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From E. coli-infected romaine lettuce to Salmonella-tainted beef, contaminated foods lead to illnesses that sicken as many as 1 in 6 Americans annually. In 2018, this epidemic helped spur major recalls, which caused stores and restaurants to toss millions of pounds of meat and produce. Illinois PIRG Education Fund’s new report How Safe is Our Food?, released today, reveals how fundamental flaws in our current food safety system have led to a jump in these recalls since 2013.
“The food we nourish our bodies with shouldn’t pose a serious health risk. But systemic failures mean we’re often rolling the dice when we go grocery shopping or eat out,” said Abe Scarr, IL PIRG’s Director. “We can prevent serious health risks by using common sense protections from farm to fork.”
Since the passage of the nation’s last significant food safety law, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) in 2011, many types of food recalls have increased substantially. While better science and more thorough investigations under FSMA account for some of the increased recalls, U.S. PIRG found serious gaps in the food safety system throughout the same time period.
Dr. Sameer Patel, Medical Director of the Antimicrobial Stewardship Program at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, added that "Food borne illnesses, including those caused by antibiotic resistant infections, are preventable--yet millions of Americans are afflicted every year. The increased complexity, interconnectedness, and industrialization of US food systems, requires a higher standard of testing and reporting for hazardous pathogens, enhanced inspection and monitoring, and more effective recall systems."
Key findings from this year’s report include:
- An 83 percent increase in meat and poultry recalls that can cause serious health problems: US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Class 1 recalls “involve a health hazard situation in which there is a reasonable probability that eating the food will cause health problems or death.” This includes recalls of beef for E. coli, poultry for Salmonella, and others.
- Food recalls overall increased by 10 percent between 2013-2018: From crackers to children’s cereal to lettuce to meat, we’ve seen the total number of food recalls increase over the last six years.
- Archaic laws allow meat producers to sell contaminated products: It is currently legal to sell meat that tests positive for dangerous strains of Salmonella. A case study of the recent recall of 12 million pounds of beef sold by JBS could likely have been prevented if it this policy was changed.
- Bacteria-contaminated water used on vegetables and produce: A case study helps demonstrate how irrigation water polluted by fecal matter from a nearby cattle feedlot likely contaminated romaine lettuce with E. coli in the spring of 2018.
“These recalls are a warning to everyone that something is rotten in our fields and slaughterhouses. Government agencies need to make sure that the food that reaches people’s mouths won’t make them sick,” finished Scarr.
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