published Thursday, August 4th, 2011

Another worry about food safety

The United States food supply is largely safe, but there have been enough exceptions in recent years to prompt legitimate consumer worry. Another reminder about the possibility and danger of widespread food-borne illness came Tuesday when federal authorities announced that they were investigating a possible link between ground turkey meat and a nationwide outbreak of salmonella illness.

The report is a mixed bag for consumers.

On the one hand, they should be pleased that federal officials notified the public about an outbreak that has spread to 26 states, including Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama, and that has been linked to one death and 76 illnesses. Welcome as well is the reminder that all ground turkey should be cooked until it reaches an internal temperature of 165 as measured by a thermometer. Doing so can reduce the chance of salmonella infection.

On the other hand, though, the knowledge that new cases continue to be reported each week and that the government has not identified the source of the infection is worrisome. Officials say it likely is confined to a single processing plant, but they have not named the site or issued a recall because there apparently is not enough evidence under current guidelines to do either. The faster the U.S. Department of Agriculture identifies and publicizes the source of contaminated turkey and issues a recall, the better.

Though the number of deaths and illnesses associated with ground turkey is mercifully small so far, there is no assurance it will remain so given the increasingly popularity of ground turkey as a substitute for ground beef. The presence of salmonella in some turkey meat and the quest to identify its source are powerful reminders that the nation still has food safety problems.

The agencies charged with protecting the nation's food chain, chiefly the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration, have a tough job. They must manage an increasing workload on shrinking appropriations. It's hard to prove a correlation between recent rises in the number of salmonella and E. coli outbreaks and the staff and facility cuts prompted by a shortage of money, but it is unlikely to be completely coincidental.

As the current salmonella outbreak indicates, there is considerable room for improvement in the U.S. oversight of food production. Additional funding for inspection agencies -- even in the current budget climate -- is necessary to maintain and enhance consumer confidence in the U.S. food supply.

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