The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated in mid-December that 48 million people — or one in six Americans — suffer from foodborne illness each year.
Of those, about 128,000 people are hospitalized each year, and 3,000 people die from illnesses such as salmonella, E. coli O157 and listeria.
Less than a week after the CDC published its data in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, the House of Representatives passed the Food Safety Modernization Act. The legislation gives the Food and Drug Administration several new powers, including the authority to order a food recall.
Implementation will take time because more than a dozen provisions of the legislation — including Section 105, which deals with standards for fresh produce — require the FDA to go through a rulemaking process.
Some states and local governments are putting their own laws into place to improve food safety. A new state law will require more than 1 million California foodservice workers to obtain food safety certification this year.
The law, which takes effect July 1, requires that all restaurant employees who handle food earn a California Food Handler Card.
Maureen Keith, media relations manager for the Washington, D.C.-based National Restaurant Association, said four other states — Arkansas, Florida, Oregon and Washington — already have similar standards in place, and more than two dozen other states have at least one jurisdiction that requires food handler employee training.
Incidence of foodborne illness in Florida has decreased nearly 80% since that state put its program in place in 1997.
According to an FDA study of more than 800 retail food establishments — including restaurants, grocery stores and markets — food safety compliance improved significantly from 1998 to 2008.
Despite improvements, the FDA said in a report released during the fourth quarter of 2010 that continued efforts are needed in regard to poor personal hygiene, improper holding of food, and contaminated food surfaces and equipment.
The report emphasized that the presence of a certified food safety manager was associated with significantly higher compliance levels than in facilities lacking a certified manager.
Meanwhile, Julia Stewart, public relations director for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, said details about pilot projects for the Produce Traceability Initiative should be released sometime during the first quarter.
The PTI aims to have supply chain-wide adoption of case-level, electronic traceability by 2012.
VirtualOne, Plant City, Fla., has developed a packing line version of its FreshQC product, which enables the user to trace field-packed product back to the picker.
President and chief executive officer Gary Wishnatzki said that while his company has developed patent-pending traceability solutions, he knows some produce companies will take a wait-and-see approach with the PTI.
“There are a lot of companies that aren’t investing,” he said, “and won’t until they know what the requirements are going to be.”