Safety First: Protecting America's Food Supply

By Young, Frank E. | FDA Consumer, July-August 1988 | Go to article overview

Safety First: Protecting America's Food Supply


Young, Frank E., FDA Consumer


Safety First: Protecting America's Food Supply

In their book Freedom from Harm, consumer advocates David Bollier and Joan Claybrook state that, "FDA allows 230 million Americans to enjoy an unparalleled confidence in the integrity of their food."

We at FDA are quite proud of that fact. However, the events of recent years have reminded us that, even though no other country has a safer food supply than the United States, there is still room for improvement.

In fact, my tenure as commissioner had hardly begun when the agency was faced with a "worst-case" food safety emergency -- the largest documented outbreak of food-borne illness in the nation's history. This 1985 outbreak, caused by bacterial contamination in an Illinois milk plant, affected possibly 200,000 people. Unfortunately, microbial contamination and outbreaks of food-borne illness have continued at an alarming rate. According to estimates by our own FDA scientists, between 21 million and 81 million cases of food-borne diarrheal disease occur annually in the United States.

In fact, it is microbial contamination, rather than the additives and pesticides that many consumer worry so much about, that is FDA's main food safety concern. Nevertheless, food additives, chemical contaminants, and other food safety issues demand our scientific and regulatory attention, too. It is up to FDA and other federal, state and local agencies to see that food producers and distributors are doing everything they can to guarantee the integrity of tyeir products. How well we do that job is put to the test every day at your family's meal table.

Our task includes a responsibility to provide information about major food issues that can affect your health. There is, of course, a need to educate the public on selecting safe and wholesome foods and preparing and storing them safely. But there is also a need for a public discussion about the relative risks of various food-related hazards, from bacterial contamination to pesticide residues. I believe that people are coming more and more to understand that the world cannot be made 100 percent risk-free, and that FDA must allocate its limited resources to addressing the problems that carry the greatest risks -- which are not always those with the greatest amount of news coverages.

We'll begin our special report on food safety in this issue by taking a look at the types of microbial contamination that can cause outbreaks of food poisoning. Food poisoning -- with its vomiting, diarrhea and general debilitation -- is no pleasant experience for anyone. But it can become a very serious illness for certain vulnerable groups -- the very young, the very old, and those with immune systems weakened by other conditions -- such as AIDS.

We'll also take a special look at one of the most dangerous sources of food-borne illness, a bacterium known as Listeria monocytogenes. This pathogen was the source of an outbreak of food poisoning associated with Mexican-style soft cheeses that killed at least 47 persons in the Los Angeles area in 1985. It has since been associated with numerous foods, including milk, ice cream, and other domestic and imported cheeses. We'll see what FDA, the dairy industry, and others have done to try to rein in Listeria.

Listeria is also one of the microbial culprits that have shown themselves capable of penetrating a previously dependable line of defense against food-borne illness -- low-temperature food storage. …

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