The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) considers foodborne illness an entirely preventable disease. Nevertheless, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates annually “1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) will get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 will die from foodborne diseases.”
Not included in these dire FDA statistics are the scores of people who will unknowingly be sickened by reactions to undeclared allergens or inadequately labeled foods and spices. Declared food allergens include peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, wheat, soy, fish, shellfish and as of January 2023 sesame seeds. A severe, untreated allergic reaction to these foods can result in death.
Confident our food supply is safe, Thanksgiving dinner will be prepared and served to millions of Americans. It is the perfect time to take a closer look at who is responsible for the safety of our food supply and raise awareness of the quality control mandates created to help us eat well and stay well.
The FDA is the nation’s federal agency responsible for ensuring food products sold to consumers are safe, wholesome, and labeled accurately. One of their key functions is establishing and enforcing regulations that govern food production, processing, and distribution.
These regulations set standards for food safety and nutritional content. Sometimes these measures fall short. Pink peppercorns, an ingredient of popular peppercorn medleys is one example of inadequate food safety labeling. Pink peppercorns are not peppercorns. It is a dried fruit, a member of the same botanical family as tree nuts. It is widely sold without warning to people with tree nut allergies and has triggered severe allergic reactions.
The FDA’s other responsibilities include conducting inspections and audits of food facilities to ensure compliance to its regulations. The agency has the authority to take enforcement actions against companies that violate the rules. This includes issuing warning letters, product recalls, and, in extreme cases, legal actions against the responsible parties.
The FDA also conducts extensive research and testing to identify potential food safety risks. It collaborates with other government agencies, industry stakeholders, and research institutions to monitor emerging foodborne hazards and assess their impact on public health. This research informs the development of new regulations and guidelines designed to mitigate risks and protect consumers.
Additionally, the FDA plays a crucial role in educating the public about food safety by providing information and resources to help consumers make informed choices about the foods they purchase and consume. Included are accurate, up-to-date guidelines on safe food handling, allergen labeling, and dietary recommendations. For more information visit https://www.fda.gov/industry/fda-basics-industry/submit-questions-and-comments
The FDA has broad regulatory authority. The agency can establish and enforce regulations that cover all aspects of food production and distribution, from farm to table. These regulations are legally binding, and companies that fail to comply may face penalties. The standards include food labeling, nutrition facts, allergen information and review of health claims made by dietary supplements. Companies must adhere to these mandated labeling requirements.
While the FDA is the primary guardian of America’s food, it faces an emerging barrier to protecting consumers. Globalization of the food supply chain introduces an increasing number of imported products, supplements and spices that are unavailable for FDA inspection and approval.
As with most preventive health measures, consumers have a responsibility to be aware of food safety best practices. For example, food handlers who do not practice good personal hygiene, such as proper handwashing can introduce pathogens into food preparation. Common food safety risks include:
Salmonella: Found in raw poultry, eggs, and other sources, it can cause gastrointestinal illness. Escherichia coli (E. coli): Some strains of E. coli can lead to severe foodborne illnesses, often associated with undercooked ground beef or contaminated produce. Listeria monocytogenes: Often found in deli meats, soft cheeses, and refrigerated ready-to-eat foods, it can cause listeriosis, which can be severe, especially in vulnerable populations. Campylobacter: Typically found in raw poultry, it can cause diarrheal diseases. Norovirus: Often associated with contaminated water and food handlers, it causes symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea, leading to outbreaks. Hepatitis A: Can be transmitted through contaminated food and water and may lead to hepatitis A outbreaks. Toxoplasma gondii: Found in undercooked or raw meat, it can cause toxoplasmosis, which can be especially dangerous for pregnant individuals. Trichinella spiralis: Found in undercooked pork, it causes trichinellosis, a disease characterized by muscle pain and weakness.
The FDA cautions consumers to be extra careful when preparing food for infants, the elderly, pregnant women, and individuals with compromised immune systems, as they are more susceptible to foodborne illnesses. Food safety should be practiced not just at Thanksgiving but every time a meal is prepared.