Commentary: Holes in the food safety net

Less than two months ago, U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia went on the House floor and downplayed the fact that 48 million Americans contract foodborne illnesses every year.

Kingston, a Republican who oversees the budgets of the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, noted that the number of food poisoning cases each year is just one-tenth of 1 percent of the 340 billion meals consumed annually by U.S. residents.

"Something's working without the FDA and without the USDA and without the nanny state saying, 'We are in charge of everything,' " Kingston said as he and his colleagues cut federal funding for food safety.

Congressmen such as Kingston are not directly responsible for deadly food poisonings such as the outbreak that killed a Sacramento County resident and resulted in a recall of 36 million pounds of turkey products on Thursday.

Even if the United States had the strongest food-safety system imaginable, occasional outbreaks of salmonella and E. coli would be inevitable.

Yet by minimizing the threat posed by foodborne illnesses – and by failing to recognize the essential role government must play in ensuring food safety and responding to outbreaks of contamination – legislators such as Kingston make the toll higher than it needs to be.

Each year, 128,000 people are hospitalized and 3,000 die from foodborne illnesses, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While consumers can reduce the threat by washing produce, handling meat safely and cooking it thoroughly, the first line of defense is in the processing of food.

True, food processors have legal and monetary incentives to avoid recalls, but they face intense competition in a worldwide market and run vast industrial operations. Far too many of them cut corners, with consumers learning far too late about contaminated products.

To read the complete editorial, visit www.sacbee.com.