Still a Jungle
In an environment of drug-resistant pathogens and “pink slime,” why do the food industry and government place the onus for safety on consumers?
Some of the inefficiencies border on the absurd. Three agencies have authority over different aspects of egg production, processing, and transportation. Four agencies are responsible for monitoring and preventing “mad cow” disease. Five different agencies have responsibility for ensuring safe pizza, though which one depends on the topping: The FDA inspects facilities that produce cheese pizza, while the FSIS has responsibility for inspecting plants that make pepperoni pizza (and sausage, too). According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), this fragmentation results in the inefficient use of resources, ineffective assessment of risk, and inconsistent inspection and enforcement. In fact, the GAO considers the need for comprehensive reform to be so great, and our food supply to be so vulnerable, that it designated food safety as a high-risk area in order to bring “needed attention to address the weaknesses caused by a fragmented system.”
Compounding the problem is the fact that responsibilities and resources are grossly mismatched. The FDA is responsible for 80 percent of the food we eat, yet the agency receives only 40 percent of the annual food-safety budget. Although federal rules require USDA inspectors to be present during the operation of slaughterhouses and meat-processing plants, no such requirement exists for other food-processing facilities that do not handle meat products. The USDA employs more than 7,000 inspectors and veterinary medical officers to staff 6,300 plants nationwide, which is good, but it is now looking to cut the number of federal poultry inspectors and to permit the industry to increase the speed at which it can process birds from 140 to 200 per minute. But at least the USDA can cover every plant. The FDA must divide its 2,500 inspectors and other field staff among 68,000 food production plants in the United States as well as monitor the rising tide of imported food. According to the Office of the Inspector General at the Department of Health and Human Services, the FDA inspects less than a quarter of facilities in any given year, and more than half of all the facilities in the United States have gone five or more years without a single inspection.
The second major obstacle to improving food safety is the limited enforcement powers among the major agencies involved. Legal maneuvering by the food industry has diminished the power of the USDA to enforce its own rules. In the case of pathogen reduction, for example, a lawsuit in 2000 by Supreme Beef Processors prevented the USDA from shutting down its plant after repeated tests indicated high levels of salmonella in its ground beef. A federal appeals court ruled that the USDA lacked enforcement authority because the new HACCP rules were outside the scope of the 1906 Meat Inspection Act, and therefore could not shut down a plant, even though it had repeatedly failed tests for salmonella contamination. Efforts to pass legislation that would give the USDA authority in such cases have repeatedly failed in Congress.
A Persistent Problem
One of the unforgettable moments in Food, Inc., the popular 2008 documentary on the food industry, is the tearful description by Barbara Kowalcyk of the painful last days of her two-year old son, Kevin, who was sickened by a hamburger contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. As he lay dying of kidney failure, Kevin begged his mother for a drink of water, unable to understand that liquids would only hasten his demise. It is impossible not to be moved by such a story, especially as a parent, and wonder how a product as seemingly harmless as a hamburger could kill a child.
More troubling still is the fact that although Barbara Kowalcyk has dedicated her life to fixing the system, her tireless work on a package of reforms dubbed “Kevin’s Law” has been stymied by our politics. In 2010, Congress sought to address our food-safety problems by passing the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). The legislation gave the FDA the authority to order mandatory recalls (previously, food recalls were only voluntary), conduct more frequent inspections, and exercise greater powers over imported foods—all good things. But while the FSMA represents a real achievement, it is still inadequate to the challenges we face and, sadly, tragedies like Kevin’s are likely to happen again. This is because the FSMA fails to address some of the most severe risks of our modern food system.
Antibiotic use in animal production vividly illustrates how industry practices threaten human health, and how government action can be painfully slow in response. Animals consume 80 percent of antibiotics in the United States, mostly in low doses that increase the quantity and speed of meat production. A preponderance of scientific evidence has shown that the routine use of antibiotics in otherwise healthy animals results in drug-resistant strains of bacteria that render these lifesaving drugs less effective in treating human disease. The FDA has been slow to act on the issue despite the World Health Organization, the U.S. GAO, the Institute of Medicine, and the National Research Council each recommending stricter rules on antibiotic use, including a ban of certain antimicrobials in animal production. In fact, the FDA itself considered a ban on penicillin and tetracycline in animals as early as 1977, but abandoned its efforts without holding a single hearing due to opposition in Congress.
Until recently, the FDA remained largely on the sidelines despite mounting evidence about the dangers of antibiotic resistance. In 2005, the FDA banned fluoroquinolones, a powerful class of antibiotics that includes the drug Cipro, because of the widespread development of antibiotic-resistant Campylobacter in poultry. In early 2012, the FDA banned most uses of cephalosporin, another class of antibiotics, for similar reasons. More recently, after a lawsuit was filed by several environmental and consumer groups, a federal magistrate judge ordered the FDA to complete its review of penicillin and tetracycline begun 35 years ago. Then, in April 2012, the FDA issued final guidance to industry on what it calls the “judicious use” of antimicrobial drugs in animals.
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