Outbreaks of sometimes deadly food-borne illness in the United States are becoming increasingly commonplace, so much so that there seems to be a growing tendency to gloss over or forget the real dangers they pose to public health. The current rash of deaths and sickness related to cantaloupes contaminated with listeria is a frightening case in point.
At this writing, 13 people in eight states have died and more than 70 in 18 states have become ill after eating the produce grown in Colorado and sold in as many as 25 states. Public health officials expect the numbers to rise as they investigate additional cases. Even so, the current toll makes the present outbreak, which started in July, the deadliest of its type in more than 10 years.
Indeed, officials say it is the third most deadly outbreak of food-borne illness in the United States since the federal Centers for Disease Control began keeping records over 30 years ago. Listeria outbreaks in 1985 linked to fresh cheese and to hot dogs and deli meats in 1998-1999 claimed more lives. Listeria is not the only pathogen related to food-borne illnesses, but it is one of the most aggressive and dangerous.
Many of the deaths in the current outbreak involved elderly individuals, who are especially susceptible to listeria. Officials report that most of those who have died were over 60; two were 90 or more. In addition to the elderly, the very young, those with compromised immune systems and pregnant women are at high risk from listeria. The CDC reports, for example, that pregnant women are 20 times more likely to become severely infected than other healthy adults.
The regularity of outbreaks of food-borne illnesses in the United States -- from cantaloupes most recently, but a variety of other products in the past -- strongly suggests that more should be done to protect public health. The rash of illnesses tied to food indicates that we accept the status quo at our peril. The federal government can help reduce the risk.
Some, like U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., think otherwise, saying government already does enough.
He recently implied that the number of food poisonings in the United States -- about 48 million yearly -- is such a tiny percentage of the 340 billion meals consumed annually that current inspection programs and funding are sufficient. Try telling that to the families of the 3,000 U.S. residents who die, to the nearly 130,000 who need hospital care and to the millions sickened after eating tainted food every year.
No system can eliminate all pathogens from the U.S. food chain. The best we can hope for is a reduction in incidents and illnesses. Despite arguments to the contrary, the federal government should play an integral part in a growing and better funded effort to improve the nation's food safety record.