Bridging the food safety gap

By Karen Abernathy - bio | email

This year, 76 million Americans will get sick, 325,000 will be hospitalized, and 5,000 will die. These aren't statistics about cancer or diabetes, they're linked to the number of people who will eat tainted food in a year. It's an issue that's causing concern among consumers and safety advocates.

Two-year-old Kevin Kowalcyk's family thought he had a bad case of the flu.  His grandmother, Pat Buck says, "The lab report came back that it was positive for E. coli."

It turned out to be a deadly strain of bacteria that came from something he ate.

"Kevin crashed by having a heart attack."

His little body swelled up to three times his normal size.

"Then he had his third heart attack, and then he died."

Pat Buck uses her heartache to fuel her mission. She runs the Center for Food Borne Illness Research and Prevention.

"This is unacceptable and I will work as hard as I can talking to people about it so they understand."

Caroline Smith Dewaal routinely testifies before Congress about the problems in the FDA.

"The heart of any reform effort lies in prevention, not response," Dewaal said.

She said the FDA is in charge of 80-percent of the food supply, adding that, "The FDA really has a mission impossible."

The FDA regulates more than $1 trillion in consumer goods. That's 25 cents of every consumer dollar. Since 1990, the volume of imports increased more than 900-percent.

And as for the number of inspectors, "We have the components of the agency that had 1,100 staffers six years ago and now have 700. And those are people responsible for food safety," said Steve Grossman, President of the Alliance for a Stronger FDA.

The FDA is set to receive a little over $2 billion this year. That's comparable to one school district's budget in one county in Maryland.

"The superintendent of schools is covering maybe 100 square miles, and the commissioner is worrying about the world -- same amount of money."

In honor of her grandson, Pat will continue her fight for safety.

The FDA refused all requests for interviews for this story. President Barack Obama recently announced the creation of a food safety working group that will advise him on which laws and regulations need to be changed or better enforced.

Meanwhile, private industry is taking the lead to develop technology that will track food. IBM is partnering with food suppliers to develop sensors that will allow consumers to trace the food anywhere in the supply chain.

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