President Obama entered office amid one of the worst times for food
safety. January through April of 2009 saw an extraordinary number of
recalls and elevated levels of illness due to the hundreds of products
that were contaminated with Salmonella-laced peanuts and, to a lesser
degree, pistachios. The number of recalls in the first few months of his
presidency is an extreme outlier. The average number of recalls per
month for January through April 2009 was around 155, and the average of
the following months through May 2011 was around 15.
the greatest number of recalls were issued in Obama’s first few months
in office, the largest number of outbreaks and illnesses occurred in the
summer of 2010. However, this data cannot show whether 2010 was an
exceptional summer, or only slightly higher than that of 2009. The
large outbreak of Salmonella caused by contaminated eggs is a likely
contributor to the number of illness but, in addition, there were
significant numbers of outbreaks involving many other pathogens in
2010’s summer months.
contrast to the norm, the levels of illness in early 2009 were elevated
for the winter months. Both Salmonella and Shiga-toxin producing E.
coli experience cyclical rises in the number of infections in the
Many factors have been implicated in this pattern, and a more detailed article can be found at Foodsafetynews.com.
It would follow that the number of outbreaks should also follow this
cyclical pattern, and they seem to, though less strongly.
the number of recalls per month did not increase in summer months for
the past two years. The recall pattern seems erratic and unrelated
completely to the illness numbers or outbreaks, except for a slight
relation between STEC outbreaks being closely followed by recalls.
is difficult to see any meaningful changes to food safety in the short
period Obama has been in office, and the even shorter time since the
January 2011 passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act, which has yet
to be fully implemented. The Obama White House has made food safety and
nutrition a priority, but realizing this and translating it into fewer
recalls, outbreaks and illnesses will take more than a couple of months.
However if you look at a longer series of years, trends do emerge. From 2006 to May 2011 the number of illnesses due to pathogens commonly associated with foodborne transmission did not change significantly, while the number of recalls due to health risks did increase significantly. The increase in recalls does not appear to be due to an actual increase in contamination as the number of illnesses did not deviate from its normal seasonal patterns during theses years. Instead, the increase in recalls may be due to greater political pressure to ensure a safe food supply.
It should be noted that the peanut and pistachio recalls of early 2009 are outliers. However, even when January through April 2009 are removed from the chart, there is still a significant increase in the number of recalls during this time period. In fact, the increase in recalls becomes more apparent when these months are removed from the equation.
It will be interesting to see if the implementation of the FSMA leads to higher numbers of recalls and a decreases in the number of foodborne illnesses.
*Potential error due to the lack of official numbers of outbreaks for 2009-2011 as the CDC’s latest data is for 2008.
FDA Recall List, USDA-FSIS Recall List, Outbreakdatabase.com, CDC
Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Notifiable Disease and Mortality Tables