Fed up

December 17, 2006

Too many Americans are getting sick from the food they eat. There's no single fix, because there's no single cause of contamination and no single germ at fault. But the first sensible step would be the creation of a single food safety administration, responsible for addressing all problems related to food-borne illnesses, and wielding toughened regulatory power.

Food gone bad is turning up everywhere. The bug E. coli was discovered this fall in spinach, in tomatoes and in something - no one yet knows what - that was served at taco restaurants in the Northeast and Minnesota. Norovirus has swept the world's largest cruise ship (twice), raged through nursing homes in Northern California and attacked more than 100 patrons at a barbecue restaurant in upstate New York on a single day - that day, unfortunately, being Thanksgiving.

Throw some salmonella and staphylococcus and escherichia into the mix, and you've got a national problem - which only makes sense, because the U.S. today has a national food distribution system. Contamination of a spinach field in Monterey County, Calif., now requires the whole nation to go on alert.

But federal oversight is divided, with varying degrees of thoroughness, and a minimum of coordination, between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, with a handful of other agencies playing supporting roles. A bill to create a single unified agency died in the last Congress. But it's too good an idea to give up on; next year, Congress would do well to pass it. Even some producers' organizations are asking for better regulation.

Here's how bad the problem is: 76 million illnesses a year in the U.S., and 5,000 deaths, according to a study in a medical journal. The toll needn't be that high.

One place to begin is in enforcing better hygiene. Norovirus is spread by people handling food - on the farm or at the distribution center or in the kitchen. Conscientious washing can keep it at bay.

Heightened attention to water quality - for both irrigation water and the water that is home to commercially harvested shellfish - is another easy call.

More complex is the problem posed by the industrialized raising and slaughtering of animals and poultry. Feedlots are natural incubators for disease, and the heavy doses of antibiotics given to promote growth do more long-term harm than good. A study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that 30 percent of the outbreaks traced to produce (as in this year's spinach contamination) were caused by pathogens typically found in meat and poultry - and spread, for instance, by water runoff. This will be a tougher nut to crack; it's not too soon to start.

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