Fed Up With Bad Food
Caroline Smith DeWaal
December 18, 2006
Caroline Smith DeWaal is the director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Americans should be eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, not less. That’s why the recent food poisoning outbreaks linked to fresh produce contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 are so troubling. This month’s outbreak at Taco Bell—shredded lettuce is the suspected culprit—and September’s outbreak linked to fresh bagged spinach provide a fresh reminder: Despite similar outbreaks in years past (linked to scallions, lettuce, raspberries and melons), the federal government is doing far too little to close the gaping holes in America’s food safety net.
Contaminated foods kill about 5,000 Americans each year, and sicken another 76 million, according to the Centers for Disease Control. While the numbers seem enormous, what often isn’t counted is the cost to survivors, who sometimes suffer loss of kidney function, miscarriage, colitis or reactive arthritis after a bout of food poisoning. The liability costs of the recent spinach outbreak may well exceed $100 million, money that should have been invested in preventing the outbreak with more effective oversight of growers.
Although many people probably assume meat and poultry are responsible for most food poisoning outbreaks, the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s Outbreak Alert database contains more outbreaks linked to fresh produce than to any other single food source. In fact, outbreaks show that lettuce, green onions, melons, tomatoes and other healthful foods have sickened consumers from a variety of hazards, including Hepatitis A, Salmonella or harmful E. coli strains.
Food safety responsibilities in the United States are largely divided by the Food and Drug Administration—a branch of the Department of Health and Human Services—and a separate cabinet agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Most people would have a hard time guessing who regulates what. For instance, USDA regulates cows, but FDA regulates milk. USDA regulates chickens, but FDA regulates eggs. USDA regulates frozen pepperoni pizza, but FDA regulates frozen cheese pizza. Food poisoning outbreaks are investigated mostly by state and local public health officials, backed up by yet another federal agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet no single agency has primary responsibility for food on the farm.
CSPI recommends several policy options that would help plug gaps in the food safety system, and give Americans renewed confidence in the safety of their spinach and sirloin alike.
Congress should boost funding for the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition to reflect the growing demands on the agency. Post-9/11 bioterrorism concerns resulted in more appropriations for field staff in the Office of Regulatory Affairs. But those staffing levels have gradually declined to pre-9/11 levels, even though FDA has more imported foods and more companies to monitor than ever before. Although FDA-regulated foods are linked to two-thirds of food poisoning outbreaks, the FDA only gets 38 percent of the total federal budget for food safety. While USDA has the authority and resources to inspect meat processing plants every day, FDA only has the resources to inspect plants producing produce, seafood, or processed foods just once every five to 10 years!
Congress should also improve food-safety conditions on the farm by designating one agency to promulgate regulations for and conduct inspections of America’s farms, and the foreign farms that are increasingly supplying American produce. Currently, FDA doesn’t ever inspect farms until there’s a food poisoning outbreak, which is obviously far too late.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) should continue to improve outbreak reporting and surveillance. The CDC has made improvements in its reporting and surveillance system, but gaps still remain. For example, nearly half of all states do not follow national standards to track disease outbreaks. Those gaps are particularly troubling, given current concerns about bioterrorism.
Finally, Congress should pass a modern food safety law to supplant the current hodgepodge of laws, some of which were enacted 100 years ago. Legislation is critically needed to form a unified, independent food-safety agency with increased authority. Outbreaks give clear evidence that the food system isn’t working. This is no surprise, given the lack of a modern statute based on science, inadequate monitoring of food, and insufficient funding from Congress. Those problems will not be corrected until the underlying government structure is fixed.
Congress needs to create a single food-safety agency, and to invest that agency with greater authority (such as the ability to recall food from the market and to penalize companies that produce contaminated products) than existing regulatory agencies have. Senator Richard Durbin, D-Ill., Representative Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and CSPI have long pushed for legislation which would create a single food safety agency and give that agency greater powers. The Safe Food Act of 2005 would consolidate the activities of the dozen or so agencies concerned with food safety, labeling, and ingredient approvals. It never moved forward in a Republican-controlled Congress but should get a warmer reception when reintroduced next year.
The gaps and inefficiencies in the regulation of our food supply won’t go away on their own. Instead of rushing in after the fact to alert the public to avoid a hazardous food product, it’s time for the federal government to take action to prevent dangerous outbreaks. This is clearly an instance where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.