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Food safety reform: Not a century too soon

04-May-2009
Last updated on 07-May-2009 at 16:25 GMT2009-05-07T16:25:40Z

On a summer’s day in 1906 Theodore Roosevelt pushed through new food safety regulation. The Food and Drugs Act passed that day over 100 years ago was the last time the US food safety system was modernized.

Fast-forward to 2009 and, unsurprisingly, everyone is crying out for its reform – Republicans, Democrats, consumers and industry alike – as well as the beleaguered Food and Drug Administration itself.

And recent events could be conspiring to bring that reform closer.

Take a string of foodborne illness outbreaks and product recalls, from the salmonella in peppers that sickened 407 last year and killed two, to salmonella in peanut products this year, which led to at least 691 illnesses and nine deaths. Add spinach, pistachios, and most recently alfalfa sprouts, and you have the recipe for some shocking statistics: About one in four Americans is sickened by foodborne disease each year, 325,000 are hospitalized, and about 5,000 die. Since the early 90s, foodborne illness outbreaks have more than tripled to nearly 350 a year.

The peanut product outbreak in particular led to a flurry of activity; legislation was proposed at both a state and federal level, including the bipartisan FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, and finally it sounded like everyone was speaking with one voice. All the main players were lined up asking for more or less the same things: FDA power to order mandatory recalls; more inspections; greater transparency from manufacturers.

The FDA’s lack of authority to issue recalls has often been cited as one of the department’s greatest weaknesses, forcing it to rely on the cooperation of food companies.

So the icing on the cake came when Westco Fruit and Nut Company – which was knowingly using peanuts from the contaminated Peanut Corporation of America plant – refused to voluntarily recall its potentially lethal snack mix. FDA officials were forced to apply for an inspection warrant, which it finally served on the New Jersey snack maker 18 days after it had refused to initiate a recall.

Now though, they could point to a specific example. Look, that’s why we need mandatory recalls. It is hard to believe that anyone would refuse to withdraw a potentially deadly product with their company’s name on.

But this is not a matter of simply tweaking a few of the department’s inner workings. Feeling powerless and spread too thin, frustrated FDA staff were walking out.

From 2006 to 2008, the FDA’s food safety arm lost 20 percent of its science staff and 600 inspectors. It is now so understaffed that it can inspect only around five percent of food producers and processors each year. With imported food, it’s even worse. Only one percent of imported food undergoes an FDA inspection.

The Obama Administration knew there was a problem. In the wake of one of the largest product recalls in US history, the President himself vowed ‘complete reform’ of the FDA in a televised interview.

Cue cheers all round. Having watched consumer confidence in food safety fall to an all time low, industry was pleading for better checks to weed out the bad guys – like the Peanut Corporation of America – even if that meant more government involvement. In a country that champions individual responsibility and freedom, this was almost unheard of. But food manufacturers have seen their reputations decimated by the foolish actions of a few corner cutters.

As a spate of foodborne illness continues to rock the industry, manufacturers are already shelling out for private testing and to publicize the safety of their products. Fees for government-endorsed inspections may be starting to appear more attractive.

In addition to proposals for structural reform, Obama has promised to streamline operations, hopefully putting an end to the crazy situation where cheese pizza, for example, is regulated by the FDA, while pepperoni pizza falls under the US Department of Agriculture’s remit.

It has been suggested that a single entity could emerge to oversee all food safety.

This would also put an end to imbalances in food safety funding, whereby the FDA, which is responsible for about 85 percent of foodborne illness outbreaks, receives less than half of the federal funding for food safety.

FDA reform is not something to be rushed, and President Obama has a lot on his plate. But recent events have combined to allow for meaningful, united reform that could keep Americans confident of the food on theirs.

Like Teddy Roosevelt over 100 years ago, the President would do well to use his influence and ensure food safety reform is not left to languish.

Caroline Scott-Thomas is a journalist specializing in the food industry. Prior to completing a Masters degree in journalism at Edinburgh's Napier University, she had spent five years working as a chef. If you would like to comment on this article, contact caroline.scott-thomas 'at' decisionnews.com.

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