“The fact is the federal government has more authority to halt the distribution of dangerous toys than it has over unsafe food products.” – Dr. David Kessler, Dean of the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco on May 1, 2007 speaking before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
Think about that for a moment.
Last week we discovered that up to 3 million chickens were fed melamine-tainted food and entered the food supply chain. A piece of news that dwarfed the previous week’s announcement that 6,000 hogs that ate melamine-tainted food didn’t enter the food supply. Yet, no recall was ordered. The fact is, a recall couldn’t be ordered. Why? Neither the Food and Drug Administration nor the U.S. Department of Agriculture have the authority to issue recalls. At best they can suggest a recall and if the offending producer refuses then that’s just tough.
Kessler goes on to say: “Because the process is entirely voluntary, FDA has no ability to verify that the manufacturer has in fact removed an unsafe product from the marketplace promptly and thoroughly. And, in contrast to the federal government’s authority over recalls of toys, cars, or medical devices, FDA has no ability to impose fines on a company that is slow to act.” This lack of enforcement authority also applies to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
According to Frank E. Young, M.D., Commissioner of the FDA from 1984 to 1989: “There has been a major erosion of the scientific expertise within the FDA.” And, “Because the level of inspections of imported products is so low, it is better for importers to have goods seized as a cost of doing business, rather than to comply with FDA regulations.” According to the Associated Press and others, between 2001 and 2006 the number of imported processed ingredients, such as wheat gluten, increased by 73 percent while the number of food and drink imports rose by 65 percent. According to the San Francisco Chronicle the FDA inspects just one percent of the roughly nine million food shipments we import each year.
There was no corresponding increase in the FDA budget. The FDA budget, in current-year-dollars, has declined during that period. In short, we have a system where it makes good business sense to risk poisoning people. Congress did pass legislation establishing a user fee system for pharmaceutical companies as a way to fund the approval process for new drugs. Although that effort has been effective in its goal of speeding up the approval process, it also became an excuse for not increasing tax-payer funding for the FDA – contributing in part to the current food safety problems.
So, at this very moment we’re watching our food safety systems fall apart. Am I being a Chicken Little? I don’t think so.
It may be a statistical accident that in the past 12 months we’ve had three large and unrelated cases of e-Coli contamination. Pure happenstance that a Georgia peanut butter plant was shipping peanut butter contaminated with salmonella (apparently the FDA was suspicious of contamination a year ago, but the manufacturer, ConAgra, refused to provide records), A mere fluke that gluten contaminated with melamine has shown up not only in pet food but also in food fed to pigs and chickens.
But I don’t think so. I think we’re seeing the confluence of a series of bad decisions made by the executive and legislative branches over the past 15 to 20 years finally reach the tipping point. And I think Congress and the Bush administration need to deal with it now before these failures begin to overwhelm – and, really, poison us. Right now, the FDA’s hands are tied. Witness what the current commissioner, Andrew C. Von Eschenbach, offers as a solution:
“FDA recently issued draft final guidance to industry entitled ‘Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards in Fresh-cut Fruits and Vegetables’ to enhance the safety of fresh-cut produce by minimizing the microbial food safety hazards.” Eschenbach has also appointed Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer of the FDA’s food division to a new position referred to as the “food safety czar.” But without a legislative mandate and additional funds and authority for such a position it’s pure nonsense.
If you’re concerned about the safety of our food supply (and you should be) then you should encourage Congress to increase funding for inspection and regulation as a first step in improving safety measures. And let’s not stop with user fees. That could have an even worse effect on food safety than on drug safety. It will stack the legal deck even further in favor of Big Ag – who can afford the fees for inspections as well as the losses from tainted products – and against small farmers that are our best hope for long-term food safety and quality. User fees look cheap, but won’t be in this case.
There are other measures that need to be taken – concentrating all food safety responsibility in one agency and returning to the pre-Republican Congress policy of long-term commissioners insulated from political considerations. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) have introduced bills (H.R. 1148 and S.654) that address most of these existing problems. But I suspect these bills will take longer – and require more political will than currently on tap – to enact into law.