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It leaves a bad taste

This isn’t the only developed country to have experienced serious problems with food contamination. We’ve just been extraordinarily lackadaisical when it comes to doing something about it. A new federal report on the common-sense steps taken by Japan, Canada, Ireland and several other nations provides a practical guide to food safety. The only question remaining is: What’s taking the United States so long to follow it?

The report, released this week by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, outlines steps that aren’t all about giant government bureaucracies. Rather, they’re workable for industry and more efficient at using limited resources. Foremost among them is the sensible creation of one agency to oversee food safety, as opposed to the bifurcated U.S. system in which the Department of Agriculture oversees meat and poultry, and the Food and Drug Administration takes charge of most other foods.

Unlike the USDA and the FDA, these foreign agencies have the power to recall dangerous foodstuffs, as well as to require producers to recall their products when there is reason to believe they might be unsafe. In addition, the agencies responsible for protecting consumers don’t dilute their mission by also promoting the industry. The USDA’s dual goal of inspecting meat and protecting the interests of the cattle industry is the most likely reason the agency does no more than desultory testing and is trying to stop one beef producer that wants to ratchet up its safety standards.

These countries have a “farm to table” policy in which safety laws cover every stage of food production, from field to shipper to processor and so forth. They put most of the responsibility for food safety on the producers, require importers to pay for the disposal of bad food and focus their inspections on foods that carry the greatest risk of contamination. (Lettuce and tomatoes, anyone?)

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In the European Union, food is tracked from farm to consumer through a “one step forward, one step back” system: At each stage, the company shipping or handling the food must know both its supplier and its customer. The lack of such a tracking system is part of why the FDA has been unable to locate the source of the salmonella outbreak that has sickened more than 1,100 people in this country in the last couple of months.

Meanwhile, the FDA hasn’t carried out the food protection plan it announced last year, which included focusing its resources on the highest risks, and only recently informed Congress how much money is needed to do this. The tightening of food-safety policies in other countries puts our laggardly approach to shame.


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