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Is America's Food Supply Safe?

E. coli in spinach, salmonella in peanut butter—a string of recent contaminations has prompted questions about food safety

Americans have one of the safest food supplies in the world. The Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) works closely with federal, state, and local agencies, private companies, and consumers to make it even safer.

The F.D.A. is always working to protect food from bacterial, viral, and chemical contamination. We use the most modern scientific methods available to learn how contamination occurs and how to prevent it.

We have 625 investigators working out of 20 different offices all across the country who are dedicated to inspecting our food supply and working with food companies to make sure they do everything they can to keep food safe. If we suspect any food is unsafe, we work to catch problems early. We try to find out how the problem started, fix it, and prevent it from happening again.

Our food comes from all over the world. The F.D.A. has inspectors at our borders to prevent unsafe food from entering our country, as well as experts in foreign countries who help ensure that food exported to the U.S. meets our standards.

Besides working with the food industry to prevent contamination of food, the F.D.A. educates consumers to do their part to ensure that the food they eat is safe. This includes cooking food to appropriate temperatures, keeping it refrigerated, and properly handling raw meat, seafood, and poultry.

The F.D.A. works hard every day to ensure the safety of America's food.

Dr. David Acheson, Assistant Commissioner for Food Protection
Food and Drug Administration

Ashley Armstrong of Indiana was just 2 years old when she became critically ill from eating contaminated spinach last year. She survived, but she will need a kidney transplant and intensive lifelong medical attention to counter the devastating effects of being infected with E. coli bacteria.

Ashley is just one of thousands of Americans who get sick or die from something they ate each year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 76 million Americans get sick, 325,000 are hospitalized, and 5,000 die from food-borne illness each year.

Part of the problem is that U.S. food-safety laws are quite old. Most were drafted a century ago, after Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle exposed filthy conditions in meat-processing plants.

The job of monitoring our food supply is divided—often haphazardly—between the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A.), and that allows things to fall through the cracks.

Americans get 13 percent of their diets (260 pounds per person each year) from imported food, and this creates another hazard. Ninety-nine percent of F.D.A.-regulated imported food reaches grocery-store shelves without ever being checked for faulty labels or the contaminants that cause food-borne illness.

In the 21st century, the U.S. food supply faces many threats, ranging from accidental contamination to bioterrorism. We must work harder to ensure that Americans can trust the food they put on their plates.

Caroline Smith Dewaal, Food Safety Director
Center for Science in the Public Interest