Consumers suffering from recall fatigue should get used to news of contaminated food as underfunded regulatory agencies struggle to police a burgeoning food system that's supplied by all corners of the world market, food safety experts said yesterday.
Just this weekend, more than 1 million pounds of E. coli-contaminated ground beef was recalled by Pennsylvania-based Cargill Meat Solutions Corp. from stores including Giant Food and Wegmans in Maryland.
In the past month, more than a half-dozen recalls have been issued for tainted meat products ranging from ground beef to frozen meat pizzas and potpies.
"It's one thing after another," said Michelle McFadden, 38, who was shopping yesterday at the Giant in Ellicott City.
She, like other shoppers, said there's little they can do to protect themselves, other than cooking food well and watching for news alerts. She decided to play it safe by not buying beef for awhile.
Kathleen Joesting said she found out too late about the recent recall.
The Ellicott City resident had already eaten a burger for dinner on Saturday before her husband heard the news and rummaged through their trash. He discovered that the ground beef they purchased from the Giant was part of a contaminated batch.
Joesting said she feels fine so far, but added, "We'll find out in a few days."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently implemented a more aggressive program of inspecting meat and recalling infected meat more rapidly. Still, the pace of recalls and contact with infected food will likely continue, experts said.
"You can't inspect your way to a safe food supply," said Douglas Powell, scientific director at Kansas State University's International Food Safety Network. "You can't have an inspector on every site 24/7 to inspect every piece of food that goes to market. You have to create a culture where everyone from the farm to the processing facility, people at restaurants, consumers at home are more in tune with the culture of food safety.
"People need to get really religious about this," Powell said. "Food safety is everyone's responsibility."
And while government regulators are trying to safeguard the food supply, the task is made more difficult by the number of agencies involved, according to the watchdog group Consumers Union.
"There's an inherent problem with the oversight of the industry and that's why we're seeing a stream of problems," said Urvashi Rangan, senior scientist and policy analyst at Consumers Union. "There is no regulatory agency that can mandate a recall. Recalls are voluntary.
"Oversight of our food supply is very fragmented," Rangan said. "You've got up to 15 agencies that oversee our food supply. As a result, it makes it very difficult to implement a comprehensive and holistic system that enables an agency to take quick and consistent action to protect consumers."
For example, while the USDA regulates the chicken, the Food and Drug Administration regulates the egg and the Environmental Protection Agency regulates the water that the chicken drinks, Rangan said.
Add in that food products that come from all corners of the world and you have a system ripe for potential failure, said Jerry Gillespie.
"While we remain an exporter of food, there has been an huge, huge increase in the amount of food we're importing," said Gillespie, associate director of the Western Institute for Food Safety and Security at the University of California, Davis.
"The complexity of our new globalized food system and the rapid expansion of the food supply makes it a lot more difficult for underfunded agencies to control sanitary conditions and the condition in which food is transported. We're probably going to have pretty regular food-borne outbreaks."
Detecting E. coli in products can be very difficult, experts said. With millions of pounds of meat produced daily, regulators can test only batches at a time.
"You can test for the overall presence of salmonella, for instance, but the ability to detect E. coli is very, very remote," Gillespie said.
With such potential dangers lurking in the marketplace, consumers need to protect themselves by cooking food thoroughly and preventing cross-contamination while preparing foods.
"I don't think the consumer needs to be afraid of food," said Mindy Brashears, director of the International Center for Food Industry Excellence at Texas Tech University. "We have the safest food supply in the world.
"The fact that there's no lack of recalls shows that the system is working pretty well," Brashears said. "We've had years where we've had very few recalls and years where we've had several. I think it's a cycle and, in the next few months, it might go away."
Bill Emery is taking no chances. Yesterday, the 70-year-old and his wife, Gerry, opted for a pot roast while shopping at Giant rather than the ground beef.
Gerry Emery, 68, said they tried to remember whether the beef they ate recently might have been from the bad batch, but even if it was, it's too late now, the Columbia couple said.
"We already ate it and we're not dead," they said, smiling.