Don’t Trust the Feds to Protect Your Food Supply? ‘Consumer Reports’ to the Rescue

The Pew Charitable Trusts gives the nonprofit magazine a $2M grant to research new food safety methods.

Consumer Reports is getting more involved in food safety testing. (Photo: px photography/Getty Images)

Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

Long the go-to source for a reliable flat-screen TV or a quiet-as-a-mouse dishwasher recommendation, Consumer Reports’ scientific staff will be turning an eye towards food safety, funded, in part, by a $2 million grant from Pew Charitable Trusts.

According to the New York Times, the two-year study will focus on “the safety of meat, poultry and other food items.”

The announcement comes on the heels of speculation that federal safety testing programs, like the USDA Microbiological Data Program, are being earmarked for budget cuts, even as reports of contaminated cantaloupe have grabbed summer headlines. It also comes at a time when food safety advocates criticize the Obama administration for stalling enforcement of the Food Modernization Safety Act, despite CDC estimates that one in six Americans (or 48 million people) get sick from foodborne illnesses each year, while 3,000 die.

So is the $2 million Pew grant a statement on lack of government testing or action? Jennifer Shecter, senior policy analyst with Consumer Reports, says no.

“We’re two organizations with a common mission to improve the food safety marketplace. We had a limited test budget for food safety items because they’re so expensive to test. Projects like this cost a lot of money,” she tells TakePart.

Indeed, it’s not the first time the magazine has taken a closer look at food safety. In November a Consumer Reports investigation examined arsenic and lead levels in apple and grape juices. They found 10 percent of samples contained arsenic levels that exceeded federal drinking-water standards, and 25 percent had lead levels higher than limits set by the FDA for bottled water.

More recently the organization has examined antibiotic use in meat production, and has focused on BPA in cans and bottles; pesticide residue on produce, and more.

“We’ll be focusing mostly on pathogens, heavy metals and carcinogens in food,” Shecter told the New York Times.

Testing on meat and poultry should begin this fall, and may expand to other foods items. That could mean better informed consumers.

MORE: Salmonella-Tainted Cantaloupes Kill Two and Sicken 141 More

Bill Marler, a Seattle-based attorney who specializes in food safety, says he’d rather see testing in the hands of government officials than consumer groups.

“Retail testing isn’t the be-all and end-all,” he says “You can’t test your way to food safety, but it does provide a snapshot of the quality of the food in the grocery stores that people are buying.”

And, he says, should Consumer Reports find positive results of pathogens like the deadly E. Coli strain 0157:H7, they have an obligation to report it promptly.

Shecter confirmed with TakePart that if the organization finds a pathogen that is dangerous to humans, the results would not be held until the end of the two-year study window, or when magazines hit the stands.

“It’s important to clarify that several types of food projects are being done over the two-year time period,” she says. “There’s not a huge lag time between when we go to the government and consumers. If we make the determination it’s something the government needs to know for the safety of consumers, we make that information available.”

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