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Americans playing food safety lottery, says professor

By Joe Whitworth , 09-Oct-2012

The founding director of the Mercyhurst Institute for Health has said that Americans are playing a ‘food lottery’ with the current food safety system and called for more stringent regulation.

Professor Dr. David Dausey (pictured), chairman of the Public Health Department at Mercyhurst University, told FoodProductionDaily.com that education is a key factor in the battle against foodborne outbreaks.

“I would be willing to pay 20 cents more for my bag of spinach if I could be guaranteed it is safe, people might not want to hear that, but if I didn’t have to worry if I had just picked the one that could be the start of the outbreak, I would pay a bit extra money.

“The problem with foodborne outbreaks is that only the victims are concerned and there seems to be an attitude of our standards are better than other countries, perhaps those that are not as developed, but guess what – it is everyone that could be affected.

“We are content to let the guys be underfunded and play a random lottery every time we go to the supermarket. When I go shopping I take the risk I could die from eating a cantaloupe.”

He identified globalization of food supply, the mass production of food and the increased complexities of food processing operations as factors that are driving outbreaks. 

Stricter regulations

Dausey said the goal needs to be to have all food safe all of the time.

“There needs to be stricter rules and regulations, steeper fines or do more than what we are doing right now as it is simply not enough.

“We need to be proactive rather than reactive, let’s pick one thing, tackle it and make it a goal not to have another outbreak in that thing.

“Maybe it is too ambitious to see that all food is safe all of the time but we have to set a super high bar and then work down from there.”

Cantaloupe problem

Dausey identified the cantaloupe which since 1990, has had more than a dozen food-borne outbreaks associated with it, and recently led to two deaths in the US after an outbreak last year that led to at least 30 deaths.

The problem with fruit, such as cantaloupes and berries, is that they are difficult to clean because their surfaces aren’t smooth, which increases the probability of contamination, he added.

“There needs to be more attention paid, take the cantaloupe for example, we know it is highly susceptible to foodborne pathogens so why don’t we take one thing and keep it safe.

“It is a major problem and we need to put up the spotlight on these issues, just pick your fruit, poultry and vegetable.”

Dausey suggested increased regulation but added US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulate around 470,000 facilities and it’s not their only mission so they don’t have the resources to protect consumers.

“There must be greater FDA oversight at federal level, instead of different state levels. Maybe there should be a carrot and stick program, with the carrot being an incentive for firms with no foodborne problems and the stick being severe penalties for negligence.

“We need to track outbreaks closer, be more stringent and have serious accountability, then they would be more concerned if they were the source of an outbreak. At the moment it is too easy for them to say ‘it is hard to do, hard to prevent, it is nobody’s fault and it’s a complicated chain’.

“Accountability is needed from firms and we need to be able to find out who’s at fault because at the moment it’s hard to find where the problem is occurring from the time the animal is slaughtered to when it arrives on your plate there are a host of steps involved.”

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