April 21, 2009

"Patchwork" Might be Kind

One thing that kept sticking in my craw -- if, as a soccer-loving, arugula-eating, martini-drinking (Bluecoat, please, on the rocks, 3 olives, if you don't mind) western Pennsylvanian, I can say that, which I probably cannot and should not -- after reading the LTE from the Penn State Ag professor in response to my PG op-ed last year about beef safety, was the insinuation that I was being alarmist and overstating the issue.

While it's not focused on beef per se, this article from the New York Times about food safety in general seems to support my general contention that the food safety net in this country is desperately lacking.

Congress and the Obama administration have said that more inspections and new food production rules are needed to prevent food-related diseases, but far less attention has been paid to fixing the fractured system by which officials detect and stop ongoing outbreaks. Right now, uncovering which foods have been contaminated is left to a patchwork of more than 3,000 federal, state and local health departments that are, for the most part, poorly financed, poorly trained and disconnected, officials said.

Minnesota, unlike many other states, the Times' Gardiner Harris reports, has a top-notch surveillance system for investigating food safety-related illnesses. And the rest of the country is very fortunate that's the case.

In these and other cases, epidemiologists from Minnesota pinpointed the causes of food scares while officials in other states were barely aware that their residents were getting sick. From 1990 to 2006, Minnesota health officials uncovered 548 food-related illness outbreaks, while those in Kentucky found 18, according to an analysis of health records.

Which brings me back to this line from the aforementioned LTE:

The incidence of E. coli-related illnesses has remained at a very low level according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Don't get me wrong. I have great respect for the CDC. I think they do a great job. But when, as the Times article details, you've got such an uneven, patchwork approach to food safety, combined with what I think anecdotal evidence would suggest is a significant amount of underreporting of food-related illnesses, there are serious limitations on what you can take from CDC data in this area.

I guess I could be accused of being alarmist. That will be until more than just a few people die from things like Salmonella-laced peanuts.

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