Washington, D.C. –- At least 5,000 Americans – most of them young children, the elderly and the sick – die every year from eating contaminated food, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And about 76 million get sick from ingesting food-borne pathogens.
On November 30, the nation became one step closer to reducing that horrendous toll with the Senate’s passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act (S.510) of 2010 on a strongly bipartisan 73-to-25 vote. It now falls to the House of Representatives to follow suit during its brief lame duck session and send this vital measure on for President Obama to sign.
“Unfortunately, the debate over this bill degenerated into a food fight between various special interests and lost its focus on the most important point: protecting the lives of the most vulnerable populations from serious illness or even death from foods tainted with bacteria or toxic contaminants,” said Environmental Working Group (EWG) President and co-founder Ken Cook. “This is the richest country in the world. The federal government and the food industry can surely do much better to ensure that the food parents pick up at the store and prepare at home won’t result in a trip to the hospital for themselves and their children.”
“We urge the House to promptly take up and enact the Senate-passed version of this legislation,” added Cook.
As an example of the devastating consequences that unsafe food can have, Cook noted that young children are at serious risk from a particularly painful and potentially life-threatening condition caused by a strain of Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria. This microbe can trigger hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS, which destroys red blood cells and can quickly cause acute kidney failure if untreated. More than half of the children who contract HUS through food end up with kidney failure.
HUS is just one example of the troubling and far too common dangers Americans face as a result of the nation’s tattered food safety system. The last time Congress took serious steps to protect the food supply was in the 1930s, when the population was around 123 million and the small family farm was the primary source of food. Today, we’re a country of more than 300 million with a loosely regulated food production landscape dominated by large, corporate agribusiness and imported produce, meat and fish.
The bill passed by the Senate would put in place a rigorous and modern food inspection apparatus that would keep food adulterated by E. coli, salmonella and other contaminants out of supermarkets and restaurants and off the family dinner table.
It will hand more responsibility to farmers and producers to stop contamination and give the Food and Drug Administration the power to order recalls. Under current law, the agency can recommend recalls but it’s entirely up to the companies whether to pull potentially tainted food from stores and restaurants.
Much of the work to build support for this legislation in the public interest community came from groups including the Pew Charitable Trusts, Consumers Union and U.S. PIRG and many others.
EWG is a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, DC that uses the power of information to protect human health and the environment.