Something to look into

A few years ago, a number of small children got sick from E. coli infections; the bacteria were traced to petting zoos. Ms. TfK and I both thought that a smart Congresscritter could win the suburban mothers’ votes by requiring better scrutiny of hygiene at petting zoos.

Little did we know that within years, we’d be seeing similar problems emerging from our spinach and green onions (and undoubtedly other veggies soon). The Baltimore Sun dug in and discovered the FDA complaining that it’s research on food safety had stalled:

Recurring outbreaks of food-borne illness from contaminated produce are “unacceptable” in today’s society, the government says. But the Food and Drug Administration hasn’t done much of the basic research that would let it write regulations to fix the problem.

Six years after the FDA first issued general guidance to the produce industry on how it might prevent contamination from microbes such as E. coli 0157:H7, experts say federal regulators still can’t answer key questions.

For example, does water used for irrigating crops have to be clean enough for people to drink? And since cow manure is a common source of E. coli, how far from a cow pasture does a spinach patch have to be?

The FDA, of course, wants more money, and undoubtedly needs it, to maintain food quality and safety. But change can’t just come from how much money is allocated. The Bush administration has filled the ranks of political appointees with people who have a personal aversion to strict oversight and good governance. This was one cause of the spike in mining fatalities in recent years: oversight of mine safety was in the hands of mine owners and their friends.

The FDA falls within the Department of Health and Human Services, currently headed by Mike Leavitt. Leavitt briefly served as EPA administrator before being appointed to run HHS. His quick shuffling through such disparate posts is reminiscent of other Bush appointees who have served beyond their competencies.

Maintaining a safe food supply is the joint responsibilities of the Department of Agriculture and the FDA, and there are clearly holes in the system. I hope they get patched before more people die.