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A Safety Net, Riddled With Holes

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With each new foodborne illness outbreak, another layer separating consumers from the food safety system that’s supposed to protect them is peeled back.

food-reg.jpgWhat they’re finding isn’t pretty: A highly fragmented, highly inadequate tangle of negligence, after-the-fact inspections and honor codes. In the case of this most recent salmonella fiasco, people are learning that companies like the Peanut Corporation of America don’t have to report contaminations in their plants — to the public or the government. They’re also learning, through news reports and other sources, that the Food and Drug Administration is woefully understaffed and stretched far too thin. Plants are, on average, likely to get a visit from an inspector once every ten years.

It’s important to talk about all of this in the context of consumer perception, because that seems to be the lens through which the industry and our government views food safety. The violation only occurs if the public finds out about it, in other words.

It’s a shameful system indeed. And since consumer perception — not, say, doing the right thing — is the only way action will come about, here are some of the latest numbers showing what shoppers think (via research firm Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates)

- 68% believe food contaminations have increased in the past five years.

- 49% are avoiding products with peanut butter ingredients.

- 23% say they’re changing their long-term food purchasing habits as a result of recent recalls.

- More than 40% believe food processors are to blame for contaminations.

It doesn’t look good. The food industry has a long road ahead of it to regain peoples’ trust, and the only way they’re going to get there is by working together. Supermarkets, manufacturers and regulators need to tighten up their operations, and they need to demand that their suppliers and competitors do the same.

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