Explainer: How safe is the nation's food? Key findings
The question seemed simple enough: How safe is the nation's food?
But the answer, as 27 college journalists discovered, is devilishly complicated.
The students, working through the News21 in-depth digital journalism program based at both at Arizona State University and the University of Maryland, spent 10 weeks this summer interviewing experts, traveling across the country and to Central America, poring over government documents and collecting data in order to thoroughly document how food travels from the farm to your fork.
What they found will certainly give you plenty to chew on. Among the key findings:
— Foodborne illnesses sicken one person in six — 48 million — in the U.S. each year. Of those, 128,000 require hospitalization and 3,000 die.
— Contamination by foodborne pathogens such as listeria and salmonella remains commonplace and cases of infection by the latter are rising.
— The U.S. Food and Drug Administration anticipates that 24 million agency-regulated products will enter the U.S. in 2011, but it expects to inspect only 1.59 percent of them.
— Even though small farms lobbied Congress successfully for an exemption from new federal food safety regulations, there is no scientific evidence that their products are safer than those produced by large farms.
"I had no idea prior to the investigation how widespread the problems were," said Mattea Kramer, a News21 journalist.
Or click to view some other highlights below.
Stephanie Snyder loves her farmers market in Phoenix, Ariz., where fruits and veggies are crisp, fresh and ready to eat. But that changed when Snyder delved deeper into the safety standards governing small farms and farmers markets.
"It was shocking to learn that no one was really regulating these markets," said Snyder, News21's reporter behind "Farmers Markets Thrive While Concerns Grow".
"There was no continuity of standards," Snyder said. "The intentions are all great, but there is a responsibility to make it better than it is now."
In the category, "The Dangers of Buying Local," News21 discovered:
— Farmers markets tend to get less oversight.
— Contaminated poultry, unsafe conditions and unlawful sales were found at farmers markets in Washington, D.C.
Imported salmon, tuna and shrimp — in some cases filthy and infected with bacteria and drugs banned in the United States — are finding a way onto American dinner plates, News21's analysis shows.
In the last decade, the United States imported more than 17.6 million tons of seafood; federal safety workers were able to inspect about 2 percent of imports, News21 reported. Other findings:
— More than 51 percent of the inspected seafood that was rejected was contaminated by foodborne pathogens, spoilage or deformities.
— About 20 percent of those cases involved salmonella.
— Only 0.1 percent of seafood was tested for banned drug residues.
Little progress is being made to stop salmonella contamination of poultry, the leading cause of foodborne illness, an analysis shows.
— The rate of salmonella infections is on the rise, despite attempts to stop it.
— Examination of federal and state records shows that differences among states in reporting foodborne illnesses hinder officials in identifying outbreak sources before they spread nationwide.
— Lax regulations lead to cutting corners for some egg producers, and some producers are reluctant to pay for inexpensive safety measures.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's inspectors are struggling to keep up with the flood of food imports into the U.S., scrutinizing only 2 percent of the imports. News21 research also shows:
—The agency expects 1.59 percent of all food imports to be inspected in 2011 and even less — only 1.47 percent — in 2012.
— Inspectors are tolerant of ants and other insects that get mixed in with foods before harvesting because they pose little threat to human health.
— More than 70 percent of safety plan violations for seafood and juice processors remain unresolved after more than a year.
News21 is a journalism initiative funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation of Miami to promote in-depth and innovative journalism.
The News21 students were based at both Arizona State University and the University of Maryland for 10 weeks this summer under the direction of top faculty members from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and CPI data researchers.
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