Consumer watchdog CALPIRG says more Americans are at risk of getting sick from what we eat.
The Public Interest Research Group released a food safety study today. Titled How Safe is Our Food?, the report finds a spike in meat and poultry recalls, and calls for improvements to U.S. food safety oversight.
CALPIRG Executive Director Emily Rusch told NBC Bay Area the government should scrutinize and upgrade the ways it keeps tainted food off our plates.
"We need to improve our systems for making sure that recalled products are taken off store shelves," Rusch said, "and that consumers who have bought those products are adequately notified."
Among the principal findings of the PIRG study:
- An 83 percent increase in hazardous meat and poultry recalls since 2013. CALPIRG says such "Class 1" recalls are the most likely to cause serious illness or death.
- A 70 percent increase in chicken recalls, often for outbreaks of Salmonella contamination. The CDC estimates 1.2 million Americans get sick from Salmonella bacteria every year.
- A 10 percent increase in recalls for all food products sold in the U.S.
- Foodborne illness reported among at least one in six Americans every year.
CALPIRG says part of the problem is related to laws governing meat and poultry safety. Rusch told NBC Bay Area it is legal for food producers and distributors to sell meat that has tested positive for Salmonella.
"When you're allowed to put chicken that has antibiotic-resistant strains of salmonella on store shelves, that's a real warning cry that we need to make sure that everything on store shelves would be something that you'd want to feed to your kids," Rusch said.
The laws in question are the Federal Meat Inspection Act and Poultry Products Inspection Act. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) denied a petition by the Center for Science in the Public Interest which called for classification of Salmonella as an "adulterant" which could not be present in food made available for sale. At the time, FSIS said it had "concluded that the data do not support" tougher standards for meat and poultry, "because ordinary cooking and preparation of these products is generally sufficient to destroy the pathogens."
Rusch says consumers must take extra steps to keep our meals safe.
"Until we make improvements to the food safety net overall, it is very important that you do cook your meat to the right temperature," Rusch said. "Cleaning your kitchen carefully, and cooking your meat to the right temperatures, are some of the most important things you can do."
NBC Bay Area asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration to comment on the PIRG study for this story. FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb responded to us on Twitter, saying in part, "We appreciate US PIRG's interest in the safety of the nation's food system and we always welcome a larger conversation on the topic. Public health is our top priority and FDA is working hard to ensure the U.S. food supply remains among the safest in the world."
A USDA spokesperson said the agency could not comment specifically because of staffing issues during the government shutdown, but stated "Meat, poutry, and egg products inspections, recalls, outbreak investigations, and all other activities required to protect human life and property continue during the shutdown."