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Food poisoning: America's homegrown threat

September 15, 2011 | 10:44 am

Ecoli

Every time there's a food recall, like Tuesday's listeria outbreak and August's salmonella scare, I think back to Nicholas Kristof's June 11 column in the New York Times, "When Food Kills," which points to an alarming statistic.

Every year in the United States, 325,000 people are hospitalized because of food-borne illnesses and 5,000 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's right: food kills one person every two hours.

Yet while the terrorist attacks of 2001 led us to transform the way we approach national security, the deaths of almost twice as many people annually have still not generated basic food-safety initiatives.

In his column, he called for "more comprehensive inspections in the food system, more testing for additional strains of E. coli, and more public education."

One of his demands was met Monday, as the Daily Beast/Newsweek's Eve Conant reports in a Sept. 13 story:

Monday's decision to regulate the six E. coli strains comes after years of efforts by food-safety advocates like attorney Bill Marler, who celebrated the announcement: "I am more than a little pleased." But there is much more to be done. "Food safety is one of the things you can't rest on; government has done its responsibility and now industry has to step up." He says he has a strong suspicion -- and hope -- that meat inspectors "will start looking at antibiotic-resistant salmonella in the same way."

Accordingly, Conant's article is cautiously optimistic at best. She paints a grim picture of innocent people dying while food inspectors dwindle in the face of budget cuts and the Obama administration drags its feet.

In March, I asked readers if they thought canned goods should come with warning labels that alert consumers to the health risks of eating food that's been bathing in BPA, a substance linked to cancer. My personal opinion is that we should get our fair warning just like smokers do, so that we have the opportunity to make informed decisions about what we eat. And the government should also prioritize basic food-safety measures, a domestic threat that we know impacts more Americans than terrorist attacks.

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-- Alexandra Le Tellier

Photo: Since breaking off from its close cousin E. coli more than 100 million years ago, the salmonella bacterium has evolved into more than 2,500 strains. Credit: Los Angeles Times

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