Protection of Food Supply Faces Problems

The U.S. has one of the safest food supplies in the world, but while our foods are bountiful, they're also inconsistently regulated.
The U.S. has one of the safest food supplies in the world, but while our foods are bountiful, they're also inconsistently regulated.
When it comes to agriculture, America is indeed the land of plenty. Foods raised here and imported from around the world provide greater abundance and choice than ever before. But while our foods are bountiful, they're also inconsistently regulated.

The U.S. has one of the safest food supplies in the world, but the report card is mixed, reports CBS News Correspondent Bill Whitaker. Every year 33 percent of Canadians get sick from what they eat. In the U.S., it's 25 percent. But in England it's only 2 percent and in France just 1 percent. In both places food is grown more locally and on a smaller scale than in North America.

For part of the CBS News series "Where America Stands," a recent poll found that just one in three Americans are very confident that the food they buy is safe although the vast majority are at least somewhat confident that their food is safe.

Special Report: "Where America Stands"

Safety always comes first in 12-year-old Rylee Gustafson's kitchen.

"I need to wash my hands … I touched my jeans," Gustafson said in her Henderson, Nev., home recently.

She, more than anyone, knows that even good food can hurt you. In 2006, on her 9th birthday, she ate a spinach salad and was infected with a virulent strain of e-coli.

"It felt like killer pain, and my organs started to shut down," Gustafson told Whitaker.

Kathleen Chrismer, Rylee's mother, told Whitaker that she panicked when she didn't know what was hurting her daughter.

"You really didn't think you were going to pull through?" Whitaker asked Gustafson.

"I really felt that bad," she said.

She spent 35 days in the hospital on dialysis. Today she's still wary of fresh fruits and vegetables and has a damaged heart, kidney and vocal chords.

The Problem

Her story is just one example of the problem of food safety. Over the last few years, widespread outbreaks in spinach, tomatoes, peppers and peanut products sickened thousands and killed nearly a dozen Americans.

Every year there are 76 million cases of foodborne illness in the United States, resulting in 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths.

Today Americans consume more fresh produce, increasingly from imports from around the world. But imported produce is inspected even less than home-grown harvests.

"Ninety-nine percent of the food that you're buying at the grocery store that comes from foreign coutnries has not been inspected by the FDA," said Erik Olson, director of food and consumer product safety at the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Olson says the Food and Drug Administration is simply not up to the task. The FDA is responsible for 80 percent of the food supply, which is everything but meat and poultry.

The number of food producers under FDA jurisdiction has increased, but the number of inspections is going down. Between 2001 and 2007, the number of domestic food producers increased from 51,000 to 65,500. At the same time, the number of producers inspected fell from 14,721 to 14,566, according to the Government Accountability Office.

"They simply do not have the tools to really protect our food supply," Olson told Whitaker.

The Solution

So, what's the solution? To start with, more and more farmers are creating their own rules.

Jack Vessey represents the fourth generation in his family to farm his land in Holtville, Calif., 8,000 acres of leafy greens. After the 2006 spinach outbreak, likely caused by unsanitary field conditions, he joined a farming cooperative - the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement - which agreed to a set of voluntary standards in the field for irrigation, fertilization and sanitation, including hairnets, gloves and frequent hand-washing.

Vessey hired a food safety manager and estimates the extra cost to keep his fields contamination-free is about $250,000 a year, but another e-coli outbreak could cost farmers billions in lost sales.

"We know that for us we do the best we can to provide a safe, reliable food supply then we're going to spend the money," Vessey told Whitaker.

The California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement has become a model for other states and other produce such as tomatoes. The cooperative sends out state inspectors for frequent, even monthly, audits.

"We're focused on it; we have these inspectors out here, and they're really making us do the right thing," Vessey told Whitaker.

Another part of the solution? Science, cutting edge research around the country to find how pathogens make it onto fresh produce and how to lessen that risk. At the Center for Produce Safety on the University of California-Davis campus, Linda Harris is focusing her research on irrigation.

"It's hard to prove, it's hard to measure, but I really think we do make a difference," Harris told Whitaker.

Yet another part of the solution lies in Washington. Legislation, which could be considered as soon as next month, could change the FDA's 100-year-old mandate. It hasn't been updated since the Great Depression.

"We are hamstrung," Mike Taylor, a senior adviser to the FDA's commissioner, told Whitaker. "We often find ourselves as a result in a reactive mode."

The proposed changes include giving the FDA the ability to recall foods, which it can't do now, access to farm and factory records, more inspectors and more funding to back it up.

"Things that will make food safer, not just regulation for regulation's sake," Taylor described the proposed legislation to Whitaker.

Gustafson traveled to Washington to share her story with members of Congress. She'll probably need a kidney transplant when she's a teenager. Until then, she just wants to see this bill pass.

"I would love to see that so people don't have to take the risk," Gustafson told Whitaker. "They know that it's probably not gonna have a bacteria that's gonna kill you or your child."

Having safe food, she says, is not too much to ask.