Quantcast
Food
Jeffery Martin / CC0 1.0

Lettuce Recall Is a Wake Up Call for Food Safety

By Erik D. Olson and Lena Brook

We live in partisan times, as anyone who had to sit through Thanksgiving dinner with distant relatives can probably attest. But even your crazy uncle would agree that the safety of our food shouldn't be a partisan issue. No one wants their child to get sick from eating a hamburger, chicken, or—in the case of the current E. coli outbreak—romaine lettuce. Yet last week's empty Thanksgiving salad bowls are a harbinger of what's to come if our federal government does not start taking food safety seriously.


Unfortunately, the Trump administration's attacks on policies meant to ensure our food is safe to eat are already impacting the health of our families. In fact, 2018 has been a banner year for food-borne disease, with 22 food safety investigations undertaken by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) so far. That's the most alerts in at least a dozen years, and the administration's plans to delay and weaken rules aimed at reducing the risk of produce contamination mean more outbreaks are likely.

Indeed, this latest E. coli outbreak is the second involving romaine lettuce in 2018 (and the third in the last 12 months). The current crisis, which began in October, has sickened more than 40 people in 12 states, from California to Ohio to New Hampshire. More than 20 Canadians have also been sickened, indicating that we're exporting our health threats to other nations. Romaine lettuce from California's Central Coast is at the center of this outbreak, according to the CDC.

While the cause of the latest incident remains a mystery at this time, a different E. coli romaine outbreak earlier this year—which killed at least 5 people and sickened at least another 210—was likely caused by contaminated irrigation water, possibly from a massive factory farm nearby. A cattle feedlot located next to the irrigation canal may have been the source, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did only limited testing and didn't confirm the connection. In the blunt words of one headline, "The Poop of 100K Cows May Be to Blame for That Deadly Romaine E. Coli Outbreak." Great, just what we all wanted in our salad.

The real tragedy is that produce safety rules created by the Obama administration to protect against that very thing—contaminated irrigation water—were set to go in effect in January 2018. But under substantial political pressure from corporate agriculture, Scott Gottlieb, President Trump's head of the FDA, announced in September 2017 that the agency planned to suspend testing and inspection requirements aimed at ensuring that irrigation water for leafy greens and vegetables is not contaminated with manure. Keeping manure out of irrigation water is critical, of course, to keeping food safe. The FDA not only is proposing to delay implementation of these requirements until 2024, but is also expected to relax many of its protections.

The Trump administration's efforts to weaken food safety standards do not end with greens and vegetables. Granting big meat and poultry producers' longstanding wish, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) under Trump has also green-lighted industry plans to allow chicken slaughterhouses to speed up inspection lines. It has proposed doing the same for pork slaughterhouses, making it harder for inspectors to review each carcass and increasing the risk of disease outbreaks and worker injuries. In fact, under the Trump plan, USDA inspectors will be expected to inspect and ensure the safety of an astounding 175 chickens per minute and more than 1,106 hogs per hour. Don't try this at home.

Meanwhile, industrial-scale livestock operations have become a ticking time bomb for antibiotic-resistant superbugs, as the U.S. industry feeds its animals nearly twice as much medically important antibiotics as its European counterparts. Antibiotic overuse in livestock is contributing to a public health crisis in America, with at least two million people afflicted by antibiotic-resistant infections a year, leading to more than 23,000 deaths. The current romaine lettuce outbreak involves a strain of E. coli that isn't treated with antibiotics. However, numerous other food-borne disease outbreaks have been triggered by antibiotic-resistant bacteria, such as the recent 35-state outbreak of multidrug-resistant Salmonella from turkey that sickened 164 people, hospitalized 63, and killed at least one person.

Additional protections for our food supply could be next on the chopping block, falling victim to Trump's executive order requiring two regulations to be revoked for every new rule. NRDC and its partners are fighting the arbitrary two-for-one order in court, noting that it creates a false choice between food safety and other safeguards.

The fact is, the tired argument made by Trump's minions that food safety and other environmental rules are too costly doesn't hold up under scrutiny. The White House's own analysis shows that environmental safeguards and other commonsense rules deliver a good return on the investment in our future, with produce safety rules yielding an estimated $900 million dollars in benefits from the avoidance of food-borne illness, at a substantially lower cost.

