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Nut so good - tainted US food system needs revamping

02-Feb-2009
Last updated on 06-Feb-2009 at 09:34 GMT

E. coli in ground beef, melamine in infant formula, and salmonella in peanut butter - what is next? Isn’t it about time the slices of the US food safety pie were taken back from the multiple federal agencies involved and surveillance placed under one roof?

Confidence in a system where 15 different agencies administer as many as 30 laws is ebbing with US politicians and food companies, following the recent salmonella scare linked to eight deaths, demanding an overhaul of how the sector is regulated.

And rightly so – food safety in the US is buried in bureaucracy.

A situation has developed whereby food manufacturing facilities are inspected at widely different frequencies, depending on which agency — the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — governs them.

While, the USDA is responsible for the safety of meat, poultry, and some egg products, the FDA is responsible for the safety of most other foods. But the FDA only gets 20 per cent of the food safety dollars to protect 80 per cent of the food supply and has about one-tenth of the number of inspectors as the USDA.

The result – a gap in how things are being inspected, which becomes absurd when you look at products like cheese pizza, which isn't getting inspected that frequently, but pepperoni pizza is.

And, if a canning facility produces soup containing meat or poultry, it is inspected daily by the USDA, but if the plant also produces soup containing beans or seafood, then the FDA inspects it every one to five years. Where’s the logic in that?

The problem at the FDA is that while it is meant to oversee both food and drugs, a vast majority of time and money is directed at drug safety. With a limited budget and a huge workload, the food side of the agency has lurched from one crisis to the next.

The peanut butter recall is a case in point. The last time an FDA inspector looked at the Peanut Corporation of America’s Blakely plant was about eight years ago.

Instead of struggling to balance food safety with the competing priorities of FDA’s drug approval process or the USDA’s agriculture promotion mission, the creation of a single agency would simply allow regulators to do their jobs, claims US congresswoman Rosa DeLauro.

The UK and Ireland did just that. Following a series of scares in the 1990s, and in response to heightened public concerns about the safety of their food supplies, they chose to consolidate responsibilities in agencies that report to their ministers of health and pledge to put consumers’ health first.

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland, the UK’s Food Standards Agency, the European Food Safety Authority, and similar agencies elsewhere in Europe, Canada and Japan represent a break with the past when day-to-day industry interest and production may have come first.

For example, the UK move to consolidate safety activities into the FSA was largely a result of the government’s perceived mishandling of an outbreak of BSE.

Public opinion viewed the agriculture ministry, which had dual responsibilities to promote agriculture and the food industry as well as regulating food safety, as slow to react because it was too concerned about protecting the beef industry.

And, the safeguards the FSAI brought with it swung into action over the Irish pork dioxin crisis in December with a mandatory recall of all pork products putting consumer safety ahead of the priorities of the pork producers; the swift risk assessment opinion from EFSA also helped to contain the crisis and restore consumer confidence in Irish pork.

Moreover, unlike the USDA and the FDA, these agencies have the power to require producers to recall their products when there is reason to believe they might be contaminated.

Barack Obama, as president elect, promised to cut programmes “that have outlived their usefulness or exist solely because of the power of politicians, lobbyists or interest groups.”

Hopefully, the new US administration will stitch up the gaping holes in the food safety net by replacing the current fragmented regulatory approach with one food agency that puts the consumer first, is adequately funded, and has the power to recall dangerous food.

Consumers should not have to eat their cake and fear it too.

Jane Byrne is editor of FoodProductionDaily.com. She has worked in print and online media for several years in Ireland, France and Switzerland. If you would like to comment on this article, please email jane.byrne'at'decisionnews.com