Healthy, Safe, Affordable Food for All—How Can We Make Sure Our Food is Safe?

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The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently announced that the e. coli outbreaks sickening more than 200 people across ten states earlier this spring are officially over. The outbreaks were traced to two brands of ground beef and public health officials recalled more than 166,000 pounds of meat. This recall is just the latest in a series of food-borne illness outbreaks of e. coli and salmonella that have sickened consumers of contaminated ground beef, turkey, and lettuce over the last year.   

Working with the CDC, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is tasked with keeping the public safe from contaminated food and can order mandatory recalls of dangerous foods to get them off of store shelves. But let’s stop for a minute and ask: why are these outbreaks happening in the first place?

Food safety advocates point to weak enforcement standards that don’t prioritize public safety and too little federal funding for inspectors to enforce existing laws and regulations. It’s disheartening and unsafe to know that some of the most popular brands of chicken in local supermarket have one or more processing plants that fail to meet salmonella safety standards but aren’t shut down. Why?

In addition, outbreaks are hard to isolate when chicken, hogs, and cows are slaughtered, butchered, and ground in massive plants, where contamination has the chance to spread widely. Meat companies are also more likely to cut corners if they don’t have to worry about frequent inspections. In fact, slaughterhouse owners have persuaded USDA to allow slaughterhouses to increase the speed at which workers kill and process pigs and chickens, to stop cleaning slaughtered animals before butchering them, and to set their own rules for contamination. USDA even wants to let slaughterhouses use their own employees to monitor plants, instead of outside USDA inspectors.

Could consumers simply avoid buying from these processing companies? Maybe. But it’s not so easy for Americans who struggle with hunger or for certain schoolchildren. The U.S. government regularly purchases from major meat and poultry companies like Smithfield, JBS, Tyson, and Cargill to give to food banks and school lunch programs—which is great on one hand but perhaps not as safe as we would hope.

Food Policy Action will continue to work with Congress to advocate for additional and more effective federal inspections along with tightened enforcement. But we all need to stay vigilant — keep your eyes peeled for the next recall. Because there will definitely be one.

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