From beef to romaine to eggs, here’s why 2018 had so many food scares.

Why was 2018 a record-setting year for foodborne illness outbreaks? There’s good news and bad news.
Published December 7
Updated December 7

It’s happening again.

We tentatively buy our first packages of romaine, we make a nice salad. Lettuce is back in our lives. And then, wham. We can’t pair it with a burger or a meatloaf because 5 million more pounds of raw beef products have been recalled for possible salmonella contamination.

This is on top of another 6.5 million pounds of raw beef already recalled nationwide since this beef scare started in September. As of this week, the number of sick people had expanded to 250 patients in 26 states including Florida.

If you have raw beef packaged between July 26 and Sept. 7 bearing “EST. 267” within the inspection mark, it has been recalled and the USDA says throw it out.

It’s not your imagination that this is happening more and more. This year has been one of the worst on record for foodborne illness scares.

Recalls stemmed from E. coli outbreaks linked to romaine, salmonella-contaminated eggs, raw beef products, frozen chicken and canned pork, as well as on individual food products from Kellogg’s Honey Smacks to Utz tortilla chips, Wishbone Italian dressing and King Arthur organic coconut flour. The Centers for Disease Control logged 23 multi-state foodborne outbreak investigations.

Forty-eight million Americans become sick every year from contaminated foods, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die. Foodborne illness results in $3 billion in health-related costs. Outbreaks of foodborne illness have been on the decline overall in Florida, dropping from 282 in 1998 to 66 in 2016, the last year for which the CDC has data. In 2016, four people died from eating contaminated food in Florida.

Almost half of illnesses come from produce, according to the CDC. Then in descending order, it’s meat and poultry; dairy and eggs; and fish and shellfish.

Even if you focus more closely on food categories that are “safer,” our food system seems to be increasingly problematic. Food production is becoming more centralized just as food sourcing is going global, so foodborne illnesses have changed and become more dispersed across the country. And it’s hard to trace the source of the problem when tomatoes come from different farms, say, or leafy greens come from different producers and end up in the same bag.

But that’s not the full story, said Laura Gieraltowski, who leads the CDC’s foodborne outbreak response team.

It’s too early to tell whether outbreaks are increasing, she said. But the CDC has become quicker to detect them, quicker to develop and test a hypothesis. And the regulatory authorities and the affected farmers, ranchers or producers are quicker to control and halt an outbreak.

Tests in doctor’s offices are also getting speedier and more frequent. Plus, advances in science have made it possible to quickly look at the bacteria in a food item and compare it molecularly to what’s in a database, like a collection of criminal fingerprints.

So, yay. It’s because the good guys are identifying the bad guys quicker?

Not so fast, said Erik D. Olson, senior director of health and food at Natural Resources Defense Council.

There are also regulations at play. In 2011, President Barack Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act into law, giving the government new power to control how food is grown and processed.

One part of the law requires farmers to test irrigation water, which can be contaminated with feces and bacteria. Under President Trump’s administration, the Food and Drug Administration has suspended parts of it, including pushing back by four years the dates when farmers have to comply with E. coli water screening.

Farmers are saving money on water testing, Olson said, but consumers are being put at greater risk.

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So, who pays for a recall?

When the CDC issues an alert, it’s voluntary for farmers or producers to remove the products from stores and handle the costs.

Stores ask the food producers to bear the costs. But who pays the final tab can end up in litigation, said Olson.

It can mean bankruptcy for farmers and producers. Peanut Corp. of America, at the heart of a national salmonella outbreak in 2009, went out of business, as did Jensen Farms, the Colorado cantaloupe grower found responsible for the 2012 listeria outbreak. The fresh spinach market was depressed for years after a 2006 E. coli outbreak, Olson said, and romaine might be heading in the same direction.

The most recent romaine E. coli outbreak was not a recall but a consumer advisory, a publicly posted notice that eating the food could be risky. For grocery store chains like Publix, this meant a couple hundred different products were pulled from shelves in every store. But for perspective, Publix spokesman Brian West said this is out of a total of 60,000 to 80,000 total items in an average store.

When any food item is recalled, it disappears from stores and food banks as quickly as possible. Feeding Tampa Bay reaches out to all its locations and 500 partners to act, said spokeswoman Jayci Peters. One had to throw out a freezer full of ground beef in the most recent recall.

All that meat and all of those bags of lettuce go into a landfill, frequently still bagged, where they slowly and anaerobically decompose, releasing methane gas.

“It’s a huge waste of resources,” said Olson. “Think of all the water and energy used to grow that food.”

When larger farms have a problem, there’s potential to sicken more people than a farm that has a single row of romaine.

“Romaine is a prime example of big batches harvested, with more aggregation, and the trace-back system hasn’t been as strong,” said Londa Nwadike, a food safety specialist at Kansas State University.

No matter if a farm is large or small, conventional or organic, she said, they must use best practices.

“If you are buying organic, growers have different record-keeping requirements, but it doesn’t mean they will automatically be using safer practices.”

At home, be sure to not cross contaminate when working with ground beef or turkey, wash your hands, wash your sink, cook foods to proper temperatures.

For leafy greens or produce consumed raw, a number of washes kill most pathogens. And perhaps most importantly, pay attention to food advisories and recalls.

Okay, now go check you fridge for that “EST. 267” beef.

Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.

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