safety system too flawed for a quick fix
of Article: http://www.ajc.com/services/content/printedition/2009/03/23/hautered0323.html
From News Services
Monday, March 23, 2009
Our 100-year-old food inspection system is not aging gracefully.
Despite a century of improvements, consumers are still playing Russian
roulette when it comes to the food they eat. Even today, one in four Americans
—- 76 million people —- endures a food-borne illness and 5,000 people die
This year’s peanut meltdown alone has killed nine people, sickened
thousands and shaken consumer confidence in food safety. Reports of the
filthy conditions at Peanut Corporation of America sound more like Upton
Sinclair’s 1905 “The Jungle” than a 21st-century food facility. Health
inspectors and former employees described roaches, mold-covered walls and
a rat dry-roasting in the peanuts.
no one seems to take responsibility for the depressingly routine food
safety fiascos. Congress wants to know who is culpable and which agency
—- the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the Food and Drug Administration
—- is in charge. It is no wonder that some are calling for a single food
inspection agency to consolidate accountability.
Before rushing to create the Department of Homeland Security of food
safety, Congress must consider what could be lost by combining two
agencies with radically different levels of authority and resources.
USDA inspects 20 percent of the food supply, including all meat,
poultry and egg products, while FDA is responsible for the rest. This
confused jurisdiction is highlighted in the ubiquitous pizza example —-
FDA oversees cheese pizza and USDA inspects pepperoni pizza. This
seemingly idiotic division of labor reflects the important differences in
the authority and mission of these food inspection agencies. We shouldn’t
ask which agency inspects which pizza. Instead, the question should be
this: How often and how well is food inspected?
USDA’s billion-dollar food safety budget funds 7,400 inspectors that
provide at least daily inspection to 5,600 meat and poultry facilities.
In contrast, FDA has two-thirds the food safety budget of USDA, but
oversees 80 percent of the food. FDA’s fewer than 500 inspectors only
visit the nation’s 150,000 processing plants under its jurisdiction once
every decade. So, USDA inspects pepperoni pizza makers every day, but FDA
inspects cheese pizza factories once every 10 years.
Moreover, USDA has a powerful tool that FDA lacks. USDA can withdraw
inspectors from a substandard facility, which legally prevents the plant
from operating, effectively preventing contaminated pepperoni pizzas from
reaching grocery store shelves. FDA cannot block tainted food from the
marketplace or enforce mandatory recalls. This has proved to be a fatal
Nonetheless, USDA has its own set of problems, and its oversight has
been eroded over the past decade. In 1996, the Clinton administration reduced
USDA authority by allowing meat processors to write their own inspection
plans —- plans that are not certified by USDA. Inspectors began focusing
on paperwork audits instead of inspecting products for possible
contamination. Additionally, USDA has not kept up with the increased
volume of meat and poultry being processed. In 1981, USDA employed about
190 workers per billion pounds of meat and poultry inspected and
approved. By 2007, USDA employed fewer than 88 workers per billion
pounds, a 54 percent drop.
Considering the disproportionate resources, inspection authority, and
the flaws plaguing both agencies, a rapid merger of USDA and FDA would
make a rocky marriage. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was right when
he said, “Before there can be any conversation about merging of entities
or a single agency or anything of that sort, you’ve got to get the
Legislative proposals abound for mending the broken food safety
system, especially the glaring failures of the FDA. Rep. Rosa DeLauro’s
(D-Conn.) bill, the Food Safety Modernization Act, would require FDA to
mirror USDA’s inspection model and correct the statutory limitations that
have shackled the agency. DeLauro’s bill has the strongest framework to
upgrade the FDA’s outdated and ineffective food safety oversight.
After reforming FDA, then we can update USDA laws and restore USDA’s
inspection authority to prevent future outbreaks of food-borne illnesses
from meat and poultry. However, if USDA and FDA are combined before the
basic building blocks of food safety reform are in place, the merger
could do more harm than good.
> Wenonah Hauter is executive director of Food & Water Watch,
a Washington consumer organization.
> Charles Stanley Painter chairs the National Joint Council of Food
Inspection Local Unions.