Report: Despite food safety reforms, illnesses continue to rise

Almost 2,000 Americans fell ill from foods related to recalls in the past year, despite the passage of legislation to make food safer, according to a report from the U.S. Public Interest Group (U.S. PIRG).

Contaminated food – not just those linked to recalls – sickens approximately 48 million Americans annually and costs more than $77 billion. Additionally, the economic cost of the 1,753 people sickened from food related to recalls in the past 21 months is more than $227 million, according to the report.

This year (from January to September 2012) also has seen a 44 percent jump in foodborne illnesses from last year, from 718 to 1,035 illnesses, according to CNN.

The report comes as consumer groups, professional organizations and others call on the government to release all of the rules stemming from the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). The legislation allows the government – in particular the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – to be more proactive, rather than reactive to food-related incidents, such as outbreaks. The act gives the FDA power to require mandatory recalls, increases focus on imports and requires additional information from food facilities when they complete their required registration.

Part of the law requiring food facilities to provide additional information when they register with the FDA currently is in place. Food facilities must register with the FDA by the end of the year. However, other rules still are under review in the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

An OMB official told CNN they have “taken key steps” to implement FSMA, including rules meant to curb Salmonella in eggs and enhancing E. coli testing in beef products.

In July, the final set of regulations stemming from the 2009 Egg Safety rule went into effect. These regulations require shell egg producers to implement measures to prevent Salmonella Enteritidis contamination.

In June, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) began routine verification sampling for six strains of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) in raw beef trim. These six strains joined the most widely known STEC, E. coli O157:H7, as being considered adulterants. If a product is found to be contaminated with one of the six strains (O26, O45, O103, O111, O121 or O145) or E. coli O157:H7, the product is deemed unfit for human consumption.

FDA also is facing a budget shortfall this year. The president’s budget, which was released in February, asked for approximately $4.5 billion in funding for FDA. However, proposed Congressional budgets slashed $600 million to $700 million from that figure, according to CNN.

“We need a food safety system that is fully funded and fully staffed so it can stop unsafe food from reaching our dinner tables,” Nasima Hossain, a public health advocate for U.S. PIRG, said in a statement. “We must move away from the current reactive approach, where recalls happen after dangerous products have already made it into families’ kitchens, and focus on prevention.  The Food Safety Modernization Act should be fully implemented and the Administration should not waste any more time in strengthening our food safety systems.”

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