In November 2018, in the midst of the second national E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce in six months, Americans learned that the number of national food recalls posted by federal safety agencies was at a ten-year high, Cooking Light reports. There were plenty of instances where fresh, healthy items became potentially deadly due to errors or accidental contamination during production: Nearly 20 million pounds of ground beef were yanked from shelves due to an E. coli outbreak, thousands of eggs disposed of due to traces of salmonella, and national warnings of tainted turkey were issued right before Thanksgiving.
Scott Gottlieb, then commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, told CNN at that time that federal agents and health agencies across all 50 states were not slipping up on monitoring food safety. He claimed that federal investigators had never been better at their jobs: "I think that the issue isn't that there's more unsafe food," Gottlieb said. "I think what's happening is that we have better technology than ever before to link outbreaks of human illness to a common pathogen."
A leading expert agrees: According to Steven Mandernach, the executive director of the Association of Food and Drug Officials, the system has become increasingly efficient at catching even the smallest of imperfections. "I think the industry is better trained now more than ever, and there's better scientific resources available to officials," he says. "We didn't realize the scope of outbreaks of produce, for example. Now we're now aware of the scope, because of the tools that have recently been developed, which help us better understand the challenges and the likelihood of outbreaks."
Mandernach explains that the Food Safety Modernization Act, which was initially passed in 2010, has largely taken effect in the last 12 months, and many manufacturers have been required to bolster their internal systems to the "highest caliber" of food safety protocol. "The techniques that we are now using, like testing food products in actual food plants...is so much superior to ten years ago," he says. "We're now using things like whole genome sequencing to link an actual illness to an actual place and the actual food in question—we didn't have the ability to get that definitive level of assurance three or four years ago."
Also, the amount of testing has increased. Mandernach says that federal safety agents as well as the manufacturers have started testing samples and production facilities more frequently, which could explain why more outbreaks are being caught. Increased testing though doesn't address every challenge.
While new technology and better processes have led investigators to be more adept at identifying sources of bacteria, there are a few foodborne illnesses that are causing issues across the nation. "At the restaurant and grocery store level, there's increased challenges in dealing with norovirus and Hepatitis A," Mandernach says. "Those viruses are harder to kill that other common bacteria we deal with… Traditional illnesses caused by salmonella or listeria bacteria is easier to kill. These diseases are much harder to kill and sanitize during an outbreak."
The bulk of responsibility for keeping food safe actually lies in the hands of states and local municipality employees. More than 70 percent of inspections are conducted by state officials on the behalf of the FDA, per Mandernach. "We need to continue to invest in local resources," he says. "Public health isn't sexy...and the government doesn't see it as an activity to get a great deal of benefit from. It's hard to show metrics for 'How many illnesses did we prevent by the work that we did?'"
Mandernach says the most important aspect of improving food safety in the United States actually lies in the hands of consumers. One of the quickest ways that federal investigators can work to end an outbreak is if those affected actually visit healthcare professionals in the first place. "If [consumers] think they have a foodborne illness, it's imperative that they see their physician," Mandernach says. "More often than not, foodborne illness is associated with gastrointestinal issues. It could stem from something you ate more than 24 hours or before…it could be something more serious, which is why it's important to get it checked out."
Medical professionals can administer tests that notify patients if they have one of 20 common foodborne illnesses within the hour—and since there isn't a universal treatment for multiple illnesses, Mandernach says you'll have a better chance of shortening symptoms if you seek out help. And most importantly, state officials will follow up with you if you test positive for a foodborne illnesses in order to stem any possible outbreaks. "I realize there are a lot of recalls right now, but the risk of recalls can tell you something, too," Mandernach says, referring to the posted class on each federal notice. "For example, Class 1 recalls include cases where allergens are at play, and if no one in your family has a food allergy, then you may not have to be concerned or as concerned as a pathogen-based recall."
The FoodSafety.gov application is always up to date on current outbreaks, and the best plan of action for those even remotely concerned is to err on the side of caution. "If you're not sure if a product is covered in a recall notice, you can call the company that made it," Mandernach says. "If you have any doubts, throw it out—it's best to avoid getting you and your family sick."