A beef with eggs

As food-borne illnesses abound, safety regulations come into question

By Joan Trossman Bien 09/02/2010

In the past month, more than half a billion eggs coming out of two chicken farms in Iowa have been recalled due to salmonella contamination. There have been close to 1,300 reports of illness from the eggs. One million pounds of ground beef from a Modesto company were recalled due to E. coli contamination. Cold cuts used in pre-made sandwiches sold at Walmart delicatessens have been recalled after Georgia officials found Listeria in one sample. And, of all things, typhoid fever has been linked to recalled fruit pulp and frozen fruit bars made in Santa Fe Springs. Even the President is not immune. A few days after he ordered a couple of sandwiches at Jerry’s Famous Deli in Miami during a vacation, that same restaurant was cited for 26 “critical” sanitation and safety violations, including improper hand washing. This, after the same restaurant was cited for another 19 violations last May.

Industry representatives say these recalls are proof that the system of food safety is working. But critics say the system is broken. Nearly all of the warnings and recalls have been issued long after the tainted food has been consumed and people have become ill. The system is not designed to prevent food poisoning outbreaks; it can only limit the harm created by the distribution of tainted food. That is not good enough for many politicians who are trying to unplug the logjam of legislation that has stalled passage of new regulations. The House of Representatives passed legislation in 2009 that is aimed at improving the nation’s food safety system, which has not been overhauled in 70 years. However, the Senate has refused to vote on the package and has effectively halted any progress of the legislation.

As it stands, the federal and state governments do not have the power to issue recalls of contaminated food. Instead, it is up to the offending companies to issue voluntary recalls at the strong urging of the government agencies.

Voluntary does not mean insignificant or just possibly harmful. It is the strongest warning the public will receive. By the time mandatory testing by the company has found tainted food, the product has already been distributed and usually has been consumed.

In Ventura County this year, there have been more cases of salmonella reported so far than in all of last year. “We already have 90 cases of salmonella this year,” Public Health Officer Robert Levin said, “and we had a total of 88 cases all of last year.” He added that there is no way to identify how many of those cases were caused by the tainted eggs.

The county Department of Public Health only handles food poisoning reports that come from doctors. It is the Department of Environmental Health that investigates all retail food outlets. This includes restaurants, grocery stores, caterers and public and private events.

Department of Environmental Health Manager Elizabeth Huff said the public can and should contact her department immediately if food poisoning is a possibility, even if you have not seen a doctor yet. “If you think you have food poisoning at any time, you can report it to us directly,” she said. “We are the regulatory people that will do the investigation. If you don’t know for sure, call us anyway because we will ask you questions.”

Different food-borne organisms have different onset times, meaning the amount of time varies between when the food is eaten and the time the illness hits. “For some of them it is two hours, some are 48 hours, some may not make you sick for two weeks,” Huff said. “We look into any possible case. We don’t need a confirmation from a doctor.”

Huff said the number of confirmed cases of food-borne illness are the tip of the iceberg. Most healthy people will recover in a couple of days. “If you get sick on the weekend, by Monday you are usually feeling better and that is the end of it,” Huff said. “We feel like food poisoning is highly underreported.” The generally accepted estimate is that only about 5 percent of food poisoning cases are officially reported.

One of the reasons that individual cases are generally not reported is the timing of the illness. When food poisoning hits on the weekend or on a holiday, people most often go to a hospital emergency room or an urgent care center.

“They aren’t going to spend the time to find out what made you sick,” Huff said “They just address the symptoms.

They are there for the quick fix; they just want to make it stop so you feel better and can get on with your life.”   

More information about food poisoning, how to safely handle and prepare food, and citations against Ventura County restaurants are available at www.ventura.org\rma\env.health.


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