Escherichia coli-contaminated romaine lettuce. Salmonella-contaminated eggs. Not one, but two salmonella-contaminated coconut products, listeria-contaminated cheese, salmonella-contaminated chicken salad, Clostridium botulinum-contaminated salmon and salmonella-contaminated sprouts

All of these products have been recalled, and all of these foodborne illness outbreaks have happened in the first 6 months of 2018 alone—and these are just 8 from an ever-growing list. The number of outbreaks might seem small, but considering the fact that the recent E. coli outbreak due to contaminated romaine lettuce has spread to as many as 29 (TWENTY-NINE) states and has a steadily-rising case count of 197 infections and 5 deaths, this means that this problem is anything but small.

Three-quarters of Americans are concerned about food safety, according to a 2014 Harris Poll, and they’re right to be afraid. It appears that we’ve always had a problem lying under the surface—a monster under the bed that has been only growing larger—that has been willfully buried. The food safety system is broken, and here’s why.

What’s Causing This?

For context, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2011. While it was intended to pivot towards the prevention of foodborne illness outbreak rather than relying on reaction after the fact when people are already sick, it isn’t getting the funding it needs to make an immediate difference in Americans’ lives.

The 2018 U.S. Government budget proposed a $117 million cut to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) food safety programs, including the FSMA, as well as floating the idea of entirely defunding subsections of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) solely dedicated to food safety.

Cool. Totally not terrifying.

President Donald Trump has also labeled the FDA as the “FDA Food Police,” stating in a quickly-deleted press release on his own website that “farm and food production hygiene” and “food temperature” were among the specific regulations he wanted to eliminate.

Ironic, considering that President Trump is a notorious germaphobe, and he would probably have more peace of mind if these regulations were upheld.

The FDA is in charge of protecting American consumers and the American public on a physiological level. But in order to justify not funding the FDA in general and more specifically, the FSMA, politicians have asserted that these regulations are “overkill” or that it’s lagged behind expectations and subsequently point to the rise in foodborne illness outbreaks—and this is where they’re wrong.

The rise in foodborne illness outbreaks is, in itself, a double-edged sword. It shows that the FSMA is working, because it demonstrates that the FDA is tracking down more outbreaks and acting upon them with their newly-minted mandatory recall power, but it also shows that this piece of legislation doesn’t go far enough. Under the FSMA, even with mandatory recall power, they have to prove that the product is already making consumers sick in order to act upon it, when it’s already too late.

Not only is the lack of funding of the FSMA and weaknesses of the regulations negatively affecting our food safety, it's also affecting the inspection process for meat and produce as well.

Complications With Examination


USDAgov on Flickr

The FSMA only applies to the FDA, which is in charge of surveilling the safety of produce, grains and packaged food. However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees milk, meat and eggs, is still operating under legislation from the early 1900s with barely any change aside from the revolutionary elimination of the poke, scratch and sniff (the official test for meat quality assurance from 1907 to 1998—and yes, it is exactly what it sounds like).

In the wake of an especially virulent E. coli outbreak, the Clinton administration introduced a new regulatory, science-based meat quality and safety assurance system called Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) in 1998. But in the wake of a case called Supreme Beef Processors v. United States Department of Agriculture, meat producers and processors are allowed to test and submit their own meat samples.


USDAgov on Flickr

In short, it’s like setting a fox to guard the hen house. 

This means that they have a vested interest in lying about how contaminated their meat really is (the answer is very, one example being salmonella contamination levels of chicken reaching up to 97%), and they do. Instead, they prefer to blame the customer when things go awry.

It’s bad. And that’s just meat.

Produce is deceivingly safe, but in fact causes the majority of foodborne illness outbreaks. Leaf-sorting systems focus on visual indicators, like defects or extraneous materials such as discoloration, rot, sticks, weeds, insects, mud, tree leaves or other foreign materials. Unfortunately, it is difficult to identify pathogens in this context, but even if they were able to do so on a mass scale, the contaminated leaves have already touched countless adulterated others in the process of being harvested, washed and bagged.

