FDA Gets Tougher on Foodborne Illnesses


By Merry Morris

Microorganisms like SalmonellaListeria and E. coli are never welcome at a dinner party. Now, with the implementation of the FDA 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act, their guest appearances should be less frequent. That’s good news for the 1.25 million cases of foodborne illness that these unwanted guests could cause.

A Grave Problem 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), foodborne illness is “a common, costly — yet preventable — public health problem.” The CDC estimates that there are more than 250 different foodborne diseases, mostly caused by bacteria, viruses and parasites. One in six Americans develops a foodborne illness each year. The statistics are sobering: 48 million Americans are infected; 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die. In 2012, multistate outbreaks involved spinach and spring mix, peanut butter, mangoes, cantaloupe, ground beef, poultry and clover sprouts, and more.

Modernizing Food Safety 

Two new rules have been proposed to put greater focus on preventing food contamination, rather than simply responding to disease outbreaks. Preventing foodborne illness in the age of global food supplies is challenging and requires both a sound basis in science and careful advance planning to safeguard foods from growth, harvesting and transportation, to preparation and serving. Each milestone in the process presents risks that need to be evaluated and prevented. Scientific standards will be needed to control contamination from agricultural water, biological soil amendments of animal origin, health and hygiene, animals in the growing areas, as well as equipment, tools and buildings.

The Time Has Come 

How do food safety advocates view these proposed rules? According to Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America, “This is a really important step toward food safety standards that would prevent contamination whether it is produced in a food factory or being produced on a farm”.

These rules have been published for a 120-day public comment period (starting January 4, 2013). Follow their progress using the FDA free e-mail subscription service.

Classroom Discussion

  • Take a closer look at the top foodborne-illness generating microorganisms. (See the CDC website for these pathogens.) What do they have in common? How to they differ from each other?
  • Investigate noroviruses: what are the symptoms of norovirus infection? How do noroviruses spread? How can we keep them out of our food supply?