food borne illnesses sicken millions each year

Mixed emotions are meeting the Food Safety Bill, which passed through Senate on December 20, 2010. While some are calling it ‘fake’ and a threat to small family farms, other trusted voices for healthy and safe food like Michael Pollan (author of Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual) and Eric Schlosser (author of Fast Food Nation) support the bill.

But, who is right?

Like anything Americans do, the Food Safety Bill is convoluted. What lies at the heart of the opposition concerns the authority given to the FDA to test for contamination from pathogens such as e coli and salmonella before anyone ever gets sick. There are drastic differences of opinion on the number of deaths from food-borne illnesses. Republican Senator Tom Coburn from Oklahoma cited only 10-20 American deaths from food illnesses annually, but in their op-ed piece for The NY Times, Pollan and Schlosser suggest the number is much higher — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, citing 5,000 Americans die every year from a food-related illness.

Regardless of how many people die (one is too many), additional concern lies in how many people become sick, or are at risk of becoming sick. Currently, tens of millions of Americans eat tainted food each year, with treating these people costing more than $100 billion annually. And, some studies even suggest minor “stomach flu” is often mild food poisoning, which could significantly bump up the number of people affected, and the costs of treating them. The opposition views the bill as leading manufacturers to increase “preventative measures” to thwart contamination, which means more antibiotics and more sterilization — contaminants in their own right. But, fears that armies of FDA agents will be rooting around in your backyard garden testing your carrots are unlikely and rash. Smaller farms should take food safety seriously, but they will be regulated under state and local laws, as they always have been.

The federal Food Safety Bill is intended to address safety where most of our food comes from — big agriculture. Pollan and Schlosser cite Roosevelt’s Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which was also met with opposition but has since brought safer regulations and standards. More than 99% of our food comes from large-scale farms, with the potential to sicken and kill millions. Says Pollan and Schlosser: ” The largest outbreaks are routinely caused by the largest processors, not by small producers selling their goods at farmers’ markets.”

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