Investigation of foodborne diseases has slowed and the number of reviews of food has fallen to the lowest level in recent years due to failures in the multi-layered system of food safety in America, caused by a coronavirus pandemic, writes USA Today.
The pandemic has hit the system at all levels — from Federal agencies tasked to stop the spread of contaminated food from factories and farms, to health departments in the state that people check for the presence of causative agents of foodborne disease such as E. coli.
Experts say that while there is no evidence that as a result of such suspension arose a widespread problem, but advocates of food safety say that Americans are now exposed to greater risk.
“We have so many different security measures, and COVID knock’ em off one after the other,” says Sarah Archer, Deputy Director of regulatory Affairs in the Center for science in the public interest.
In March, the Office of the food and drug administration announced that it will delay the audits of the national food factories, canneries and poultry farms, which requires personal presence of the staff. As a result, in April the number of inspections the FDA fell from 900 to 8 per month. Along with this, warning the FDA that explode in unsafe conditions has decreased from hundreds per month to almost zero in April.
The number of product recalls have also decreased dramatically. Usually companies release announcing the recall and report them to the FDA. Weekly reports to FDA show that the number of reviews has decreased from 173 in February and 105 in March and 70 in April.
The Department of agriculture also monitors the reviews of food. Their number fell from the average level (more than 10 per month) to an unprecedented zero in March and 2 in April. In the period from January to April, the Department recorded a total of 7 reviews on food — the lowest value during this period at least a decade.
The representative of the Department of agriculture announced that the Agency “continues to perform all of the obligations” and encouraged the food industry to “responsibility” in providing safe products.
The Agency “is actively working with the industry to improve production practices and reduce the amount of feedback, and we see the results of those efforts,” said the representative.
Meanwhile, some public health departments of States are so busy COVID-19, which is struggling to cope with the typical workload associated with food-borne disease, which in any case may be reduced statistically as fewer Americans seek treatment of gastric diseases, preferring to stay home and not go to the doctor.
Health protection Agency States typically interact with local doctors and hospitals to collect information, which is then loaded into a nationwide database “PulseNet”, managed by the Centers for control and prevention of diseases.
The activities of PulseNet began to fall rapidly in April, said Dr. Robert Toux, Director of the division of food borne illnesses CDC. It was observed a 50% reduction in the number of E. coli samples submitted to the system and reducing the number of cases of Salmonella by 25% in comparison with the average for 5 years. Despite this, according to Tauxe, change “has not prevented our ability to identify and investigate outbreaks of foodborne diseases”.
However, the number of completed Federal investigations of outbreaks of foodborne diseases also declined both in CDC and FDA.
Until may 7, CDC was able to eliminate two flashes: flash associated with mushrooms, which led to the poisoning of three dozen people and the death of 4 people in the United States, and the outbreak associated with clover sprouts that caused the poisoning 51 people, mainly in Utah. To the same time last year, it was noted the feedback about the product in five different outbreaks, which affected more than 300 people. This pace was consistent with the annual average CDC in 2011.
Information from the web site, the FDA also indicates a reduction in the number of completed investigations that led to the recall of food products this year. Two investigations, less than half the rate in 2018 and 2019, though higher than the pace of the investigations in 2011 and 2015.
The FDA inspection has decreased dramatically
Usually the FDA visits thousands of enterprises producing food products every year for safety inspection. Examples from recent inspections show alarming results.
“You did not exclude pests from the food plant to protect against contamination of food,” reads one report.
“You have not taken adequate steps to protect from falling into the food with metallic or other foreign materials,” says another.
But on 18 March, the Agency announced that it will “postpone” almost all such inspections.
The number of inspections and warnings is rapidly decreased. In 2018 and 2019, the FDA conducted an average of about 900 checks per month, which led to 600 warnings. In March, the number fell to 307 inspections and 167 warnings. In April there were just 8 inspections, which led to two warnings.
But Martin Widmann, Professor of food safety at Cornell University, said that food companies themselves were and continue to be the main testers of food safety and that any level of checks has to be put in order to reduce the risk of infection of the inspectors.
The FDA has changed and other system limitations also. Over the past two months, the Agency has relaxed the rules, ensuring the safety of eggs by requiring Supplement manufactures to report “adverse events” and forcing food companies to test methods of ensuring food safety from suppliers of ingredients.
Corser noted that companies still have a legal responsibility for internal addressing the risks associated with food safety. But she said she worried about what would happen if COVID-19 will also have an impact on private inspectors and staff.
“What if specialist for food safety get sick?” — suggested Archer. When this last support will fall, and the people involved in security will not be able to do the work, we may have a flash, and we may not even know about it.”
Meat products Packed with risk
In April, more than 1,000 inspectors, were dismissed from work after sick COVID-19 or was removed because they have a high risk of medical complications caused by this disease.
The Department of agriculture of the USA says that he has enough inspectors to cover all objects that require control. In April, the Department refused on 15 poultry farms, according to the Federal register, means that they must support at least one line on average higher than the standard speed of production. Failures mean fewer USDA inspectors physically examine the bird.
Supporters argue that the company should continue to carry out other security checks, such as taking microbial swabs from carcasses to search for contaminants such as Salmonella. But the load on the inspection for the packaging of meat could undermine security.
Another weak link in the chain of food safety are doctors, patients and health departments. As a rule, outbreak investigation starts at the local level, when a sick patient visits a doctor and have him take the analysis. These samples are then sent to commercial laboratories and public health laboratories, and then loaded into the database PulseNet.
But hospitals and health departments, for obvious reasons, focused on COVID-19, said William Marler, attorney Marler Clark in Seattle, who specializiruetsya on food safety.
“If the child has acute renal failure caused by E. coli, usually needs to be a health worker, who will talk to him to figure out the common denominator of the disease, said Marler. — They are now able to do this? Probably not.”
In early may, the CDC reported that several health departments of the States said about the problems with the testing of samples taken for analysis, and asked for Federal support. One state, which has not been named, asked for additional help in conversations with patients to determine what they ate.
Many experts believe that the decrease in statistics may be due to the fact that Americans prefer to stay home and not seek treatment during a pandemic. Possible changes in the risk factors for foodborne illness: now people rarely eat in restaurants, and often at home. But, according to experts, accurate answers about the impact of coronavirus on food safety will not be until the pandemic subsides.
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