June 24, 2008

Food Inspection System in Dire Need of Overhaul

The following editorial appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on Sunday, June 23:


If the tomato salmonella outbreak didn't make you nervous about the food you buy, this should: The Centers for Disease Control estimates that for every salmonella case it receives, 38 are not brought to the attention of doctors.

The federal government needs to overhaul its system for inspecting and regulating the food supply. Consumers should demand it. The first step? Consolidating the food-safety system under one roof.

It's ridiculous that the Food and Drug Administration regulates the safety of 80 percent of the food supply but receives just over 20 percent of the money Congress appropriates to do the job. The Department of Agriculture gets most of the money but only regulates meat, eggs and poultry.

The USDA should get out of safety regulation. Its primary mission is promoting agriculture. Trying to monitor it as well creates an obvious conflict of interest.

We aren't the first to suggest that one agency should govern food safety. The National Academy of Sciences made the recommendation 10 years ago. The Government Accountability Office has labeled the current system "high risk."

The FDA is partially to blame for the lack of action. The agency has yet to implement 27 of the 34 recommendations to improve food safety sought by the GAO in 2004.

The food industry also shares the blame, fearing that tougher regulations may result in higher costs. Here's a news flash: The latest salmonella outbreak will cost the tomato industry an estimated $100 million. California's 2006 spinach E. coli disaster, which killed three and hospitalized 100, cost the industry $50 million. Steps to improve the safety of crops could actually save farmers money and make U.S. products more attractive to consumers.

Two simple steps would significantly reduce the health threat from tainted foods:

_Improve tracking. The FDA still hasn't figured out where the tainted tomatoes came from, primarily because tomatoes don't carry bar codes identifying their origin. No one likes peeling stickers off fruits and vegetables, but with 13 tomato salmonella outbreaks reported since 1990, something has to be done. Food producers need to be able to track products from the time they're harvested until they pass the checkout counter.

_Engage growers and processors. Asking the industry to help enforce safety regulations is a little like letting the fox patrol the henhouse _ except in this case, healthy hens are in everybody's best interest. The federal government will never be able to hire enough inspectors to go around. The FDA now inspects less than 1 percent of food imports, for example.

Following the spinach E. coli outbreak in 2006, the Western Growers Association showed the way. It called for industry to pay for independent inspectors. The ultimate goal should be to link its program with legislation enabling the state to provide oversight. Participants would benefit from a state seal of approval on their products. That both improves safety and provides a marketing tool for safe growers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 76 million Americans get sick from food-borne hazards each year. It's time to face up to the need to improve and take the obvious steps to do it.


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