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Federal agencies entrusted with the safety of the nation’s food supply routinely fail to prevent bacteria-infected food from reaching grocery stores and restaurants, putting millions of Americans at risk.

A months-long News21 investigation found that food safety in the U.S. depends on ineffective regulations and underfunded government agencies that lack the authority to protect consumers.

Each year one in six Americans – 48 million people – gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Just this year, contaminated hazelnuts, cantaloupe, bologna, sprouts, papayas and two types of turkey all have caused outbreaks of E. coli and salmonella illnesses in the U.S. And late last month the CDC reported that 13 people died as a result of listeria food poisoning from eating cantaloupes produced at Jensen Farms in Granada, Colo. Altogether, 72 people in 18 states were stricken, according to the CDC.

The salmonella-contaminated cantaloupes and papayas were grown in Latin America and represent an increasing threat of foodborne illness from imported products as foreign countries provide 60 percent of all fruits and vegetables eaten in the U.S.

Altogether, food imports have quadrupled over the past decade. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration expects 24 million shipments of goods for which it is responsible to pass through the nation’s more than 300 ports of entry this year, up from 6 million a decade ago. The agency uses a risk-based system to isolate foods with high risk of contamination, but physically inspects only about 2 percent of all imported food.

Seafood poses a particularly great risk, as imports account for 80 percent of all seafood eaten in the U.S. Much of it comes from China and Thailand, where regulations often fall short of American standards.

Every year, nearly three million Americans get sick from harmful bacteria in meat and poultry, according to research from the University of Florida. Feces often contaminate these foods with salmonella and E. coli during slaughter and ends up in what people eat. According to a 2009 FDA study, one out of every five chicken breasts for sale in grocery stores is infected with salmonella.

Most of the meat and poultry Americans eat is produced in the U.S., where the U.S. Department of Agriculture is responsible for its safety. But farms where animals are raised aren’t inspected at all.

USDA inspectors are on-site at every slaughtering facility, where they eyeball carcasses for microscopic pathogens passing by at up to 35 chickens a minute. Yet the USDA had to recall nearly 9 million pounds of already-inspected, contaminated meat and poultry in 2010 alone.

Meat and poultry companies design and enforce their own safety procedures. The USDA approves the procedures and inspectors check the paperwork to make sure companies follow the rules they set for themselves.

But the system of self-regulation fails to make safety a priority, according to Timothy Pachirat, an assistant professor of politics at The New School in New York who spent five months undercover in a Nebraska slaughterhouse in 2004. His research revealed workers falsifying paperwork and lying to federal inspectors.

A new law requires facilities that pack or process produce to develop their own safety plans and submit them to the FDA for approval.

The FDA already requires similar plans for seafood and juice processors, but violators receive the agency’s most common form of enforcement: a warning letter. The News21 analysis found that between September 2009 and December 2010, the FDA failed to close out well over half the warning letters issued, which means that no one verified that the offending seafood and juice companies had actually improved their practices.

Critics of the FDA like Carol Tucker-Foreman, distinguished fellow in food policy at the Consumer Federation of America, asserts that the warning letters are not an effective enforcement tool. “The FDA,” she said, “is under the illusion that sending someone a warning letter makes a difference. If they just send them out there and don’t follow up, then no action is taken to protect public health.”

The FDA, however, views their warning letters as a strong first step in its arsenal of enforcement actions. The warning letter, said FDA spokesman Doug Kara, “is in itself an enforcement tool.” And once a company receives notice of a violation, “the vast majority of firms do take corrective action,” he said.

Equally important, the fact that a warning letter has not been closed out, said Karas, could mean that re-inspection has not taken place or that the agency has initiated a more stringent enforcement action, such as requesting an injunction or a seizure.

Despite the different perspectives, former FDA officials like David Acheson, the one-time FDA associate commissioner of foods, say that federal regulations – even without the resources to fully enforce them – are better than no regulation at all.

In January 2011, Congress gave hefty new responsibilities to the FDA when it passed the Food Safety Modernization Act. But the U.S. House of Representatives passed a budget this summer that would cut FDA funding by nearly 12 percent, jeopardizing implementation of the first major update to food safety regulation in more than 70 years.

The act gives the FDA authority to shut down companies that don’t respond to its warnings. It also increases the number of overseas inspections by the FDA 30-fold over the next six years – a goal that will be “impossible … without a substantial increase in resources or a complete overhaul in the way it operates,” according to a July 2011 FDA report.

Representative Jack Kingston, R-Ga., who chairs the House subcommittee that allots funds to the FDA and USDA, favors cutting funds for food safety enforcement. He said that the American food supply is 99.99 percent safe – a statistic based on the probability of getting sick from a single meal. Meanwhile, more than 130,000 people are sickened by a foodborne illness each day, on average.

Researchers say that keeping food safe takes hard work and that it’s expensive to ensure that nothing, or very little, goes wrong. Food companies, meanwhile, are looking for ways to deliver inexpensive products to consumers – and improve profit margins – by keeping costs low.

The News21 investigation revealed that farmers can spend two-tenths of a penny per dozen eggs on voluntary safety measures to reduce salmonella in eggs, yet many farmers choose not to do so.

Last year, the FDA made such measures mandatory for the first time, though in the year since the rules went into effect, the agency has checked up on fewer than 50 farms nationally – out of 600 farms with more than 50,000 hens – due to limited staffing, agency records show.

And small produce farms, which provide food to local farmers markets, are exempt from regulation under the Food Safety Modernization Act , despite a lack of evidence suggesting their food is safer than large growers’. Those farms are still allowed to sell nearly half of their produce to wholesalers who can distribute it nationally.

When federal regulators fail to prevent unsafe food from entering the marketplace, state and local health departments provide a last line of defense, but insufficient resources can prevent them from being effective. For example, in Rhode Island, where seven health inspectors are responsible for more than 8,000 food establishments, a bakery sickened 78 people in March 2011 with pastries stored in salmonella-tainted egg crates, hospitalizing 28 and killing two.

Different practices among state health departments put residents of the worst performing states at risk and undermine national surveillance of outbreaks, allowing some to go undetected.

In September, the FDA launched a foodborne outbreak network to work with states and streamline previously fragmented coordination within the agency.

When ineffective practices fail to detect foodborne disease outbreaks and response is slow, nobody knows why people get sick or what food to blame. Of the foodborne outbreaks the public health system does catch, more than half of the investigations go unsolved, allowing more people to be sickened and the contaminated food to remain on the market.

Mattea Kramer wrote this story while a Carnegie-Knight News21 fellow from Harvard. Max Levy wrote this story while a Carnegie-Knight News21 fellow from Arizona State. News21 is part of the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education. Use of content requires attribution under Creative Commons.

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