Food & Beverage

Eat, drink and be merry—but is the food safe?

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Since October, an outbreak of antibiotic-resistant salmonella in chicken has left nearly 450 people sick in 23 states. No deaths have been reported so far, but dozens have been hospitalized.

This recent outbreak has put food safety under the microscope—again—with calls for tougher inspection measures even as the government begins reforming food safety rules.

"Our current approach to salmonella outbreaks is not working," said Sandra Eskin, director of the food safety project at the Pew Charitable Trust.

Pew released a report last week citing "serious weaknesses" in the Department of Agriculture's oversight of the country's poultry plants.

"We have old statutes that govern meat and poultry, like not being able to mandate a recall of a product," Eskin said. "The laws don't take what happens to public health into effect."

That antibiotic-resistant bacteria caused the outbreak is a source of concern.

"It's the most alarming issue," said Emelie Peine, a global food economist at the University of Puget Sound in Washington. "It's a crisis of food and health coming together. We have the overuse of antibiotics in animals and then the result of contaminated food."

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3,000 deaths a year

An estimated 48 million Americans—roughly one in every six people—get foodborne illnesses annually, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Of those, nearly 128,000 need hospital treatment, and 3,000 die.

Congress and President Barack Obama acted with the Food and Safety Modernization Act of 2011, the first sweeping reform in food safety in more than 70 years.

Prompted by recalls of tainted produce and peanuts in 2008 and 2009, the law gives the FDA more power to monitor and recall domestic and international produce.

But in the U.S., different agencies oversee different foods. Produce is the FDA's domain, while meat and chicken are monitored by the Department of Agriculture.

Because of the dividing lines, the USDA is not subject to any rule changes from the FDA.

"We don't necessarily call for the two agencies to become one, but the rules for the USDA need to be updated," said Eskin from Pew.

New rules for food safety

The Food and Modernization Act itself is a work in progress. It won't go into full effect until 2015. Just last week, the FDA said it was delaying some regulations that had been set to be implemented this year.

Those changes included standards for water quality and the use of raw manure and compost, and provisions for mixed-use operations, such as farms with food-processing activities.

The rules for produce farms would prevent 1.75 million foodborne illnesses at a cost of $460 million a year for domestic farms and $171 million for foreign growers, according to the FDA.

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Farmers have expressed major concerns with the proposals, and the FDA is allowing until the spring to make any plans permanent as the agency keeps its public comment process open.

"We think the FDA did not figure in accurately the true cost of the new rules to farmers," said Kelli Ludlum, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau.

Those costs include the mandatory cleaning of tools used in the field, which were likely twice the FDA's estimate, according to Ludlum.

"They counted one tool per worker, but we know most workers use more than one," she said.

Another issue was that small farmers were exempt from the new FDA regulations. The size of a farm is not an indicator of contamination risk, Ludlum said.

Antibiotic use in animals

What may be left for consumers to sort through is the growing use of antibiotics in animals, and the subsequent creation of drug-resistant bacteria—leading to more infections of humans.

A survey from Consumer Reports, funded by Pew and released the same day as its study, found that more than half of the raw chicken breasts it tested in U.S. stores were tainted with fecal contaminants and contained at least one multidrug-resistant bacterium.

Antibiotics are often used in animal feed to promote growth, whether animals are sick or not. There are strict guidelines on how much antibiotics to use in animals, but farmers and feed manufacturers are self-regulated at this point, on compliance for the rules.

"The science in this may not be perfect, but I'd like to see a ban on the antibiotics," said Tim Richards, a professor of agriculture at Arizona State University's W. P. Carey School of Business.

"We do need some heavier regulation of it," he said.

But the farmers have an economic incentive to use antibiotics correctly, Ludlum said.

"If a farmer uses too much, they will get found out by the processing plant and won't get paid," she said.

Tracing the food chain

Most food analysts say that though the U.S food supply can't ever be completely safe, it is arguably the safest in the world.

That's why even the delay in the FDA's new rules doesn't have critics overly worried.

"It's good that they're slowing down to make the regulations right," said Peine at the University of Puget Sound. "Not one rule can fit all farmers. I think they'll get the correct rules in place."

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What must be done is ensure that food is the safest it can be, and we're not there yet, according to Richards at ASU.

"We need to be able to trace food completely, and we don't do that now," he said. "If we know we can trace the food chain from start to finish if there is an outbreak, we can fix the problem faster and help avoid it next time."

—By CNBC's Mark Koba