Contamination cases renew fears over globalized food supply

A recent spate of contamination outbreaks highlights safety challenges of transnational food distribution

A lettuce farm in Mexico, April 2012
Tomas Bravo/Landov/Reuters

Two food-contamination cases this August have renewed concerns about the effects of globalization on the food supply. Outbreaks linked to imported food have been on the rise since the late 1990s, according to data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

U.S. health officials announced earlier this month that an outbreak of the cyclospora parasite in Iowa and Nebraska had originated in salad mix produced in Mexico by a subsidiary of California-based Taylor Farms. The parasite can cause severe stomach illness. The company announced it had voluntarily suspended shipments of salad mix and other leafy greens from Mexico until the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had resolved the issue.

Most of the illnesses were reported from mid-June through early July, and representatives of some of those infected questioned why it had taken weeks for officials to investigate the outbreak.

Fred Pritzker, the attorney for several victims, said the presumption should always be in favor of early disclosure. "You identify the wrongdoer," he said, "because you never know if all the product is gone and, just as importantly, the public has an intrinsic right to know if a company’s product caused harm."

In a separate case, Fonterra, a New Zealand company, announced earlier this month that more than 8,000 pounds of a concentrated-whey product it distributed to food suppliers in a number of countries could contain bacteria linked to botulism, a severe and sometimes deadly food poisoning. (The U.S. was not among the countries to which the whey product was shipped.)

Although no reported cases of botulism resulted from the Fonterra contamination, the announcement led companies who do business with the dairy giant, including Coca-Cola China, to issue a precautionary recall of products potentially affected. The botulism scare prompted the New Zealand government to order a ministerial inquiry.

Both the Taylor Farms and Fonterra cases served as a reminder that all over the world, food served up in a local restaurant or  supermarket often originates on a different continent. Differing regulatory requirements and levels of enforcement along the route traveled from field to table potentially increases the risk of contamination.

According to Jaydee Hanson, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit U.S. advocacy group, the case of Taylor Farms "seems to be more the classic one of a U.S. company taking advantage of far lower wages in another country. The workers may have gone to work ill, as they have no other choice, and the workers probably lack adequate field sanitation."

The incident highlights how the combination of weak regulations and globalization can result in pathogens being introduced to new environments. "When dealing with a parasite from a tropical country that is unknown to most medical professionals in the U.S., you have in a nutshell one of the real challenges of global food shipments," said Hanson. "American doctors are not prepared for these situations. The real issue here is: What are [companies] doing to keep the product free of pathogens in the first place?"

Taylor Farms is no stranger to food-safety scandals, having recalled baby spinach in February over concerns about possible E. coli contamination. It also recalled the same vegetable last year for potential Salmonella contamination, and in 2011, it had recalled salad greens.

FDA overhaul

Although the United States has stricter food-safety standards than most other countries, the FDA is chronically underfunded and understaffed, preventing the proper enforcement of regulations, according to retired administration official William Hubbard.

The FDA visually inspects just 2 percent of all food imports, and samples a mere 1 percent of it. "The amount Congress gives the agency" to monitor all imports "is equal to the amount Fairfax County provides for its schools," Hubbard said, referring to a district in Virginia.

The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), passed in 2011, seeks to overhaul the current system. Under the new rules, the focus of the agency would be prevention, with the aim of stopping outbreaks before they start, according to microbiologist Michael Doyle. "It shifts the burden from FDA inspectors to companies, who are going to have to show that they're applying FDA standards," he said.

The FDA began losing resources in the late 1990s and early 2000s, according to Hubbard. "The food program lost 20 percent of its resources at a time in which imports were skyrocketing and foodborne disease outbreaks were increasing," he said. "Many members of Congress and the general public felt like numbers like that were insufficient. And of course there have been a number of high-profile problems, which led to the passage of FSMA."

The implementation of FSMA, however, has been delayed for months. FDA Public Affairs Officer Patricia el-Hinnawy told Al Jazeera that the agency has already begun enforcing certain provisions of the law, but many of its other provisions necessitate rulemaking, a process that requires the FDA to first propose a rule, solicit comments from stakeholders and then issue a final rule.

The challenge of implementing FSMA has been great, according to Hinnawy, because it will involve a long-term process. "To implement FSMA, the FDA will pursue a variety of mechanisms," said Hinnawy. "We will partner with the states and foreign governments to leverage resources," she said.

The question for the FDA, Hubbard said, is whether Congress will give them the resources they need to implement the law. "Certainly the passage of FSMA is very significant in that it dramatically changes the way food is regulated in the U.S.," he said. "Whereas currently the only real check is at the border, the law, if enforced, would shift the burden to companies."

Some suspect that the delay in releasing the proposals has more to do with political wrangling than technicalities. Trade concerns and obligations the United States has with the World Trade Organization are thought to be hindering implementation of the act. Ben England, former regulatory counsel at the FDA, told Food Safety News that there may be "intense pushback" from the international community on the new law. "There will be international resistance to FDA reaching their fingers all the way up the supply chain, across multiple supply chains in multiple countries," he said.

Lax global regulations

Global food-safety regulations are governed by a body of law called the Codex Alimentarius, a set of guidelines developed in 1961 by the United Nations. The standards endorsed by the Codex have been incorporated into other treaties, like those of the World Trade Organization, according to Hanson, who said the processes have become politicized as a result.

He believes that international regulators are driven more by market share than food safety, and uses the case of ractopamine to illustrate the problem. Ractopamine is a controversial animal-feed additive that makes livestock gain muscle faster, but is known to cause health problems for those who consume their meat.

A contentious vote was held in 2012 in which the United States forced a U.N. decision that approved the use of the additive by a 69-67 vote, with many countries abstaining. "There are 185 members,” Hanson pointed out. “Not exactly a consensus." But with the Codex standard in its favor, the United States is able to challenge the ban of ractopamine by other nations through the World Trade Organization, thus forcing them to accept U.S. meat products, he said.

"It used to be the scientists that ran the meetings, and everything was done by consensus. Where there was no consensus, there was no standard," he said.

Hanson believes the Codex's earlier science-based consensus model is a more useful standard of international governance. Otherwise, he argues "its standards will be eclipsed by the proliferation of bi-lateral free trade agreements" that place profit over people.

Not everyone sees a problem with food-safety regulations.

Tony Connor, an adviser at the International Food Safety & Quality Network (IFSQN), believes that the damage to a company's reputation caused by a food-safety scandal serves as an effective check against abuse. "Incidents as you have described are damaging in terms of cost of recall and loss of reputation."

Increased awareness of the necessity of food safety is resulting in better rulemaking and enforcement, according to Connor, and he points to the passing of FSMA and the increasing importance of food certification. "What we see is better reporting and communication of food safety issues."

Ultimately, Connor believes that the required due diligence lies with food suppliers who are "entirely" in control of product manufacturing. "It is the responsibility of governments around the world to enforce appropriate legal requirements for food products," he said, while companies should work to "adopt more stringent standards than legislation requires."

Al Jazeera

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