Listeria outbreak highlights importance of a strong food safety system – National Consumers League

By Teresa Green,  Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

An ongoing outbreak of listeria, a rare but potentially lethal foodborne pathogen, has sickened at least 100 people and claimed 18 lives. This current crisis is the most deadly outbreak of foodborne illness this country has seen in a decade. Rocky Ford cantaloupes from Jensen Farms have been linked to the illnesses. As the number of those impacted rises, food safety experts and members of the public are rightfully concerned and are asking themselves how such a widespread outbreak could occur.

What went wrong?

One issue that concerns consumer advocates is that there are currently no regulations for the safe handling of produce. While FDA and the industry have both released recommendations, these guidance documents do not establish legally enforceable responsibilities and thus the industry is not held to one standard of safety.

The second issue is how to react once contamination has occurred.  Historically, the responsibility of dealing with an outbreak has rested on the industry. When a product made people sick, the company would issue a voluntary recall, as was the case with Jensen Farms’ cantaloupes. However, the recall was not announced until September 14, nearly a month an a half after the first person fell ill, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What is the solution?

As essential part of food safety is clear, concise regulations.  As part of the recently enacted FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), the FDA will have to establish “mandatory, science-based, minimum standards” for the production of fruits and vegetables.  FDA plans to issue a proposed rule governing produce safety by the spring of 2012.  In light of the recent outbreak, the need for such regulations is clear and consumer groups such as NCL have led the charge in urging the FDA to begin rulemaking as quickly as possible.

Even with improved regulations, our food supply will never be completely safe from foodborne pathogens.  This means that we need a mechanism for rapidly responding to a foodborne outbreak. Recognition of this fact led the writers of FSMA to grant FDA mandatory recall authority.  Instead of waiting for the manufacturer to take action, FDA can now force a recall when it has reason to believe a product has become adulterated and could cause harm if consumed.

To avoid future recalls, FDA must be willing to act.  The agency must establish clear standards for produce safety and it must be willing to act decisively when those standards are not enough to protect American consumers. Hopefully, this combination of clear standards and quick action can help avoid future outbreaks of this scale.