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The risks of factory food

If you think the deadly E. coli outbreak sweeping through Europe is an example of a food safety problem that couldn't happen here, think again.

Food that used to come from the back yard or the small farm down the road is now, more often than not, produced in supersized factories and passes through a series of complex steps before it reaches the dinner table.

But with factory-produced food and other aspects of a modern system there comes the risk that the same kind of lethal outbreak spreading through Europe could affect the United States — and possibly your next summer barbecue.

A report I released along with my co-authors here at the University of Florida Emerging Pathogens Institute ranks the top 10 riskiest combinations of popular foods and a handful of dangerous pathogens that cause the greatest public health burden in the United States. We found that the top 10 sicken millions of Americans and cost the nation more than $8 billion a year.

That top 10 list we produced is the first to pair specific foods that people eat with the disease-causing micro-organisms or pathogens most likely to contaminate those foods.

And I am not talking about a day or two of mild diarrhea. In fact, our report shows that many of these pathogens can cause serious illness, long-term complications, disability and even death. For example, the E. coli strain on the rampage in Europe can lead to a frightening complication known as hemolytic-uremic syndrome, which often leads to kidney failure and to death.

The new report, which was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, also shows that just a handful of leading pathogens cause 50 million cases of food-related illness in the United States and lead to economic costs that exceed $14 billion per year.

Our report didn't rank the newly emerged E. coli strain in Europe but we did look at a related version of the same pathogen known as E. coli 0157. We found that E. coli 0157 ranked as the sixth-leading disease-causing microbe in the United States. In addition, our analysis revealed that this strain, which is often found in produce or beef products like hamburger, sickens more than 63,000 Americans per year, with the cost of illness alone coming to an estimated $272 million.

The staggering cost and human toll will continue to grow unless we fix some of the flaws in our food safety system.

Right now, U.S. food safety regulators often react to the crisis of the day rather than act in a coordinated fashion to prevent the next outbreak. Making matters worse, responsibility for food safety is divided among 15 federal agencies, each with its own set of goals, regulations and priorities.

Virtually every major study on the growing problem of food safety has recommended that the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other agencies shift to a risk-based, preventive way of doing business — one that could potentially identify a risky combination of a newly emerged strain and a popular food.

The Food Safety Modernization Act passed by Congress in December directs the FDA to adopt such an approach. But that law must be fully funded in order to protect consumers. In addition, the law doesn't go far enough. All food safety agencies, not just the FDA, must work in a coordinated manner to share data and analysis, so that more sophisticated studies of public health risk, such as those undertaken in our report, can be done. Such analysis should be used to help agencies target the biggest food safety threats in a unified way with risk-based solutions.

Consumers can and should be vigilant about how they store and prepare food, but when a disease is introduced in a factory farm or production facility thousands of miles away, all the diligence in the world might not help. That's when it is appropriate for the government to step in and require food producers, farmers and others to adopt regulations and safety protocols aimed at keeping pathogens out of the U.S. food supply.

If government, industry and consumers all work together, we may be able to spare hundreds of thousands of Americans annually from food-related illnesses, with their potential toll of disability and even death.

J. Glenn Morris, M.D., is the director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida in Gainesville and co-author of the report "Ranking the Risks: The 10 Pathogen-Food Combinations With the Greatest Burden on the Public Health" (available at The report was funded in part by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The risks of factory food 06/08/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 8, 2011 6:58pm]
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