As a pediatrician, my No. 1 concern is to keep children safe and healthy. Inside the walls of my office, I can provide services and counseling to help do just that, whether by giving an infant her first childhood vaccine, providing a mental health screening to an adolescent patient or counseling parents about how to keep their homes as safe as possible. Unfortunately, there are some threats to children's health that are beyond my control, including the food they consume.
As was brought to light all too clearly recently when children as young as 1 year old were among the 81 people from 18 states (including Maryland) who were infected with salmonella linked to imported cucumbers, food-borne illness is a real threat to children's health. One in six Americans is affected by food-borne illness each year, causing 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. As a pediatrician, I know that children are disproportionately bearing this burden, accounting for a large proportion of food-borne illness cases annually.
Sadly, children are also among those most at risk of dying from foodborne illness or suffering serious, lifelong health complications from food-borne infections. This is because children have developing immune systems that aren't always well equipped to fight infection; because they usually are smaller, it doesn't take much exposure to contaminated food to make them sick; and children have limited control over their diets and lack the developmental maturity necessary to carefully judge food safety risks.
Our federal government did take steps to improve our food safety system by passing the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) two years ago, but challenges remain. It wasn't until the earlier this year that crucial rules for carrying out the law were even proposed, to prevent the contamination of fruits and vegetables and to help mitigate food hazards. Meanwhile, delaying implementation of these key provisions has left our food supply vulnerable to contamination and put children's health at risk. Other important aspects of the law, such as ensuring the safety of imported foods, also have yet to be addressed.
Complicating matters is the ongoing threat of budget sequestration. Fortunately, the FDA has confirmed that sequestration will not cause the agency to cut back on food inspections, at least for now; and the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service, which oversees meat and poultry inspections, was spared from sequestration altogether. Yet, in a still austere federal budget environment, there is no guarantee that federal legislators will be able to find a way to provide needed continued funding for FSMA implementation, which could jeopardize FDA's ability to keep our food supply safe.
Beginning to finally implement the FSMA is a long-overdue step in the right direction to help protect children from the threat of food-borne illness. What we need now is to forge ahead with the rest of the law's implementation, and for Congress to ensure that as budget decisions are made for the next fiscal year, the FDA has the support it needs to keep our food supply as safe as possible.
Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin deserve credit for their dedication to protecting children and families from food-borne illness. I call on all of their colleagues to do the same.