The Trump administration seems to be making a different calculation, betting that the public won't notice how weaker protections are making their food less safe. The budget to carry out the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011, the first major strengthening of the FDA's food safety program in 70 years, falls far short of what the agency has said is necessary to fully implement the law. Neither the Trump administration nor Congress is moving to adequately fund it in 2018 or 2019.

These increasingly frequent bacterial outbreaks serve as a wake-up call that protecting our food supply needs to be a top priority. Regulatory rollbacks, lax enforcement, and inadequate food safety budgets are hurting families. Putting our children's health first—that's something we could all be thankful for.

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sponsored
Insights/Opinion
In a recent expedition, Gaelin Rosenwaks found plastic in the Great Blue Hole in Belize. Lomingen / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Inspiring Interview Urges You to Cut Plastic Consumption

2018 was the year for plastic pollution awareness. One good aspect of the plastic crisis is the fact that we can solve it. Getting involved with solutions is an easy way to have our voices heard globally.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Proterra is one of several companies manufacturing electric buses in California. Jeffrey D. Allred

Buses Are the Electric Vehicle Everyone Should Be Talking About. Here's Why.

By Adrian Martinez

Dean Florez is preparing for what he calls "one of the biggest votes I've ever taken" as an air regulator at an influential agency with national clout.

Keep reading... Show less
Animals
A river cleanup in Union County, New Jersey. Paige Bollman / CC BY 2.0

Want to Help Endangered Species? Here’s How to Take Action Locally

One of the questions people ask me most often is what they can do locally to help endangered species. Well, I recently appeared on the Green Divas podcast to talk about that very subject. We discussed the horror of lawns, the danger of cars, great ways to volunteer, and other efforts you can take to make your neck of the woods a little bit safer for rare plants and wildlife.

Keep reading... Show less
Animals
Southern Resident killer whale mother and her calf swimming. NOAA

Washington Gov. Proposes 'Herculean Effort' to Save 74 Remaining Southern Resident Orcas

With only 74 left in the wild, the Southern Resident orca population in Puget Sound needs help now more than ever. That's why on Thursday, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee's office announced "an unprecedented investment" to help boost the population as well as the Chinook salmon they eat.

"We are undertaking a herculean effort to save these iconic creatures. It will take action at every level of the environment across our entire state," Inslee said in a news release. "We need to restore the ecosystem to one that sustains orcas, salmon and the quality of life for all Washingtonians."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Popular
Amber Lamoreaux / Pexels

Major UK Supermarket to Ban Glitter From Own-Brand Products

British supermarket Waitrose announced Friday that it will ban glitter from its own-brand products by Christmas 2020.

The upscale retailer said its labels, wrap, flowers, plants and other single-use items will either be glitter-free or use an environmentally friendly alternative.

Keep reading... Show less
Insights/Opinion
Natural pine trees can liven up Christmas and the environment when they are replanted after. Cavan Images / Getty Images

5 Ways to Have a Green Christmas (and Help the Planet)

It's pretty common this time of year to hear the song White Christmas, but at EcoWatch we want folks to have a green Christmas. With a couple of tips, you can make sure your winter festivities have a smaller carbon footprint. Here are five ways you can have a more environmentally friendly holiday.

1. Give Green Gifts
Share your love of the planet by giving gifts that are good for the environment. Need ideas? The EcoWatch staff rounded up their favorite gifts, and USA Today highlights items such as iTunes gift cards, reusable straws, organic wine and non-toxic cosmetics in their story about purchasing green presents.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Popular
Kingborough Council

Tasmania Builds Road From Single-Use Plastics, Glass and Printer Toner

A local government in Tasmania found a clever way to recycle single-use plastics and other landfill-bound waste by building a new road.

The 500-meter (1,640-foot) stretch outside the city of Hobart is made of approximately 173,600 plastic bags and packaging, as well as 82,500 glass bottle equivalents diverted from landfill, the Kingborough council announced Tuesday.

Keep reading... Show less
Insights/Opinion
Alchemy Goods / Bambaw / LuminAID

EcoWatch's Favorite Green Gifts for the Holidays

The holidays are coming and if you're stuck on what to give your eco-conscious friend or relative, we've got you covered. At EcoWatch, we're big fans of homemade presents, products that actually help the planet, and putting our dollars towards a good cause. This year, our staff has rounded up some of the best green gifts we've given and received, as well as the items on our wish list.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!