This article was written by Richard Auffrey during Seafood Expo North America. Auffrey won the "FDA, FSMA, & Imported Seafood Safety" blogging award featured by ABC Research in a co-effort with iPura and Global Aquaculture Alliance. His article is reprinted here with his kind permission. For the original article, or to subscribe to his blog (which we highly recommend), click here.
From contaminated hamburger to tainted lettuce, we have all seen the massive recalls in the news, with millions of pounds of product taken off the shelves. A significant number of us have been inflicted with a bout of food poisoning at some point in our lives. Though for most of us this is merely an unpleasant experience, it can be deadly for some, including some of our most vulnerable, such as the elderly. Food safety is an essential concern, one that impacts the entire world.
But who is primarily responsible for food safety? In an article, The Ethics of Food Safety in the Twenty-First Century, by Jeffrey Burkhardt, a Professor of Agriculture & Natural Resource Ethics and Policy at the Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida, it states that "Although individuals and personal entities have a role to play in ensuring a safe and secure food system, governments are the primary agents to secure, or 'keep,' this public good." This is due, in large part, to the great complexity of the international food chain, where much of it is out of the hands of the average consumer. Most of the problems with food safety globally are associated with bacterial/viral contamination or spoilage but other hazards exist as well such as pesticides, industrial chemicals, and foreign material like waste.
As many police makers seem to be in agreement with Burkhardt, the U.S. government recently took a major step in efforts to increase food safety. On January 4, 2011, President Barack Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) into law, what many consider one of the most significant reforms of food safety since the 1930s. Previously, the focus of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had been geared much more to handling problems once they arose, but with this new law, there was a shift in focus to greater prevention.
The new law also granted the FDA greater powers and authority, along with greater responsibility, including in reporting requirements. The comprehensive law deals with imported and domestically raised foods of all sorts, including seafood. However, many elements of the law are still in flux as aspects are still being fine tuned by the FDA. In some areas, the deadline for the comment period is still sometime in the future, so those parts of the law have not yet been set. It is almost as if they passed a law which really can't do anything yet.
What is the extent of food-borne illnesses, especially from seafood? According to a 2011 reportfrom the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), it is estimated "that each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases." The most common pathogen leading to illness is the norovirus (making up about 58%), followed by salmonella (at 11%). There is also a fascinating study conducted by the CDC, using data from 1998-2008, that estimated 1451 deaths from 17 different food commodities. When this total was broken down, 278 of those deaths were attributable to poultry, 240 from vegetables, 140 from meat and only 94 from seafood. That at least indicates the seafood industry is less lethal than other food industries, though it doesn't indicate the extent of sickness that might be caused from tainted seafood.