelFisher added, given the wide distribution of food in this country.
Even if people carefully avoid all foods involved in outbreaks, they still need to take action in their own homes to avoid getting sick by properly handling, storing, and cooking their foods. No amount of regulations will remove microbes from raw meats, which can easily cross contaminate fresh produce if meats aren’t handled properly. In fact, kitchen contamination is one of the most common causes of food poisoning.
The CDC recommends washing hands and surfaces often; separating raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs from produce; cooking foods to a temperature high enough to kill bacteria (which is 145 to 165 degrees Fahrenheit depending on the food); and refrigerating foods promptly after cooking them.
Those at high-risk of getting severely ill from food poisoning — such as pregnant women, young children, people with impaired immune systems due to cancer treatments, and those age 65 and older — should avoid certain foods such as unpasteurized milk, raw fish, and raw eggs. The CDC has also identified raw sprouts of any kind (including alfalfa, clover, radish, and mung bean sprouts) as being a high-risk food associated with E. coli and Salmonella outbreaks and queso fresco, a soft cheese, as being linked to listeria outbreaks.
A look at the number
The following foods accounted for 88.5% of all the produce-associated outbreaks between 1996 and 2010. The CDC defines an outbreak as two or more people experiencing a similar illness after eating the same food.
34 outbreaks associated with sprouts (bean, alfalfa).
30 outbreaks associated with leafy greens such as lettuce and spinach.
17 outbreaks associated with tomatoes.
14 outbreaks associated with melons such as cantaloupe and honeydew.
10 outbreaks associated with berries, such as raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, and strawberries.
6outbreaks associated with fresh herbs such as basil and parsley.
3 outbreaks associated with green onions.
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