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Making Food Safer

Recalls and public concern drive the push for greater vigilance

by Jyllian N. Kemsley and Marc S. Reisch
November 30, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 48

Credit: Nestlé
Credit: Nestlé


Making Food Safer

The past few years have seen a host of food recalls in the U.S. due to food-borne pathogens: illness-causing strains of Escherichia coli in beef and cookie dough, for example, and Salmonella contamination of peanuts and jalapeño peppers.

“Every year, millions of people in the United States suffer from food-borne illness, hundreds of thousands are hospitalized, and thousands die,” Food & Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg said last month at a Senate committee hearing on food safety legislation. “Food safety is a core public health issue.”

According to data from the Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. consumers eat 600 billion lb of food annually. Adding to food worries is the fact that an increasing amount of that food is being imported from sometimes exotic locales, where food standards might not be as strict as those in the U.S. Imported food has doubled in value to about $80 billion over the past 10 years, USDA’s Economic Research Service says.

The U.S. is not the only nation concerned about food safety. Toxic dyes in spices and pesticide-contaminated fruit have been problems in Europe. In 2008, Japan recalled insecticide-tainted Chinese dumplings. In addition, the discovery of melamine in milk products rocked China last year after tainted formula sickened hundreds of thousands of infants (C&EN, May 25, page 36).

Regulation has tended to follow public attention. The European Union and Japan have led the way in setting standards for hundreds of trace chemical contaminants. In China, a food safety law that went into effect on June 1 aims to raise safety standards, tighten regulations, and improve oversight of food production.

In the U.S., food safety bills are working their way through Congress. The Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 was passed by the House of Representatives on July 30, and similar legislation in the Senate is expected to pass before year-end. The bills would require food producers to develop contamination-control plans based on hazard analysis and risk identification (C&EN, July 6, page 20).

Recalls, import alerts, and new regulations are all combining to put an increased emphasis on analytical food testing. Instrument makers are seeing double-digit growth in the food safety market, even in a poor economy. And in the lab, food scientists are working to develop faster, more sensitive methods that can broadly screen for both known and unknown contaminants.

All of this should result in a safer food supply, which FDA’s Hamburg said would cause “fewer hospitalizations and deaths, [and] fewer economically devastating recalls.”



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