Watching what we eat

THIS SPRING, thousands of dogs and cats got sick from eating pet food made with tainted wheat products from China. Pictures of sad puppies hooked to IVs filled newspapers. In short order, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) called for a new, consolidated federal agency to oversee food safety in the United States.

At first glance, the chain of events looked a lot like the headline-driven rush to action that spawned the Department of Homeland Security, glomming dozens of entities under one roof and hamstringing a lot of them in the process (think FEMA). Consolidating departments is not always the best way to ensure good governance.

But when it comes to ensuring food safety -- currently handled by an overlapping bureaucratic nightmare in need of “fundamental reexamination,” according to the Government Accountability Office -- it may make sense to centralize.

Durbin and DeLauro have been on the case for more than 10 years, and with good reason. The regulations that govern food safety are woefully out of date, written before the U.S. imported much of its food and before the advent of processed tasties made of mysterious stuff like “wheat gluten.” In the early 20th century, a Food and Drug Administration inspector could look at a bushel of apples and tell by sight if they were rotten or diseased. An inspector today would be hard-pressed to look at a pile of kibble and tell much of anything.


In January, the GAO added food safety to its list of high-risk federal programs, noting that it’s scattered across 15 poorly coordinated agencies, including the FDA, the Federal Trade Commission and -- naturally -- the Department of Homeland Security. Less than 1% of food imports were inspected in 2006. The FDA, which bears 80% of the food safety burden, accounts for just 24% of food safety expenditures. It has no power to require recalls (that’s up to industry) and has little ability to track recalls already in progress. After the pet food debacle, President Bush appointed Dr. David Acheson to be FDA “food czar,” but few expect substantive results from the move.

The Safe Food Act would create a single agency that, unlike the FDA, could concentrate solely on food safety -- standardizing inspection and recall standards across all food types and markets, more aggressively screening imports and so on. It’s a welcome acknowledgement that food safety needs to adapt to the 21st century.