Every day, inspectors in white hats and coats take up positions at every one of the nation’s slaughterhouses, eyeballing the hanging carcasses of cows and chickens as they shuttle past on elevated rails, looking for bruises, tumors and signs of contamination.
It’s essentially the way U.S. Department of Agriculture food safety inspectors have done their jobs for a century, ever since Upton Sinclair’s blockbuster novel, “The Jungle,” exposed horrid conditions in a Chicago meatpacking facility and shook Americans awake to the hazards of tainted food.
But these days, the bulk of what Americans eat — seafood, vegetables, fruit, dairy products, shelled eggs and almost everything except meat and poultry — is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. And the FDA inspects the plants it oversees on average about once a decade.
These radically different approaches are a legacy from a time when animal products were thought to be inherently risky and other food products safe. But in the past few years, the high-profile and deadly outbreaks of food-borne illness linked to spinach, peanuts and cantaloupe have put the lie to that assumption.
The FDA’s approach is partly by necessity: The agency lacks the money to marshal more inspectors.
But it also reflects a different philosophy about how to address threats to the nation’s food supply: an approach based on where the risk is greatest.
The agency concentrates its limited inspections on food products that have the worst track record on safety — seafood, for example — and on companies with a history of problems. It puts most of its efforts into responding to outbreaks after the fact, using genetic fingerprinting and other scientific tools to track contaminants back to their source in hopes of stopping any further spread.
DENVER (AP) — A food safety expert told Colorado farmers Thursday that last year’s deadly listeria outbreak traced to Colorado cantaloupe proved that they cannot rely on third-party inspections to guarantee their produce is safe.
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Larry Goodridge, associate professor at the Center for Meat Safety and Quality in the Department of Animal Sciences at Colorado State University, told farmers that they bear primary responsibility for food safety.
“Each farm or processing facility has to be able to assess their own risks,” Goodridge told the governor’s annual forum on Colorado agriculture in Denver. “Everybody who produces food has to be responsible for the safety of the food they produce. You cannot rely on third parties. You just can’t.”
The listeria outbreak traced to Jensen Farms in eastern Colorado last year was blamed for the deaths of 32 people. It infected 146 people in 28 states with one of four strains of the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Jensen Farms was given a “superior” inspection rating by a third-party auditor just before the outbreak.
The listeria outbreak that has killed up to 16 people and sickened more than 70, could get worse according to health officials, who are still in the process of trying to determine where contaminated cantaloupes might have been shipped. As AP reported :
Federal health officials said Wednesday more illnesses and possibly more deaths may be linked to an outbreak of listeria in cantaloupe in coming weeks.
So far, the outbreak has caused at least 72 illnesses — including up to 16 deaths — in 18 states, making it the deadliest food outbreak in the United States in more than a decade.
The heads of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration said consumers who have cantaloupes produced by Jensen Farms in Colorado should throw them out. If they are not sure where the fruit is from, they shouldn’t eat it.
Neither the government nor Jensen Farms has supplied a list of retailers who may have sold the fruit. Officials say consumers should ask retailers about the origins of their cantaloupe. If they still aren’t sure, they should get rid of it.
“If it’s not Jensen Farms, it’s OK to eat,” said Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC. “But if you can’t confirm it’s not Jensen Farms, then it’s best to throw it out.”
DENVER — A multistate Listeria outbreak linked to a Colorado farm has the state’s melon farmers worried that their prime selling season has been ruined.
In Rocky Ford, farmer Greg Smith this week laid off his lone farm stand employee because he said customers all but vanished when news of the outbreak spread.
The outbreak has killed as many as four people. Colorado officials said Friday the contaminated melons were whole fruit from a Jensen Farms in the Rocky Ford region and have been recalled.
Angry at reporters and camera crews reporting on the tainted melons, Smith said, “You’ve basically put a .30-caliber bullet between our eyes.”
Mike Bartolo, a Rocky Ford-based vegetable crops specialist for Colorado State University, has been fielding questions from the two dozen or so farmers who make a living selling Rocky Ford cantaloupes. He said the Listeria outbreak is a major blow to the farmers, but it would have been worse if it occurred a few weeks ago.
“If this thing had happened at the beginning of the season, instead of the end, it would have been just devastating,” Bartolo said. “As it is, I think it’s too soon to know what will happen next year.”
Bartolo said the “Rocky Ford cantaloupes” name has no legal protection, such as the strict legal definition of a Vidalia onion, to prevent farmers outside the region from using the name. In fact, he said, Rocky Ford was a major melon-seed producer from the 1900s to 1940s, selling melon seeds nationwide under the name “Rocky Ford” or “Rocky Sweets,” so there may be cantaloupes from far away sold under the name.
Colorado Chief Medical Officer Chris Urbina said he understands the anger of other farmers who feel tarnished by the outbreak.