The FDA fails to enact effective policies in response to E. coli outbreaks

AJ De Las Alas

Staff Writer

    The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is to blame for the recent E. coli contamination that affected various food distributors across the nation, including Chipotle, Starbucks, and Costco. The FDA’s slogan is “Protecting and Promoting Your Health,” and the agency is responsible for supervising the nation’s food safety, medical devices, and drug-related products. Although the agency is effective in promoting a good nutrition and safe use of drugs and medicine, the FDA lacks success in responding efficiently to foodborne illness and contaminants. When E. coli outbreaks occur, the FDA avoids enacting stricter food safety regulations and instead, makes limited changes in response to the outbreaks.

    Let’s start with the FDA’s reaction to the large E. coli outbreak that affected Jack in the Box in 1993. This incident has been commonly described as the most infamous food poison outbreak in contemporary history. Over 700 Americans became sick from an E. coli strain that contaminated the patties of the restaurant’s hamburgers. At the time, the FDA believed the problem was exclusively linked to the cooking of the patties and responded to the outbreak by slightly increasing the accepted temperature to cook hamburgers from 140 degrees Fahrenheit to 155 degrees. The administrators made the mistake of concentrating solely on the contamination of the burger patties and not on E. coli contamination as a whole.

    The FDA reacted in a similar inefficient manner in 2006, when the lettuce used in certain Taco Bells in the U.S. was contaminated with a common E. coli strain. Seventy-one people in five different states became ill from the strain, fifty-three of whom were hospitalized. In response to this outbreak, the FDA developed the Lettuce Safety Initiative that focused on improving the food processing of lettuce. Once again, the FDA addressed the E. coli issue by focusing on the contaminated product, in this case lettuce, instead of enacting new regulations that would help prevent the bacterial contamination altogether.

    The FDA continued to display this pattern of ineffectiveness in the recent outbreak that primarily affected Chipotle Mexican Grill in late October. More than 40 people from six different U.S. states became ill due to the E. coli strain in the restaurant’s products. Shortly after the outbreak, the administrators informed U.S. food manufacturers to implement stricter food-safety regulations in their facilities. The manufacturers are now expected to clean their processing equipments often and maintain a sanitary facility. Although the FDA responded to the issue in a more widespread manner, there were still flaws within their solution. The FDA allowed the different retailers to change their food-safety policies based on their preferences, meaning that the administrators cannot know for sure whether the different facilities actually implemented new laws or not.

    Time and time again, the FDA has inadequately responded to E. coli outbreaks, thus making E. coli contamination in the U.S. more prevalent than it should be. This leaves the public to question whether the FDA actually “Protects and Promotes Your Health.”


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