The sanitary revolution of the 19th century began with providing clean water and food to urban residents. Piped water supplies brought an essential, health giving commondity to city dwellers starting around the beginning of the 19th century (i.e., the 1800s) and the result was an improvement in overall health and longevity. But the same mechanism that brought a healthy substance efficiently to large numbers of people could also be the means to distribute poison to the community and the periodic outbreaks of waterborne diseases was the result. A water supply is a long lever and small changes at the central end can move large numbers of lives at the other end.
Until recent decades, food was different. Most foods were locally grown, produced and distributed. If a farm sold contaminated produce people got sick but the number and geographic scope was limited. That’s no longer true. Food production is now a huge industrial operation, with a reach longer and broader than even the largest water systems.
Most people think US government agencies are looking out for them. They are right that government agencies have been given responsibility for looking after food safety. But the system is a dysfunctional and weird patchwork of jurisdictions:
A dozen federal agencies now have some food safety oversight. The Agriculture Department is responsible for meat, poultry and some egg products, while the F.D.A. is responsible for just about everything else.
And odd, conflicting rules determine which agency has authority. The F.D.A. is responsible for the safety of eggs still in their shells; the Agriculture Department is responsible once the shells are broken. If a packaged ham sandwich has two pieces of bread, the F.D.A. is in charge of inspecting it – one piece of bread, and Agriculture is in charge. A sandwich-making factory regulated by the Agriculture Department will be inspected every day, while one inspected by the F.D.A. is likely to be inspected every five years.
Neither agency has the power to recall contaminated food (with the exception of tainted infant formula) or to fine companies for food-safety lapses. And when the cause of an outbreak is unknown, it’s unclear which agency should lead the investigation. (Eric Schlosser, Op Ed piece, New York Times; h/t easyhiker)
One hundred years ago, the scandal generated by Upton Sinclair’s depiction of conditions in slaughterhouses in his novel The Jungle led to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Now, increasingly fresh produce is the culprit.
Several factors have contributed to the rise in outbreaks: greater consumption of fresh produce, especially cut fruits and vegetables; wider distribution; improved electronic reporting of outbreaks; and an aging population more susceptible to food-borne illness. Produce presents a special food safety challenge because, unlike meat, which can be rid of bacteria through proper cooking, it is meant to be consumed raw. There is no “kill step,” as food safety experts put it. (WaPo)
Produce is an FDA responsibility, but the agency’s budget for the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition has fallen 37% between 2003 and 2006.
That has meant fewer inspectors and less frequent inspections. In 2005, the FDA conducted 4,573 inspections of domestic food-processing operations. For 2006, the agency said, it hopes to conduct 3,400. There are more than 12,000 such plants in the nation. (WaPo)
The budget constrains are significant but aren’t the only reason we are in trouble with food safety. The “system” is broken, or more accurately, never worked. Right now produce manufacturing is largely self-regulated. What’s needed is a complete overhaul of food safety regulation in the US, with a single agency in charge. And the people in charge have to be committed to food safety.
The current chief of staff at the Agriculture Department used to be the beef industry’s chief lobbyist. The person who headed the Food and Drug Administration until recently used to be an executive at the National Food Processors Association. (Schlosser Op Ed,NYT)
Fox guarding the chicken coop, so to speak.
The new Congress has an opportunity to take this on if it is also willing to take on the food industry. Schlosser reports that a good bill has been introduced by Democrats Rose DeLauro in the House and Dick Durbin in the Senate.
There is a saying that watching the legislative process is a bit like watching sausage being made. You’d rather not know. Let’s see if these guys can clean up their act so that neither would be such a nauseating sight.