Two cases this August involving food poisoning highlight a growing public concern with food safety, raising concerns about the globalisation of the food supply.
Outbreaks linked to imported food have been on the rise since the late 1990s, according to data published by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Fonterra and Taylor Farms, the two companies implicated in this month's food safety scandals, are both multinational corporations that supply products to food companies worldwide.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced Friday that salad mix shipped by Taylor Farms of Mexico contained the cyclospora parasite, responsible for a severe stomach virus. And on Sunday, New Zealand-based Fonterra announced that it had supplied whey protein to food suppliers that may contain bacteria that causes botulism, a severe and sometimes deadly food poisoning.
Because of globalisation, food products served at local restaurants and in neighbourhood markets can go through a long chain of food suppliers that often spans continents.
According to Jaydee Hanson, a senior policy analyst at the Centre for Food Safety, a nonprofit US advocacy group, "the case of Taylor Farms seems to be more the classic one of a US company taking advantage of far lower wages in another country. The workers may have gone to work ill, as they have no other choice, and the workers probably lack adequate field sanitation."
No reported cases of botulism resulted from the Fonterra contamination, but the announcement led companies who do business with the dairy giant to recall some of their products.
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The outbreak of cyclospora infections in the US has sickened more than 400 people in 16 states. Health officials in Iowa and Nebraska have determined that the 232 cases in their states were caused by tainted salad sold by Taylor Farms to restaurant chains Olive Garden and Red Lobster.
The tainted salad came from the company's Mexican subsidiary. The salad mix has a shelf life of about two weeks and is no longer believed to be on the market. Most of the illnesses were reported from mid-June through early July, and some wonder why it took weeks for officials to investigate the outbreak.
Fred Pritzker, the attorney for some of the infected victims, said the presumption should always be in favour of early disclosure. "You identify the wrongdoer," he said, "because you never know if all the product is gone and, just as importantly, the public has an intrinsic right to know if a company’s product caused harm".
The incident highlights how the combination of weak regulations and globalisation is introducing bacteria to new environments. "When dealing with a parasite from a tropical country that is unknown to most medical professionals in the US, you have in a nutshell one of the real challenges of global food shipments," said Hanson. "American doctors are not prepared for these situations. The real issue here is: What are [companies] doing to keep the product free of pathogens in the first place?"
Taylor Farms is no stranger to food safety scandals. The company recalled baby spinach in February for possible E. coli contamination, and has recalled produce the previous two years.
Domestic food safety reform
Although the US has stricter food safety standards than most other nations, the FDA is chronically underfunded and understaffed, preventing the proper enforcement of regulations, according to retired FDA official William Hubbard.
The Food Safety Modernisation Act, passed in 2011, seeks to overhaul the current US regulatory scheme. Under the new rules, the focus of the agency would shift from one of response to prevention, with the aim of stopping outbreaks before they start, according to microbiologist Michael Doyle. "It shifts the burden from FDA inspectors to companies, who are going to have to show that they're applying FDA standards," he said.
Currently, the FDA visually inspects just two percent of all food imports and samples one percent of it. "The amount Congress gives the agency" to monitor all imports "is equal to the amount Fairfax County provides for its schools", Hubbard said, referring to a district in Virginia.
The FDA began losing resources in the late 1990s and early 2000s, according to Hubbard. "The food programme lost 20 percent of its resources at a time in which imports were skyrocketing and foodborne disease outbreaks were increasing," he said. "Many members of Congress and the general public felt like numbers like that were insufficient. And of course there have been a number of high-profile problems, which led to the passage of FSMA."
It used to be the scientists that ran the meetings, and everything was done by consensus. Where there was no consensus, there was no standard.
The implementation of FSMA, however, has been delayed for months. FDA Public Affairs Officer Patricia el-Hinnawy told Al Jazeera that the agency has already begun enforcing certain provisions of the law, but many of its other provisions require rulemaking, a process that requires the FDA to first propose a rule, solicit comments from stakeholders, and issue a final rule.
The challenge of implementing FSMA has been great, said Hinnawy, because it involves a long-term process. "To implement FSMA, the FDA will pursue a variety of mechanisms," said Hinnawy. "We will partner with the states and foreign governments to leverage resources," she said.
The question for the FDA, Hubbard says, is whether Congress will give them the resources they need to implement the law. "Certainly the passage of FISMA is very significant in that it dramatically changes the way food is regulated in the US," he said. "Whereas currently the only real check is at the border, the law, if enforced, would shift the burden to companies."
Some suspect that the delay in releasing the proposals is more political than technical. Trade concerns and obligations the US has with the World Trade Organization are thought to be hindering implementation of FSMA. Ben England, former regulatory counsel at FDA, told Food Safety News that there may be "intense pushback" from the international community on the new law. "There will be international resistance to FDA reaching their fingers all the way up the supply chain, across multiple supply chains in multiple countries," he said.
Weak global regulations
International food safety regulations are governed by a body of law called the Codex Alimentarius, a set of guidelines developed in 1961 by the UN. The standards endorsed by the Codex have been incorporated into other treaties, like those of the World Trade Organization, according to Hanson, who said the processes have become politicised as a result.
International regulators are driven more by market share than food safety, according to Hanson. The case of ractopamine illustrates this dilemma. Ractopamine is a controversial animal feed additive that makes livestock gain muscle faster, but is known to cause health problems.
A contentious vote was held in 2012, in which the US forced a vote that approved the use of the additive by a 69-67 vote, with many countries abstaining, according to Hanson. "There are 185 members. Not exactly a consensus." But with a Codex standard in its favour, Hanson said the US is able to challenge the ban of ractopamine by other nations through the World Trade Organisation, thus forcing them to accept US meat products.
"It used to be the scientists that ran the meetings, and everything was done by consensus. Where there was no consensus, there was no standard," she said.
Hanson believes the Codex's earlier science-based consensus model is a more useful standard of international governance. Otherwise, she argues, "its standards will be eclipsed by the proliferation of bi-lateral free trade agreements" that prioritise profit above people.