Contaminated food sickened at least 17 Iowans in less than two years and cost the state more than $1.4 million, according to a new report.
Those illnesses and costs were linked directly to food recalls, according to the report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, or PIRG.
Nationwide, the report cited 1,753 Americans sickened by foodborne illnesses, with 37 deaths and more than $227 million in hospitalizations and other costs in the past 21 months.
Recalls of cantaloupe and hundreds of thousands of jars of peanut butter were among the high profile cases.
Pathogens such as listeria, E. coli and salmonella can cause serious illness, kidney failure and death.
“More needs to be done to identify the contaminants that are making us sick and to protect Americans from the risk of unsafe food,” Nasima Hossain, Public Health Advocate for U.S. PIRG said in a statement. “We must move away from the current reactive approach, where recalls happen after dangerous products have already made it into families’ kitchens, and focus on prevention.”
“Total Food Recall: Unsafe Foods Putting American Lives at Risk” analyzed recall information issued by the Food and Drug Administration and the Food Safety Inspection Service from January 2011 to September 2012.
The group called for full implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act, which was signed into law by President Obama in January 2011. The law gives the FDA new tools and powers to protect consumers, but has not been properly funded. the group said.
Jason Grimm, food system planner for the Amana-based Iowa Valley Resource Conservation & Development, said many Iowa farmers have their own food safety plans in place to decrease the chances of contamination.
The report cited the rapid increase of food imports as one reason for high rates of foodborne illness, with about 15 percent of all food consumed in the U.S. being imported and two-thirds of fruits and vegetables coming from foreign food suppliers.
Grimm said the safety track record for local foods is better because there is less opportunity for contamination.
Also, tainted food can contaminate a greater amount of food at large-scale processing plants, as compared to the processing used by small-scale farmers, he said.
Deputy state epidemiologist Ann Garvey said many food-borne illnesses are not related to food recalls.
Based on statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, about 500,000 Iowans are sickened annually by food-borne illnesses. That could include food that is not heated to the proper temperature and other causes, Garvey said.
Nationally, contaminated food makes 48 million Americans sick every year, according to the CDC.
The Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals has used a risk-based method for inspecting food establishments under state jurisdiction since April 1, 2010, with the following inspection schedule:
• High-risk establishments (large-scale, full service restaurant) – once every six months
• Medium risk establishments (fast-food establishment) – once every 12 months
• Low risk establishments (convenience stores with limited food preparation) – once every 24 months.
Spokesman David Werning said establishments with a poor compliance record are moved into a more frequent inspection category.
The department also inspects all food processing plants in Iowa on an annual basis.