Supermarkets & health

Posted: July 14, 2009

IF A supermarket worker doesn't have health insurance, how likely is it he'll see a doctor when he might be sick?

The answer should concern consumers. Study after study shows that workers without insurance are less likely to see a doctor when they aren't feeling well than those who have it.

And when it comes to supermarket workers, those without insurance may be placing customers at risk of food poisoning.

Food poisoning has become a significant problem. President Obama, in his recent address on food safety, said cases of the disease have risen 250 percent since the early '90s. The Centers for Disease Control Center and Prevention reports there were 76 million cases last year. While the majority were mild, lasting only a few days, some were deadly. Last year, the agency estimated that food poisoning led to 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths. Scientists studying the problem have documented more than 250 food-borne diseases.

In announcing a presidential food-safety panel, Obama pointed out that current laws and regulations governing food safety haven't been updated since they were written in the Teddy Roosevelt era. He laid part of the blame for skyrocketing cases on "our system of inspection and enforcement, which is spread out so widely among so many people that it's difficult for different parts of our government to share information."

It's not just the number of agencies that leads to problems - it's also the number of inspectors. For a decade, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been underfunded and understaffed. Out of the 150,000 food warehouses and processing plants in the country, there were only enough staff to inspect 7,000 annually. Ninety-five percent of the locations go uninspected.

On July 7, the president's panel released its report. Among the changes will be new regulations for egg and poultry producers, inspections of meat will be increased, recommendations will be made to produce and fruit farmers with stricter standards being implemented over the next two years, more people will be hired, and an interdepartmental network will be created to allow the agencies that protect our food supply to share info.

While the Presidential Food Safety Working Group made recommendations to improve the safety of food before it gets to the market, it was silent on how to protect food in the stores.

This raises concerns about the health of supermarket workers when they prepare meat for sale, staff the seafood and deli counters and put produce in the bins. That's because one of the most common types of food poisoning is a norovirus transmitted by infected people touching food. The CDC says it's "very contagious and can spread rapidly." People infected with norovirus are contagious from the moment they begin feeling ill to at least three days after they recover, or as long as two weeks.

Because this type of food poisoning shares symptoms with stomach flu and affects people differently, people often don't know they're still contagious. A food worker who doesn't know if he's carrying the virus may unwittingly transmit it to customers.

IT SHOULD be clear that when supermarkets don't offer health insurance and workers can't afford to get a doctor's opinion, not only is the worker at risk but so is everyone who buys whatever the worker touched that day.

Award-winning writer Michael Pollan writes in "In Defense of Food": "If my explorations of the food chain have taught me anything, it's that it is a food chain, and all the links in it are in fact linked." It's hard to imagine how the health of food workers is not one of the links in the chain. And even harder to understand why supermarket execs don't protect their consumers by making sure all their workers have health insurance and access to quality health care. *

Lance Haver is the head of the city's office of consumer affairs.

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