We've all heard about illnesses and deaths caused by recent Salmonella and Listeria outbreaks, but how concerned should the average consumer really be?
According to a recent estimate at the Centers for Disease Control, food-borne illnesses sicken more than 15% of Americans every year, as well as causing approximately 3,000 deaths and 128,000 hospitalizations. On the whole, these illnesses cost Americans over $77 billion annually.
And these numbers aren't declining. As of September 2012, the number of illnesses directly linked to food recalls is already more than 40% higher than in all of 2011 and, if the pace continues, is tracking to double 2011's number by the end of the year.
How are these tainted foods getting past our food inspectors?
Due to limited funding, the FDA is only able to inspect about 6% of food producers in the U.S. and fewer than 1% of those who import food into the country. As a result, many companies use third-party firms to inspect their food.
Let's take a look at a few reasons these third-party firms may be failing to discover the process problems that allow tainted foods to go to market.
1. They aren't required to follow federal standards: According to a recent Bloomberg article, third-party inspection firms are not supervised by government agencies or required by law to follow the FDA's inspection standards. The article also points out that there are no laws governing how frequently food production firms are investigated. Due to the fact that they aren't forced to meet federal standards, many food auditors follow standards set by trade groups that include companies such as Kraft Foods (KRFT), Walmart (WMT), and ConAgra Foods (CAG).
Roy Costa, president of public health consulting firm Environ Health Associates, writes on his safefoodsblog.com about some of the flaws in the third-party auditing process, including an auditor's lack of power to shut a business down or halt its production, and the ability of the businesses to prevent the auditors from taking pictures or collecting samples. In addition, he points out that an auditor's access to organizational documents is controlled by the managers of the companies under inspection.
In other words, consumers are often at the mercy of the retail companies who sell us these goods. And these food companies are driven by profit motives that can dissuade them from creating standards that restrict supply and raise their costs.
2. They don't have to make their results public: In addition to their limited inspections and questionable investigation standards, inspection firms aren't required to release their data to the public. As Costa points out, the retailers who demand these audits simply want to use them to determine who they should buy from, and not because they want to create public health reports or provide more information to end consumers.
3. They have financial ties to companies they inspect: Food producers can also have close financial ties with the third-party firms that inspect their facilities.
For starters, producers often choose which inspection companies to hire. This creates an incentive for these auditors to refrain from reporting problems in the businesses they inspect, since they have a financial interest in retaining the business of those who employ them.
But sometimes the financial ties are even deeper. For example, Bloomberg points out that food auditing firm AIB International's board has included top managers at client companies.
The Food Safety Modernization Act that was passed two years ago could promote some positive change in these areas, but most portions of the law have not yet been enacted. For example, the Office of Management and Budget has not yet passed the final rules on an FSMA provision that requires importers to verify that their foreign suppliers meet the FDA's safety standards and preventive controls requirements.
As consumers, you can make some progress toward protecting yourself by cooking your meat thoroughly. Also, washing raw ingredients can help protect you from contaminants found on the outside of your food, which may have gotten there through unsanitary harvesting and packaging conditions. The FDA's website also offers some more detailed guidance on how to prevent food-borne illness.
Do you think the federal government should do more to protect consumers from food-borne illness? Chime in below.
Motley Fool contributor M. Joy Hayes, Ph.D. (@JoyofEthics), is the Principal at ethics consulting firm Courageous Ethics. She doesn't own shares of any of the companies mentioned.
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