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Is that hamburger safe to eat? Food safety system faces challenges

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 11, 2010 - Do you know who is watching your hamburger?

It's a simple question with a complex answer. Though a state health official says Missouri has a very safe food supply system, a new report from a national health advisory panel asserts that the federal watchdog for food safety, the Food and Drug Administration, lacks the funding and organization to prevent outbreaks of food-borne illnesses.

The report comes from the Institute of Medicine, the health branch of the National Academy of Sciences. The institute says the FDA needs to be more active and concentrate its efforts on identifying and shutting down high-risk food operations

Mary Glassburner, who oversees Missouri's food safety program at the Bureau of Environmental Health Services, said the report is a timely reminder of the issues facing each agency tasked with food safety.

"We could always use more people," Glassburner said. "That seems to be the main theme with food safety."


Understanding who ensures the safety of your hamburger and all its trimmings is a tutorial itself on how the current food safety system operates. Start with your ground beef. The state's Department of Agriculture is in charge of inspecting how raw meats are processed, working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As for your slice of cheese, your lettuce or your mustard, the FDA oversees those aspects of food manufacturing and contracts the work out to the state, said Glassburner.

Glassburner says Missouri has an estimated 1,800 food manufacturing facilities and just four full-time state staffers and one program manager to oversee those operations.

"It's not enough," Glassburner said. "In Missouri, food safety is an important item, and I don't think blame is the right word, but funding is always an issue. We never have enough people, enough foot soldiers in the field. We are in a very tough budget session right now. Over the years, funding has been up and down. I think [limited funding] is definitely the biggest issue at the federal level."

She echoes the finding in the Institute of Medicine report stating that insufficient federal funding and limited FDA authority have created a network in which inspectors are stretched too thin.




Each year in the U.S., food-borne illnesses cause more than 300,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths, the report states.

The report advises Congress that failing to overhaul the FDA will continue to leave Americans at risk for such outbreaks. The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, a bill introduced in March 2009 by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., would amend the FDA's food supply oversight, but it has yet to be considered by the Senate as a whole.

The report also advises that the FDA provide standards for food inspection so that states and the federal government follow the same rigorous methods for inspections, surveillance and outbreak investigations.

At the local level, county inspectors who oversee restaurants, grocery stores, schools and other establishments that handle or prepare food already operate under the FDA's current Food Code.

The code is the national playbook for food safety and includes basic safeguards, such as making sure food is adequately prepared, cooked and refrigerated at proper temperatures, cleaned properly, and prepared or stocked by workers who follow correct personal hygiene.

Enforcing those safeguards is another matter.

In a state with nearly 6 million people, the number of establishments that serve or sell food is around 28,000, Glassburner said. And in a tough economy, county food safety departments are often challenged by their own funding limitations.




Some food retailers, such as Whole Foods, go one step further than the mandatory county inspections and hire private food safety firms like the Steritech Group to inspect their operations.

Brian Gourley, the store team leader at the Whole Foods in Brentwood, said such practices are common among high-end grocers who sell certified organic meat and produce.

"Part of it is to make sure that we're practicing correct organic practices," Gourley said. "They go through and check for things like flies, the temperatures for holding areas, how the food is handled. It's a lot of the same stuff the county health department looks for, but they come more often."

Nate Peterson is a freelance writer in St. Louis. 

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