We don’t often write about government doing its work as it should. And yet, in the area of food safety, an unhappy and sometimes deadly event has become rarer, and that is worthy of note in this season of holiday feasts.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service has reported a 10 percent decrease in foodborne illness from meat, poultry and eggs.
The number is still high, 386,265 cases in 2014. But it’s falling. There were 479,621 reported cases of salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes and E. coli attributable to meat, poultry and eggs in 2012.
It’s not by accident. The inspection service under director Alfred V. Almanza and his boss, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, has focused on foodborne illness, bringing to bear a zero-tolerance policy for raw beef products, new and tougher standards for salmonella and campylobacter, and more intensive inspection of chicken parts.
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So far in 2015, inspectors have ordered 142 recalls of meat, poultry and egg products, up from 94 in 2014, and 69 in 2009, when President Barack Obama took office.
The service attributes the rising number to increased emphasis on inspecting for allergens in spice blends, and on insistence that imports be submitted for inspection. Importantly, the bulk of these recalls are occurring before the products reach grocers’ shelves.
Obama and former President George W. Bush can share credit. After 9/11, the Bush administration increased funding to enhance surveillance of the food supply.
Then in 2009, as Obama entered office, a salmonella outbreak killed nine people and sickened more than 700, prompting more change. After the outbreak was traced to a vermin-infested peanut processing plant in Georgia owned by Peanut Corporation of America, Congress – then controlled by Democrats – approved the Food Safety Modernization Act, the most significant food safety legislation in seven decades.
Rules implementing aspects of that law will take effect in 2016, and could further improve food safety. Also, two months ago, Peanut Corporation owner Stewart Parnell was sentenced to 28 years in prison, following conviction on federal conspiracy and fraud charges.
Damning evidence against him included an email in which he wrote, “Just ship it,” after employees warned that some of his products tested positive for salmonella.
Just shipping Parnell to prison sends an unmistakeable message, Seattle plaintiffs’ attorney William D. Marler, who sued Peanut Corporation of America and its many corporate customers, told a Sacramento Bee editorial board member. Though defendants paid about $50 million in settlements, the cost of recalling all the tainted peanut products was $500 million.
Messages like that don’t get dished out without good government.