SCARBOROUGH – History has shown that with warm weather comes an uptick in cases of food-borne illness.

Plenty of foods at the average summer picnic – from salad to strawberries – can contain dangerous pathogens that sicken Americans.

This year, however, the nation did not have to wait for the high temperatures to see a widespread outbreak.

In April and May, there was a major recall of bagged romaine lettuce contaminated with a dangerous strain of E.coli.

The produce at issue – served in universities, schools, restaurants and other locations – was linked to 36 confirmed cases of infection and seven probable cases, resulting in 12 hospitalizations.

These reported cases are just the tip of the iceberg since health officials are often not made aware of most food-borne illnesses.

Given this news, how many more recalls will it take before the U.S. Senate will vote on a widely supported bipartisan bill that would greatly improve the food-safety oversight authority of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration?

If a traceability system was in operation – as provided for in the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510) – the agency would have been able to identify the contaminated lettuce more quickly.

Similarly, if FDA had mandatory recall authority – which is also included in the bill – the culprit would have been removed from the places it was being served, sickening far fewer people.

Since the U.S. House of Representatives passed its food-safety bill last July, there have been more than 60 separate recalls of FDA-regulated products that were potentially carrying harmful or deadly bacteria.

The recent lettuce recall is just one more reminder that the U.S. food-safety system is in desperate need of repair.

As a public health official working to protect Maine residents every day, it is clear to me that our nation’s woefully outdated food-safety system is in dire need of improvements.

We are currently protecting our food with statutes written during the time of the Great Depression.

Comprehensive reform is essential to reducing the tens of millions of illnesses and thousands of deaths that occur each year from food-borne pathogens.

According to a recent report by the Produce Safety Project, “The Health-Related Costs of Food-Borne Illness,” such illness costs our nation an estimated $152 billion annually.

Here in Maine, the total health-related cost is estimated to be $683 million annually – this reflects the sum of medical costs, quality of life losses (including lost productivity), and lost life expectancy.

For the first time in decades, historic food-safety legislation intended to protect American families is within our grasp.

As someone whose job is to prevent disease and promote better public health in Maine, I am asking Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe to seize the opportunity to support this bipartisan bill.

I also urge Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to bring the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act to the floor for a vote as soon as possible.

We need a comprehensive system for preventing and responding to foodborne illnesses now.

The longer it takes the U.S. Senate to pass strong food-safety legislation, the greater the likelihood that more Maine’s residents will unnecessarily suffer or even die from food-borne illnesses that could have been prevented.

 

– Special to The Press Herald