Editors’ Note: Bottemiller’s bio should have mentioned that her employer, Food Safety News, is published by the law firm Marler Clark, which represents victims of food-borne illnesses. FSN operates separately and is editorially independent.
Four-year-old Jake Hurley was wearing a red power tie when I first met him on Capitol Hill in October 2009. He and his dad, Peter, a police officer from Oregon, had just finished a long day of lobbying for the Food Safety Modernization Act, a bill that aimed to strengthen federal food safety regulation.
Earlier that year, Jake had been part of a nationwide Salmonella outbreak, in which contaminated peanut butter had sickened 714 people and been linked to nine deaths in 46 states, sparking a recall of nearly 4,000 food products. There was considerable media coverage of the outbreak, but the headlines came too late to prevent Jake’s 11-day battle with a severe Salmonella infection. At the time, no one knew what was responsible for the surge in illnesses. Jake’s pediatrician even told his parents they could continue feeding him peanut-butter crackers, his favorite comfort food, which, they would later learn, were precisely what was making him sick.
The Hurleys’ local paper, The Oregonian, happens to have an experienced food-safety reporter, Lynne Terry, on staff—a rarity in this age of shrinking newsrooms. But, as usual with most foodborne-illness outbreaks, the media don’t receive information until long after people start falling ill. In this case, Terry didn’t learn of the outbreak until January 2009, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had started looking into the first cluster of matching Salmonella illnesses in November 2008.
The trickle of information from public-health officials during outbreaks—which has as much to do with the science of epidemiology as it does with the complexity of our modefood system—is just one of the challenges facing reporters covering food safety in the 21st century. Public-health cutbacks, a fragmented regulatory system, a global food chain, and a lack of transparency at federal agencies make the food-safety beat as complicated as the food system itself.
While the United States enjoys one of the safest food supplies in the world, food safety remains a critical public-health issue. According to the CDC, each year an estimated 48 million Americans—roughly one in six—are sickened by tainted food, 128,000 of them are hospitalized, and 3,000 die.
Incidents of multistate foodborne illness are now routine. In the past several months, mangoes, tuna, cantaloupes, cheese, leafy greens, ground beef, and peanut butter have all been tied to outbreaks caused by pathogens like E. coli, Listeria, and Salmonella. More than half of consumers consistently report being concerned about food safety, yet few media outlets have a dedicated food-safety beat, so the coverage tends to be more reactive than sustained and solutions-oriented.
The epidemiology of foodborne disease is complicated; there are numerous barriers to definitively linking sick people in multiple states to the same pathogen and a common food product. One of the biggest hurdles is that foodborne illnesses are severely underreported. For every case of Salmonella that is reported, the CDC estimates that some 29 are not. For a case to be reported to PulseNet, a national network managed by the CDC to help connect matching illnesses, a person would have to be sick enough to go to the doctor, the doctor would have to suspect foodborne illness, collect a stool or blood sample, and, if the sample tested positive, alert state health officials who would then have to determine and report the DNA “fingerprint” of the pathogen.
Detecting and solving foodborne-illness outbreaks relies heavily on the capacity and expertise of state and local health departments, which have been hit hard by budget cuts and are often tracking multiple outbreaks or small clusters of disease at once. According to the National Association of County and City Health Officials, since 2008 around 50,000 jobs in these departments have been eliminated nationwide.
Even when dealing with confirmed illnesses, it’s difficult to definitively link them to a food product. Health officials use food-history questionnaires to help identify foods that sick people have in common, but it’s not easy to recall what you had for lunch three days ago, down to the ingredient.
Cracking the cases can take some time. Last spring, during an outbreak of Salmonella that ultimately sickened at least 425 people in 28 states, it took health officials two weeks just to narrow the likely cause to seafood, with sushi as a prime suspect. Then, investigators struggled to identify the specific ingredient making people sick. If it was spicy tuna rolls, which many people had reported eating before becoming ill, was it the mayonnaise, the sesame seeds, the tuna, the hot sauce, the seaweed, or the rice?