Sickening

October 15, 2002

THE LARGEST RECALL of potentially contaminated meat in U.S. history, announced over the weekend by a Pennsylvania poultry company, looks like a victory for public health -- but in fact underscores the haphazard and inadequate nature of the country's food safety system.

Investigators from the Department of Agriculture had found listeria bacteria in the Pilgrim's Pride processing plant, sparking the company's decision to call back 27.4 million pounds of turkey and chicken. But two things stand out here: The USDA investigators were looking for something else at the time -- and they still haven't found it. And the recall, as announced, covers deli meat that was produced as long ago as May 1. How much of that poultry has already been eaten, five months later?

Some background: Right now, there is a listeria outbreak in eight states, including Maryland. Since June, seven people have died, three pregnant women have miscarried, and at least 44 others have fallen ill. The outbreak is distinct from the usual low level of listeriosis in the country because all of the cases have been shown -- by DNA testing -- to be from the same strain of listeria, and presumably the same source. That source remains unknown. The Pilgrim's Pride listeria is different; it's a coincidence.

The government's response so far? Typical -- slow and uncoordinated.

Two months after the mystery listeria first appeared in New Jersey, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention got involved and sent exactly one person to Philadelphia to collect information. The feds, as always, relied on local health departments to do the epidemiological work, interviewing patients -- or their survivors -- to try to find out what they've eaten.

Now the USDA has started testing food products. Until the agency's investigators find what they're looking for, it will presumably still be out there in the stores. They did, at least, stumble onto Pilgrim's Pride.

All this time, by the way, there's the distinct possibility that the tainted food in question doesn't come under the purview of the USDA at all, but of the entirely separate Food and Drug Administration.

So this gives us three federal agencies with a partial role in food safety, none with overall responsibility. The states bring widely varying levels of expertise to bear. As in every investigation, months go by.

Fortunately, although Listeria monocytogenes has a 20 percent death rate, the current outbreak is still small. The context? The CDC estimates that 76 million Americans get sick every year from some form of food-borne illness, and 5,000 of them die.

That's serious. If terrorists were behind it, there would be screaming headlines and a national mobilization. But it's our own food companies instead; with them, it's just one of the costs of doing business.

The listeria outbreak demonstrates how badly the United States needs a unified food-safety office. This office needs to be given the resources to act in a timely and comprehensive fashion whenever a threat arises -- which is precisely what the country's current system cannot do.

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