Additionally, the processing of produce is highly centralized, so one plant may be responsible for the produce processing of a large number of companies that are spread across the U.S. This method and mechanism of produce processing explains why and how produce-related foodborne illness outbreaks, like the recent E. coli-contaminated romaine lettuce, arise and spread far beyond the immediate area surrounding the farm itself. This also explains why it’s so difficult to pinpoint which farm is responsible and stop the outbreak.


USDAgov on Flickr

Take Jacob Goswick, a young man who became sick from E. coli-contaminated spinach when he was 8 years old. He developed an affinity for spinach when he was young, wanting to follow in the footsteps of his favorite cartoon idol, Popeye the Sailor. The Goswicks bought a bag of pre-washed Dole spinach from the supermarket, and ate dinner like they always did.

Within days, their son was in the hospital. The spinach was contaminated with a deadly Shiga toxin-producing serotype of E. coli called O157:H7—the same strain that has caused the recent romaine lettuce outbreak. The effects were devastating.

"My colon stopped working," he said. "My kidneys continued to deteriorate. I went into complete renal failure and I needed dialysis," along with multiple blood transfusions. It took a whole month for his kidneys to begin functioning again. It took another month after that to be sent home and he considers himself lucky to have survived, but his nearly deadly brush with E. coli still haunts his family.

“It stole a year from his life,” his mother stated. “It’s still painful to talk about this.”

His story is just one of many. 1 in 6 Americans (a cool 48 million) are estimated to become sick from a foodborne illness yearly, and 3,000 die. As you can imagine, this is not only a burden on the healthcare system but the economy as well in the form of healthcare costs and lost wages. According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, salmonella infections alone cost around $2.65 billion (that’s right, with a B). But for foodborne illnesses as a whole, that total rises to a whopping $152 billion dollars. For scale: this is approximately the equivalent of the estimated total gross domestic product (GDP) of the entire country of Hungary in U.S. dollars.

And if you aren’t convinced yet, don’t worry. It gets worse. In light of problems like rising global antibiotic resistance (which the World Health Organization has oh-so-casually called “one of the biggest threats to global health, food security and development today”), or the subsequent fact that multi-antibiotic resistant bacteria is literally passing from farm to fork, the looming cloud of foodborne illness outbreak becomes even bigger and even darker.

What happens when the already-expensive treatments of foodborne illness don’t even work anymore? Compounding this problem is the fact that drug companies put little to no money into new antibiotic research and development even as this threat grows.

TLDR; it’s bad. It’s really, really bad.

What Can I Do About This?


xuhulk on Flickr

If you’re not particularly enthralled by the idea of coming down with nausea, fever, vomiting, diarrhea, bloody stool, kidney failure or even dying from a preventable salmonella or E. coli infection, among countless other pathogens, here’s what you can do.

It sounds cheesy, but change really does start with you.

It starts on a personal level with investing in a meat thermometer, storing and cooking your meat and produce properly (here’s a handy-dandy guide from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on updated meat temperature guidelines), and actually researching the safety standards and practices of who you’re buying your food from.

You can stay aware of outbreaks as they pop up by subscribing to safety recall updates from the USDA and the FDA. And while they’re convenient, pre-made salads are consistently to blame for a host of foodborne illness outbreaks, so making your own with greens that aren’t pre-chopped or pre-washed can lessen the risk.

Change grows when you talk to your friends and family about this issue. Suggest that maybe their steak can be a little more cooked than still bleeding and that they can compromise with a safer medium-rare steak instead. Change progresses even more when you call, email and engage with your representatives on both state and national levels and urge them to support the full funding of the FSMA or to incorporate improved food safety into their public health platforms.

Americans deserve safe food. Period. It has become glaringly clear that steps toward systemic change are necessary to improve the food safety system, and each new outbreak is the alarm siren growing exponentially louder. This cannot be ignored, and these safeguards cannot be stripped away. Your life might eventually depend on it.