Food safety is getting
plenty of play in Washington, D.C., with the White House, Congress and food
safety agencies deeply involved.
The thrust of all this is
to give government more power and authority over testing, laboratories,
recalls, traceback and record-keeping.
One criticism is that
there are too many food safety players, and that one super food safety
agency ought to be created.
Presumably, this would take “food” from the Food and Drug Administration
and meat, poultry and some other products from the U.S. Department of
Agriculture and make a new super agency.
agencies, such as the Center for Veterinary Medicine, the pesticide efforts
at the Environmental Protection Agency, the quarantine and plant health
people, might be lumped into this same new agency.
This, so the argument
goes, will solve all the food safety problems, and focus food safety in an
independent agency free from outside and industry influence.
Or will it?
Actually, it has already
been tried, with mixed results. In 2000, the British were being hit with a
storm of food safety issues.
There was Mad Cow Disease, or BSE in humans, that threatened health. There
was foot and mouth disease in cattle. Bird and swine flu. Foodborne illness
from campylobacter, e-coli, listeria, salmonella.
All these threats
together cost billions of dollars in lost business, the destruction of
herds and flocks, the virtual shutting off of meat exports, and the loss of
reputation and public confidence in government and food safety measures.
That year the government
created a new Food Standards Agency to clean up the mess and restore
confidence at home and abroad. The agency is independent of any other
agency, with its own staff, budget and director.
But did it consolidate
all food safety activity and become a single, all-encompassing food safety
super agency? Well, no.
The Food Standards Agency
is more of a coordinator, a referee, a central repository of “guidelines
and guidance,” auditing and monitoring in support of dozens of other
It’s these other
agencies, mostly local and regional health and environmental authorities,
that carry out most of the food safety work.
The FSA does have a big
agenda, including food safety and hygiene, nutrition, labeling rules,
packaging, dietary guidance, imports, foodservice, meat and seafood,
supplements, and new and genetically modified foods.
It oversees the Food Law
Code of Practice, issues good practice guidelines, and works with food
industries to tailor reasonable practices and rules in areas such as traceability.
Much of what it does is
audit and monitor the efforts of local enforcers, the health agencies. The
agency is no food safety czar. It is not some food version of the massive
Homeland Security department.
Most food recalls are
initiated by food companies themselves, although the FSA can issue an
“information alert” about a possible recall, and a more serious “action
alert” on recalls.
On imports, the
inspection of foods is carried out by health authorities at ports of entry,
using the guidance and oversight of the FSA.
Food companies are
supposed to register with the local health authorities, again under
guidance from the FSA. The agency also oversees testing labs.
FSA does not tell farmers
and growers, or other handlers, how to grow, handle and market fresh
produce and other crops. It does work with industries and the agricultural
agencies on voluntary programs of good and hygienic practices.
The agency monitors these
programs. Since 2006, the agency has had authority over food safety “from
field to fork.” But this broad mandate does not let it dictate some rigid
regulatory scheme for all players.
Again, safety guidelines
are tailored industry by industry. Produce does not seem to be a high
priority compared to meats, fish and processed foods.
In fact, in 2009 the
agency has not reported any produce-related recalls, incidents or warnings.
(It did warn consumers about U.S.-made foods that might contain peanut
products from the Peanut Corp. of America, the firm responsible for the
The United Kingdom, a
member of the European Union, is subject to the food safety directives
coming out of EU headquarters in Brussels. This is another whole level of
regulation, and one full of controversy.
Italy, France and other
nations famous for their foods don’t take kindly to anyone telling them how
to grow, handle and serve foods prized around the world.
That smelly cheese, juicy
pear, rich pate, vintage wine or spicy sausage may not meet every safety
dictate, but hundreds of years of success must count for something.
Yes, the proof is in the
pudding, and any food agency — super or otherwise — ought to tread lightly
when messing with a rich, traditional and cherished food culture.
That’s true for the U.S.