Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Can legislation control Salmonella?

Obviously, some very intelligent people think so. Unfortunately many of them misunderstand the control of food safety.

Food safety legislation is similar to the laws governing road traffic. There are lots of requirements for the design and maintenance of vehicles and prescribed behaviours for their operation. Maximum speeds for each piece of road are set by traffic authorities and advised by signs on the roads. If you exceed the speed limit, you might get away with it most of the time, but speed cameras may catch you. Then you get a ticket and a fine. That’s just money and perhaps demerit points on your licence. Do the speed signs and threat of punishment make us better or more responsible drivers?

Suppose we have an accident and injure or kill another motorist or pedestrian. If we are shown to be at fault, perhaps because of ignoring the speed limit, does the fact that we receive a stiff fine make it any better for the injured party or their family? No way.

The recent outbreak of salmonellosis in the US, carried in peanuts, was almost certainly the result of the flouting of many food safety regulations – the factory was dirty and infested and in-process peanuts were not protected from recontamination. Yet the factory had been inspected and the overall level of food safety was pronounced “superior”. It must be pointed out that the inspector was given only one day to inspect a factory processing several million pounds of peanuts each month and was not an expert in this type of operation. A federal investigation team later discovered that company testing records showed that Salmonella had been found in its products on at least 12 occasions since June 2007. Those products were apparently retested until negative results were obtained and then released to the market.

At least nine people have died from salmonellosis associated with the peanut products and 22,500 were sickened. The existing legislation clearly did not protect them. Some products containing the affected peanuts are apparently still on retail outlet shelves.

In a radio and television address to the American people on 14th March*, President Obama offered his “top ten” ideas for improving food safety. He noted that only about 5% of the 150,000 food production premises were inspected last year, so one billion dollars would be invested in the FDA to increase its ability to inspect premises. Penalties for selling unsafe food would be increased. Unfortunately, he then went on to state that only government can ensure that foods are safe to eat. Wrong, Mr. President!

Food safety is a partnership of trust between government, food producers and suppliers and the consumer. Sure, regulations are required and must be enforced, but no inspection force can guarantee the production and supply of safe food; the manufacturers must be committed to doing so on every day of the year, whether the inspector is due or not.


1 comment:

Helen BSJ said...

Having suffered a life-threatening dose of food-induced salmonella poisoning as a young child (admittedly several decades ago), I am amazed at the pitiful penalties meted out to non-compliant food producers and handlers, who clearly have scant regard for the safety of consumers. There are obviously some significant challenges for regulators in addressing the need to balance potential major damage to companies (and their workers) through the imposition of severe sanctions with the safety of the community. All too often a token penalty is handed out: the "flogging with a wet lettuce" approach. Thank you for your blog, which always manages to explain complex issues in an accessible way for non-scientists.

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