Oklahoma And Federal Inspectors Work To Keep Food Supply Safe

Deadly cantaloupes, wire bristle pieces suspected in macaroni and cheese, and salmonella-tainted ground turkey. The food-related deaths, illnesses and recalls mount up day after day throughout the country.

More than 3,000 people die each year of something they ate, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. Another 128,000 are hospitalized, and 48 million (or one in six people) get sick from something they ate. Food inspectors are vital in preventing a public safety nightmare, says K.C. Ely, the state Health Department's consumer protection services director.

"I'd say every day we prevent something," he says. "We decrease the likelihood of someone getting sick."

Though budget cuts could ax some positions, there are about 8,000 federal food inspectors. There are about 125 inspectors in Oklahoma charged with keeping the food supply safe. Ely's crew makes regular inspections of restaurants, food vendors and other food retailers in the state.

The state's 70 meat plants get daily inspections, while dairies, milk processors and egg plants get two to six inspections yearly by inspectors overseen by Stan Stromberg, food safety director for the state Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry.


"The manufacturers of food are not evil people. They're trying to make a living and trying to produce safe food. And the bureaucrats who watch over the food supply and work in public health are not lazy and incompetent.

"They're human beings doing their job," says William Marler, an attorney considered one of the nation's top food safety advocates.

Marler speaks worldwide on food safety and spent his own money to show unregulated pathogens exist in America's meat supply. He said those experiences have led his family to take additional food safety precautions.

Their three daughters have never eaten a hamburger, though he said he may rethink that because the safety issues have improved drastically in the last few years. The family never eats sprouts. Other foods his family avoids are raw milk, raw juices, raw shellfish and, new to the list, cantaloupe.

When TV host Larry King asked him what to do about the half-billion eggs recalled last year due to the salmonella threat, Marler says, "I'm thinking about getting some chickens."

When he got back home in Seattle, his youngest daughter said: "So, we're getting chickens?"

"Now we have chickens," he said.

The family buys from the local farmer's market and eats produce grown on his parents' farm. He said when his oldest daughter came home from college last weekend, she loaded up her car with corn, carrots and eggs from the chickens his youngest daughter cornered him into buying.

Marler said it's not time give up on the food industry. Safety measures are improving though he said more improvements are needed.

A Newsweek investigation found the nation's US Department of Agriculture inspectors are stretched so thin they often miss required inspections at some plants. It also found that Food and Drug Administration inspectors physically check only about 1 percent of food shipped in from other countries.

Under the new Food Safety Modernization Act, the focus of government regulators will shift from responding to contamination to preventing it, including the development of new federal standards for plants' preventive measures.

The new law also requires FDA to inspect at least 600 foreign food plants within a year and increase the number every year afterward.

They'll inspect for more food adulterants, too. For two decades, inspectors have tested for the common E. coli 0157:H7. Now they also will test for six other strains -- the pathogens Marler documented and lobbied to be tested for -- in American meat. Stromberg said Oklahoma has been screening for those over the past two years but never has found them.

"I feel that the state is doing everything that's reasonable to do," Stromberg says. "Plants in the state are very careful because they don't want to produce a product that will make someone sick."

Precautions that should be taken while handling food include washing hands and kitchen surfaces frequently, avoiding contaminating cooked food with raw food, storing food at 40 degrees or below in the refrigerator and 0 degrees in the freezer. Also, use of a cooking thermometer to ensure meats are thoroughly cooked (cook ground beef to 160 degrees), and serving foods soon after preparation so cooked foods don't get too cool or cold foods get too warm, said Laurence Burnsed, director of the state Health Department's communicable disease division.