Foodborne illness is a major cause of enteric disease in the United States (Doyle, 2000). Recent incidents of foodborne illness have led to questions regarding the safety of the U.S. food supply. This article delineates the existing food safety standards being used in the produce industry and analyzes the specific costs incurred by the produce industry when these microbiological contamination incidents occur. Moreover, compliance costs for new food safety standards were also estimated through a survey of producers participating in the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement (LGMA).
The cost borne by producers and handlers of produce is analyzed using the following three incidents as case examples:
- On Sept. 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that consumers should not eat bagged spinach (FDA, 2006). Epidemiological evidence pointed to bagged spinach as a possible cause of an ongoing multistate foodborne illness outbreak of the potentially deadly bacterium Escherichia coli O157:H7 (Calvin, 2007). The next day the warning was expanded to include all fresh spinach. The FDA worked with California Health Services agencies to investigate and determine the source of the contaminated spinach (California Emergency Response Team, 2007). By the time the outbreak was contained, 227 people had become ill across the United States; 104 had been hospitalized; 31 had developed serious complications from hemolytic-uremic syndrome; and three had died as a result of this outbreak.
- On Mar. 2008, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) alerted the FDA of a multistate Salmonella food poisoning that spanned through 16 states and several Canadian provinces attributed to muskmelon (FDA, 2008a). According to the FDA, muskmelons imported from a company in Honduras, Central America, left 50 people ill with Salmonella poisoning. Although no deaths were reported, 14 people required hospitalization. In their warning, the FDA linked the outbreak to a single company in Honduras, Agropecuaria Montelibano (FDA, 2008d).
- On June 2008, the FDA alerted consumers in New Mexico and Texas that a Salmonella outbreak appeared to be linked to consumption of certain types of raw, red tomatoes and tomato products (FDA, 2008c). Ultimately, the CDC reported 1200 cases of salmonellosis across New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, and Utah. However, the source of the outbreak was finally attributed to jalapeno and serrano peppers (Capsicum annuum) produced in Mexico and the warning alert was lifted on July 2008 (FDA, 2008b).
These recent outbreaks are not unique. Since the mid-1990s, outbreaks in the produce industry have occurred that were linked to leafy greens, tomatoes, peppers, muskmelon, raspberries (Rubus sp.), green onions (Allium sp.), and strawberries (Fragaria ×ananassa), among others. More than 200 known diseases are transmitted through foodborne illnesses because of viruses, bacteria, parasites, toxins, and metals (Bryan, 1982). These foodborne illnesses represent a significant burden on the U.S. population and health system as a whole, causing ≈76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5000 deaths annually (Kennedy and Angulo, 2000). The annual costs associated with these foodborne illnesses or deaths are estimated to be between $5 billion and $6 billion (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, 2010).
As a reaction to these incidents, efforts have increased to enhance food safety regulation by the government and associated industry groups (Caswell, 1988). Food safety efforts are based on a combination of voluntary measures undertaken by producers and regulatory measures imposed by government (Segerson, 1999). These efforts have focused on increased scrutiny of imported products and the improvement in domestic standards. In some cases, product standards have established tolerance levels for some pathogens; in other cases, process standards have been adopted to recommend good agricultural practice (GAP) standards for the production and handling of products designed to reduce the potential for contamination. However, additional regulatory actions are being considered, such as the consolidation of food safety regulatory activities currently located in Federal government agencies such as FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in a new food safety regulatory agency.
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