Pediatricians petition White House to issue food safety rules

A letter to President Obama emphasizes the importance of implementing an FDA law to reduce the number of children sickened by foodborne illnesses.

By — Posted Oct. 22, 2012

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Pediatricians are leaning on the White House to finalize what they say are long-overdue regulations to implement a vital federal food safety law.

President Obama signed the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act into law on Jan. 4, 2011. But more than 18 months later, “we are still waiting for the release of key proposals — to prevent contamination of fruits and vegetables, to ensure the safety of imported foods, and to direct food processors to create plans to identify and mitigate food hazards,” stated an Oct. 10 letter to Obama signed by more than 70 pediatricians. Similar letters went out to other administration officials.

About one in six Americans, or 48 million people, is sickened by foodborne illness each year, according to 2011 estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At least 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of these illnesses.

In the letter to Obama, the pediatricians emphasized that children are disproportionately affected by foodborne illness, accounting for about half of all cases each year. Their developing immune systems and smaller size make them more susceptible to foodborne infections, the letter said. CDC indicates that children younger than 5 are especially vulnerable to common foodborne pathogens such as Escherichia coli O157:H7 and Salmonella.

“If fully implemented, this law could help reduce the number of sick children who come through our doors and ease the suffering they experience from foodborne illness,” the letter stated.

In a statement, the FDA said publishing these food safety rules was a priority for the agency. “While the rule-making process can be complex and demanding, it will eventually provide for a framework that will have an enormous impact in modernizing the food safety system,” the statement said.

Beth Neary, MD, one of the letter’s signatories, is wondering what’s taking so long. She is a pediatrician in Wisconsin and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

During her residency, Dr. Neary said she encountered many children with E. coli O157:H7 who developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, which has the potential to cause kidney failure. At least 15% of children who contract the E. coli pathogen develop the syndrome, she said.

From a cost perspective, the impact of these foodborne diseases can be enormous, she continued. One patient of Dr. Neary’s who contracted E. coli 0157:H7 and was admitted to the intensive care unit for kidney dialysis “had to be monitored for years. She still gets her blood pressure checked on a regular basis, because of the hit this organism took to her kidneys,” she said.

The American Medical Association through various policies has supported efforts to ensure the safety of the food supply and has urged doctors to stay informed about foodborne illness diagnoses and management, as well as to report suspected cases of foodborne illnesses to local public health authorities.

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