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French Retirees Have Contributed to a Foodborne Illness Crisis

If there’s anything the French love more than taking to the streets in protest, it’s retiring, which citizens aged 62 years and older do with gusto. But their departure from the workforce is leaving the food safety sector particularly vulnerable.

by Lauren Rothman
Feb 24 2015, 6:30pm

Photo via Flickr user frenchy

If there's anything the French love more than taking to the streets in protest, it's retiring, which citizens aged 62 years and older do with gusto. Prior to 2010, the retirement age in France was even lower—60—and when conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy tacked a scant two additional years onto the age of eligibility, the French populace was not happy (but at least it got to engage in its beloved manifestations). Over 18 percent of the country's population is 65 or older, and the large number of workers retiring each year can upset the day-to-day operations of entire industries.

Such is the case with France's two government-run food safety organizations, which have seen dramatic losses to their workforce since 2007. And it comes as no surprise that during that same timeframe, incidences of foodborne illness have risen dramatically.

According to a report presented to Minister of Agriculture Stéphane Le Foll in December, both the Directorate General for Food (DGAL) and the Directorate General for Competition Policy, Consumer Affairs and Fraud Control (DGCCRF) are struggling to fulfill their duties as France's most important food inspection agencies. Since 2007, the report says, DGCCRF has lost 10 percent of its workforce and DGAL has lost nearly 7 percent, "mostly because of positions left unfulfilled after retirements," according to Food Production Daily. The report, which was written by the food safety agencies' former directors, also reveals that France currently employs only 2,100 food safety workers, well below the European average. "100,000 people work in food safety in the EU," the report reads. "As France represents one eighth of the European population, it should employ around 12,000 people"—in other words, nearly six times the workers currently in food safety.

A lack of food safety workers means a necessary reduction in food safety controls, mainly in slaughterhouses, restaurants, and supermarkets—there just isn't enough manpower to perform the needed inspections. Between 2009 and 2013, controls intended to keep these businesses safe and bacteria-free have fallen by 20 percent. As a result, incidences of foodborne illness in France have ramped up dramatically: from 624 reported outbreaks in 2004 to 1,320 in 2013. "In the past," the report says, "this increase might have been linked to better detection, but that may no longer be the case more recently."

Two main culprits are making the French sick. Campylobacter is a bacteria found on raw chicken that can cause cramping, diarrhea, abdominal pain, fever, and even death. The other bacteria that's afflicting France, listeria, can contaminate all manner of raw foods, including meat, vegetables, milk, and raw milk cheeses, the latter being a favored French snack. Usually, listeriosis causes those classically-disgusting-but-ultimately-bearable hallmarks of food poisoning: fever, chills, headache, upset stomach, and vomiting. But in a few specific cases, the infection can be much more dangerous.

As reported by Food Safety News, a patient in Marseilles underwent a routine liver transplant surgery in the summer of 2013, only to fall ill within five days of the operation. Doctors, who at first suspected that the 52-year-old man was rejecting the new organ, adjusted his treatment accordingly. Yet a few days later, the man died. Blood samples revealed that he had been suffering from a rampant postoperative case of listeria infection, which hospital staff concluded came from a food source; the man's recent surgery had left him particularly vulnerable to the bacteria's effects. Since his death, four other French liver transplant patients have become infected with foodborne Listeria. Doctors there now recommend a comprehensive food safety-based diet plan for all liver transplant patients to follow both before surgery and for six months afterward.

Recently, the French government announced that it will hire 60 additional food safety workers in 2015. But if you ask us, that sounds like just a drop in a big ol' bucket of infected raw milk.