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What Have We Learned About Food Safety?

More than two decades ago, an E. coli outbreak linked to Jack in the Box fast food sounded the alarm that we should be paying more attention to how our food is processed. But have we learned anything since?

In 1993, undercooked hamburgers infected with the dreaded bacteria E. coli sickened more than 700 people killed four children who ate at Jack in the Box restaurants—or came into contact with those who did—across the West Coast. The events sounded a wake-up call about the dangers hidden in our food, led to major changes in how beef is inspected, and focused national attention on food safety.

READ MORE: Raw Chicken Isn't the Only Thing Making You Sick

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And yet our food supply is still in a precarious state. There are some food inspection procedures that actually hurt more than they help. It doesn't matter if you kiss your backyard chickens or not—you can still get salmonella. There's even a proposal to combine the densely tangled web of food agencies into one massive, grade-giving organization.

In a documentary published today by The New York Times, reporter and producer Scott Michels of Retro Report explores this pressing problem. We had the chance to talk to Michels and wanted to know: more than two decades after the Jack in the Box deaths, how far have we come in protecting our food supply?

MUNCHIES: Hi, Scott. What initially drew you to the topic of food safety? Scott Michels: At Retro Report, we re-examine news stories from the past that still resonate and teach us something about our world today. Recently it seems there have been recalls of contaminated foods—in everything from ice cream to hummus to candied apples—practically every week. We wanted to understand why something like keeping food safe, which sounds like it should be relatively simple, was actually so difficult, and why there hasn't been more improvement despite a series of crises that gained national attention.

You point out in the documentary that some food safety laws get passed but are not funded or fully implemented. Whose fault is that and what can be done about it? It's really up to Congress to fund the agencies that monitor the food supply. The FDA, for example, has chronically lacked the money to closely watch the thousands of food production facilities that it's tasked with overseeing. Even though Congress passed an overhaul of the FDA's food safety powers in 2010, it has only given the FDA less than half the money the Congressional Budget Office says the agency needs to actually implement the law.

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How serious is salmonella in our food supply today? It's certainly one of the big problems. According to the CDC, salmonella is the leading cause of food poisoning illnesses and deaths. And, unlike many of the other bacteria found in foods, there really hasn't been much progress in the last 15 or 20 years in reducing the number of people getting sick from salmonella.

You delved into the systemic issues resulting in the lack of coordination between the FDA, the USDA, and other agencies that regulate safety in food. For example, you point out that frozen pizza and frozen pizza with pepperoni are regulated by different agencies. How severe do you feel this issue is and what can be done about it? While pizza itself might not be a huge problem, it's emblematic of the general disorganization of the food safety system. We have different agencies that oversee different foods, and that have different resources, standards, and levels of authority to control foodborne diseases. So the resources that are devoted to making sure certain foods are safe don't necessarily match the risks from those foods. President Obama has actually proposed creating a single federal food safety agency, but it remains to be seen whether his proposal will get any traction.

With all the press about GMOs and organic food lately, why do you think it is that the public is not more concerned about issues like E. coli and salmonella these days? It does seem that food safety historically has improved in fits and starts, and usually only after a major outbreak or series of outbreaks captures national media attention. It's an area that's complicated and that has a lot of entrenched interests, both in government and the industry, so it sometimes takes a crisis to get everyone moving in the same direction.

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Several people in the food business told us that improvement typically comes not on a massive scale, but company by company. Many of the companies with better food safety practices are those that have had a brush with disaster, but those improved practices don't necessarily spread through the whole industry.

It seems that one way to move from a "reacting to disasters" model to a more proactive model would be to look at how other first-world countries deal with food safety. That's true. Some European countries, for example, have made efforts to reduce the use of antibiotics in animal feed, which can lead to strains of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics.

In your mind, what is the largest issue plaguing food safety today? One thing that Dr. Mansour Samadpour—who has designed many of the food safety tests used today—pointed out to us was that the economics of the food industry don't put a premium on safety. Many of the food safety innovations that companies have put in place cost a few cents a pound, but often retailers aren't willing to pay extra for foods that are safer. We've started to see some change—Walmart, for example, recently announced higher safety standards for its poultry suppliers—but we're talking about a shift in priorities for the entire industry.

Is there anything you discovered during the course of production that didn't end up making it into the final cut? I wish we'd had the chance to delve more into the industrialized nature of food supply. A single hamburger patty can be made up of meat from several cows, from different parts of the country or even from different countries. That, and the huge scale of distribution, makes it easier for a single heavily contaminated batch of meat to spread illness all over the country.

Thanks for speaking with me, Scott.