Making Sense of Food Scares – National Consumers League

By Courtney Brein, NCL Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

While the recent outbreaks of foodborne illness from contaminated peanuts, cookie dough, and spinach have increased concern about the failings of the food safety system in the United States, two high-profile news articles published this week have shed light on the extent of the problem, calling into question the safety of a much broader range of foods that Americans routinely purchase and consume.

The New York Times exposé of the flaws in the beef inspection system published this past Sunday highlights the problematic nature of USDA’s responsibility to both the industry’s interests and the public’s health. Due to resistance from the meat industry, the agency does not require meat processors to test the trimmings that they receive from suppliers and use to manufacture ground beef. While a few big ground beef producers, such as Costco, test their meat for E. coli before grinding it, most do not, testing only the final product. This practice both decreases the likelihood of detection and increases the difficulty of finding the source of contamination should an outbreak occur, due to the industry practice of combining meat from multiple sources in the creation of ground beef. While most individuals who consume ground beef do so without ever becoming ill, for those unlucky enough to eat a hamburger tainted with E. coli, the experience can be deadly.

Following on the heels of the Times article, the Center for Science in the Public Interest released a report on Tuesday that names the 10 riskiest foods regulated by the FDA. This group contains healthy products most Americans eat on a regular basis, such as eggs, tuna, potatoes, cheese, berries, and leafy greens. Combined, these items have caused tens of thousands of reported cases of illness, in addition to many of the countless cases that go unreported each year.

These articles reveal very real problems with the food safety system in the United States.

So, what is the consumer to do?

It is imperative that consumers push for more comprehensive USDA testing requirements and contact their senators to urge them to vote for improved FDA oversight of the food safety system. The National Consumers League, as a member of the Make Our Food Safe Coalition, has joined other consumer groups, public health organizations, and victims’ groups in calling for the passage of legislation reforming the FDA side of the food safety system by the end of this year – a message we brought to senators and their staff members yesterday, during our Food Safety Action Day.

In the meantime, however, consumers should take measures to improve food safety in their homes. The following practices can help individuals to protect themselves and their families from foodborne illness:

  • Instead of buying ground beef, purchase a piece of meat and have your local butcher or grocery store grind it for you
  • Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water before preparing or consuming food
  • Use a meat thermometer, and ensure that meat is cooked to the following temperatures:
  • Ground Beef: 160°F. Many people assume that when a hamburger turns brown in the middle, it is done, but this is not the case. 1 out of every 4 hamburgers turns brown before reaching an internal temperature of 160°F. Always use a meat thermometer!
  • Steaks and Roasts: 145°F
  • Fish: 145°F
  • Pork: 160°F
  • Egg Dishes: 160°F
  • Chicken Breasts: 165°F
  • Whole Poultry: 165°F
  • Avoid cross-contamination between cooked and raw food in the refrigerator:
  • Store food in clean, non-toxic, washable containers
  • Properly cover all food
  • Keep raw foods separate from ready-to-eat foods
  • Follow other smart kitchen practices:
  • After preparing raw foods for cooking, thoroughly wash hands, utensils, cutting boards, countertops, and any other equipment you have used
  • Sanitize cutting boards with a solution of two teaspoons bleach per quart of water
  • Equipment used to prepare raw foods that will not be cooked should be washing thoroughly both before and after use
  • Keep hot food hot and cold food cold; do not consume any foods that have been sitting at room temperature for more than two hours
  • If you have any doubts about raw foods, such as fruits and vegetables, boil them, cook them, peel them, or choose not to eat them