When Lettuce Becomes Unhealthy, It’s Time to Rethink Our Approach to Food Safety
A record number of outbreaks should serve as a wake-up call for the Trump administration to get serious about protecting our food supply.
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.