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New Bill to Shine a Light on the Hidden Causes of Foodborne Illness Outbreaks

November 22, 2019
Center for Food Safety

New Bill to Shine a Light on the Hidden Causes of Foodborne Illness Outbreaks

Consumer Groups Applaud Effort to Give Food Safety Regulators Critically Needed Authority to Collect Microbiological Samples

Washington D.C. — Senator Kirsten Gillibrand yesterday introduced a bill that would give federal investigators at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) a new tool to solve foodborne illness outbreaks. Members of the Safe Food Coalition, including the Center for Food Safety, say the bill is more important than ever in light of yet another outbreak linked to romaine lettuce, which today led FDA to advise consumers not to eat, and retailers not to sell, any romaine lettuce harvested from the Salinas, California growing region.

Titled the Expanded Food Safety Investigation Act of 2019, the bill would give FDA the authority to conduct microbiological sampling on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) so that foodborne illness outbreak investigators can trace back the source of pathogens like the E. coli O157:H7 bacteria linked to Romaine lettuce produced in the Yuma growing region, which killed five people last year. Congresswoman DeLauro, chair of the Congressional Food Safety Caucus, is expected to introduce a companion bill in the House later this year.

Members of the Safe Food Coalition welcomed the introduction of the bill. Under current law, federal authorities need permission to enter the premises of a CAFO to conduct sampling in connection with a foodborne illness outbreak investigation. This limitation came to the forefront during last year's Yuma Romaine lettuce E. coli O157:H7 outbreak. Samples taken from canal water in the area suggested that the source of the outbreak may have been a large concentrated animal feeding operation in the area. Investigators were permitted to take only limited samples on the operation and were not able to identify the outbreak strain among these.

"It is outrageous to think that a multi-million dollar company would be allowed to obstruct a foodborne illness outbreak investigation. A safe food supply is founded upon transparency and accountability," said Thomas Gremillion, Director of Food Policy for the Consumer Federation of America. "The Expanded Food Safety Investigation Act of 2019 gives food safety regulators the power they need to protect consumers, and puts public health ahead of industry profits."

"Farm animals carry germs that can contaminate not just our meat and poultry, but also the fresh fruits and vegetables we eat," said Sarah Sorscher, Deputy Director of Regulatory Affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Tracing outbreaks back to the farm and understanding how these pathogens move through the food system is ultimately the key to preventing future outbreaks."

Each year, nearly one in six Americans are sickened, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die as a result of foodborne illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions (CDC). CAFOs contribute to this disease burden both by contaminating nearby produce fields, and by spreading virulent, antibiotic resistant "superbugs" directly to consumers of meat and poultry products.

"Last year's romaine lettuce outbreak made it clear FDA investigators need the authority to follow the clues in a foodborne illness outbreak wherever they lead," said Dylan Robb, Consumer Watchdog Associate at US PIRG. "We applaud Sen. Gillibrand for introducing the commonsense Expanded Food Safety Inspection Act of 2019, which will enable the FDA to better protect Americans health from contaminated food."

In the summer of 2015, an antibiotic resistant strain of Salmonella I 4,[5],12:i:- linked to pork sickened 192 people in five states, sending 30 to the hospital. Yet when epidemiologists sought to gain access to the CAFOs that had supplied the slaughterhouse at the center of the outbreak, they were turned away. "This bill will help to ensure that does not happen again," said Jaydee Hanson, Policy Director at Center for Food Safety.

With Thanksgiving approaching, federal officials are scrambling in the face of yet another outbreak tied to romaine lettuce. For the second year in a row, public health authorities are advising consumers to avoid romaine lettuce just before the holiday.

"This bill should help us to get to the root of these outbreaks, and restore consumers' confidence in the food supply," said Michael Hansen, Senior Scientist at Consumer Reports. "Members of Congress should join Senator Gillibrand and Rep. DeLauro and pass this common sense protection for consumers."

The Safe Food Coalition is made up of consumer, public health and victim groups who work on issues related to food, and organizations representing labor in the food industry.

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