Half-baked food safety

Americans are past the point of regarding unsafe food as a freak occurrence or something that happens only in Third World countries. The reasons for s+angeles+times%22+The+U.S.+Department+of+Agriculture+just+issued+the +biggest+beef+recall+in+history.+%22Not+really.%22&cd;=2&hl;=en&ct;=clnk ≷=us numerous recalls and widespread outbreaks of salmonella in this country are well documented: a fragmented food inspection system; imports from nations with lax regulation; the commingling of foods from many sources in giant processing plants; and insufficient funding and authority granted to the Food and Drug Administration.

Still unclear is whether Congress is as fed up with bad food as its constituents, more than 300,000 of whom were hospitalized with food poisoning last year. Its commitment to safeguarding the national health will be tested by the latest legislative attempt at food reform.

Early signals are mixed. The Food Safety Enhancement Act:energy-and-commerce-subcommittee-markup-on-hr-2749-the-food-safet y-enhancement-act-of-2009&catid;=122:media-advisories&Itemid;=55 quickly passed out of a House subcommittee, but not before it was weakened by deal-making. Instead of phasing in a system that would track the origins of ingredients in processed foods, the measure now orders the FDA to study the issue. The mingling of foods from sources around the world is a significant factor in the magnitude of recent salmonella outbreaks, because a small amount of tainted food from one source can contaminate much more. This is why it was so difficult to trace the source of the salmonella in a 2008 case involving salsa that sickened more than 1,300 people.


Congress should restore the tracking provision to a bill that otherwise contains many of the elements for meaningful reform. The bill would tighten food oversight by requiring companies to develop safety plans and by funding more frequent FDA inspections through a fee on food producers. Before consumers get too excited, they should know that “more frequent” means once every four years instead of once a decade, and as often as once every 18 months for foods considered most at risk for contamination. The bill also would enable the FDA to issue recalls, a provision so obviously overdue that most Americans think the agency already has that authority.

The objective of safeguarding consumers would be more effectively met if the bill didn’t perpetuate the existing system of splitting oversight among multiple agencies. Most notably, the Department of Agriculture -- which receives 80% of the food safety funding, although it’s responsible for just 20% of the nation’s food -- would continue to oversee meat and eggs. Combining the missions under one agency would make better organizational sense and provide more flexibility for spending regulatory dollars where they are most needed.