Food Contamination Incidents Will Increase, Expert Says

The recent contamination of fresh spinach has raised new questions about food safety in the U.S. Food safety expert Sanford Miller, PhD, senior fellow at the University of Maryland Center for Food, Nutrition, and Agriculture Policy, says this wont be the last contamination event. Miller has served as professor of nutritional biochemistry at M.I.T. and dean of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center. He has served on many expert committees for the National Academy of Science, Institute of Medicine, international organizations such as the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization. Miller has received of a number of awards for nutrition and food safety.

In this Q&A interview, Miller, a former director of the Center for Food Science and Applied nutrition at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), talks about how contamination occurs, what we can expect in the future and how food safety policy can be improved.

Q: How does bacteria such as E. coli get on fresh produce?

Miller: We share the world we live in with a multitude of other organisms including bacteria. Most of these are benign but some are pathogenic and can cause disease. Produce is grown in the ground and as a result is exposed to all of the organisms normally found there, including pathogens. Also, the water used to irrigate the plants may also be contaminated with pathogens as a result of runoff from the fields. It is also possible that the producers used a natural fertilizer such as manure that was not properly dried and pasteurized. Since pathogens such as E. coli are found in the gastrointestinal tract of ruminants such as cattle and pigs, it is possible that improperly treated manure could contaminate the plants. The organism can also be carried in the GI tract of wild animals.

Q: What are required safeguards against produce contamination in the U.S.?

Miller: The basic line of defense is hygiene. Manure fertilizers must be processed to a standard that will result in a 100 percent kill. Water standards for irrigation must be met. In the packing plants workers must wash their hands and be taken off the line if ill. Strict temperature standards must be met to assure that the product remains cold while being shipped and stored. It is interesting to note that many of the requirements are the same as those that should be followed for high quality products.

Q: Can you speculate about why didnt they work in this spinach case?

Miller: Its hard to tell. The most likely scenario would result from the use of contaminated irrigation water. If the producers were organic farms, it might be improperly processed organic fertilizer. A less likely event would be storage of the product at relatively high temperatures such as might have occurred if a refrigerated railway car lost its temperature control. Probably, a number of factors were involved. Another problem results from the lack of resources FDA has to apply to this problem. Rather than vigorously working to prevent these occurrences, the FDA is forced to play fireman and respond to crises. At this time, FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) investigators are exploring all these possibilities and more.

Q: Some experts have said we are going to see more, not fewer, cases similar to the spinach outbreak. Do you agree or disagree, and why?

Miller: Since I have been one of these experts for the last 25 years, I really believe that the number of such events will increase. The basic problem is the lack of resources and authority. There is also the problem associated with the fragmentation of responsibility and authority for food safety. At least 12 agencies have responsibilities in this area as do the state and local authorities. The amazing thing is not that we have events such as the spinach problem but rather that we dont have many more. Nevertheless, as the nature of the food supply changes to include more prepackaged minimally processed foods, many of the traditional techniques, such as cooking, we use to protect our food are lost. It has been estimated that 81 million food related illnesses occur in the U.S. each year, most of which are unreported. It seems clear that we need to seriously examine this issue again in terms of authority, funding and organization.

Q: What about safeguards of imports -- do we have good ones?

Miller: Theoretically, imported products must meet the same standards as domestic products. Depending on where they come from, the requirements may be stricter or involve problems unique to the exporting country. The problem again is the question of resources. The result is that there are not as many inspections as should be. It is important to note however, that ,proportionally, imported products are examined more frequently that many domestic ones.

Q: What should we be doing from a policy perspective to improve the situation?

Miller: There are several issues that must be resolved. First, we need to assure that the FDA and other regulatory agencies have the resources sufficient to perform the job. Second, we need to give the agencies the authority they need to take action to assure that the rules are being enforced. This includes inspection authority, mandatory recall and so on. Third, we must seriously, once and for all, bite the bullet and move towards a single food safety agency. I only hope that it doesnt require an event as catastrophic as the WorldTradeCenter to force this action as it did for the formation of the Department of Homeland Security. It can be done. Consider, for example the formation of the EPA with programs moved from several agencies.

Q: Does washing produce at home get rid of disease-causing bacteria?

Miller: It is always a good idea to wash fresh produce if only to remove the surface dirt and sand. Washing with mild soap will also remove pesticide residues. However, it probably will not remove all bacteria from the surface unless a bactericidal detergent if used.

Q: What do you see in the future for safety of our food supply?

Miller: Even though we have problems with the food supply, we still have one of the safest food supplies in the world. This is due to the dedication and high degree of competence of the people at the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition of the FDA. Nevertheless, we can and must do better. Providing the resources and authority, organizing a single agency for food safety are important steps. We also must keep in mind that the responsibility for food safety is not restricted to government. The industry and the consumer have equal responsibility. All three must work together to accomplish this goal of safe food. Finally, we must prevent the politicization of the food safety process. Science must be the basis for regulatory action. Unfortunately, there appears to be a dangerous trend to attempt to prostitute the science to meet political goals.

Source: University of Maryland

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