Food safety debate: Transcripts of the final chapter

12/22/2010 09:44:35 AM
Tom Karst

Among the critical reforms in this bill are increased inspection of high-risk facilities, expanded authority to inspect recall records, the formation of a more accurate food facility registry, improved traceability in the event of an illness outbreak, and improved surveillance of food-borne illness. The bill also requires certification of certain foreign food imports as meeting U.S. food safety requirements.

All of these tools will help improve the FDA's ability to respond to food-borne illness outbreaks and to hold industrial food production facilities to higher standards. For too long the cornerstone of our food safety system, the FDA, has had only ancient tools and an outdated mandate at its disposal. This bill will go a long way towards stemming the potential of a full-blown food-borne epidemic in the future. Recently, the CDC released an updated estimate on food-borne illness figures, and it remains a major public interest health threat. With nearly 50 million illnesses, 100,000 hospitalizations, and over 3,000 deaths each year, these estimates show that there is much work to be done in identifying and combating the pathogens that cause food-borne illness.

Just to tell you the importance of this bill, let me share with you the story of Haylee Berstein, a 17-year old girl who lives in Wilton, Connecticut. When Haylee was 3 years old, she ate unwashed lettuce that was contaminated with E. coli. She soon became extremely ill with what doctors called hemolytic uretic syndrome. The health effects of an E. coli illness are very painful. Haylee experienced traumatic damage to her kidneys and pancreas. She suffered severe bleeding in her brain. And that blood in her brain caused her to be temporarily blind. The doctors at Yale-New Haven Children's Hospital fought for 14 weeks to save her life. And to this day, Haylee still suffers from health problems such as diabetes, all because of food contaminated with E. coli. This should not happen to anyone. And as we know in this body, it can be prevented.

With all of this in mind, our food safety efforts should not, and will not, end today. Because this piece of legislation is not about roads and bridges and parks and other things that we do in this institution. This legislation is about life and death. While the FDA is charged with protecting a large majority of our food supply, the Food Safety and Inspection Service, FSIS at USDA, is responsible for ensuring the safety of meat and poultry products. After passing this bill today, we must begin to lay the foundation for science-based reform at FSIS as well. That is why I worked on language that would create a science-based panel, supported by a wide range of stakeholders, to analyze the food safety system at FSIS and develop the concept of what a modernized system would look like there.


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