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?
Although the FDA now recognizes that giving antibiotics to healthy animals simply to increase production poses real threats to human health, these new rules are unlikely to have any real effect on industry practice. This is because rather than ban widespread use of antibiotics in animal production, the FDA instead provided a set of guidelines that will allow industry to continue the practice, including on healthy animals, so long as it is considered a preventive measure and is conducted under the supervision of a veterinarian. In other words, the FDA expects industry to regulate itself. Recent studies leave the wisdom of the FDA strategy very much in doubt. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University recently found traces of several banned substances in feather meal (a byproduct of the chicken industry), including the same class of antibiotics the FDA banned from use back in 2005.
Nor does the FSMA address the gaps in oversight caused by our fragmented food-safety rules. For instance, although the new act gives the FDA the power to issue a mandatory recall, it leaves the power of the USDA, which oversees food-safety activities in slaughterhouses or other meat-production facilities, untouched. Moreover, efforts to give the USDA the same recall authority now enjoyed by the FDA have met with stiff resistance by the food industry. With Republican control of at least one chamber of Congress likely to continue past the 2012 elections, these and other legislative solutions will likely remain out of reach in the near to medium term.
Even the law’s achievements are in question, given the current fiscal and political climate. In June 2011, the Republican-controlled House passed an agricultural appropriations bill that cut $87 million from the FDA food-safety budget and reduced funding for USDA food-safety programs as well. Georgia Representative Jack Kingston, who chairs the House agricultural appropriations subcommittee, justified the cuts by arguing that the U.S. food supply was “99.99 percent safe.” A Senate bill restored the cuts and in November 2011 Congress passed a conference report that increased food-safety spending by almost $50 million—still well short of the $287 million requested by the Obama Administration. Funding problems aside, full implementation of the law will require the FDA to issue more than 50 new rules and guidance documents over the next several years, a daunting task under the best of circumstances. A Republican victory in the 2012 presidential election and a changing of the guard at the FDA would likely slow or stop some of these rules from going into force.
Clearly, government policy has not kept pace with the emergence of more dangerous pathogens or the changing patterns of production and consumption that multiply and magnify our exposure to risk. The reason, not surprisingly, is political. The food industry enjoys tremendous influence over the way government regulates food safety. A revolving door allows former congressional staffers and government officials to move easily between government and industry throughout their careers. A thickened layer of presidential appointees in the executive branch provides a valuable point of re-entry for individuals with industry experience, who then oversee rules and regulations that affect their former employers. Campaign contributions keep the machine well oiled, guaranteeing industry access to Congress and the executive branch. Finally, well-financed legal teams allow the industry to initiate and, more importantly, sustain long and complicated legal challenges to policies that might improve food safety but could add costs or increase industry exposure to liability.
Bureaucrats must share some of the blame as well. Because reducing administrative duplication and overlap would take power and resources away from the many departments and agencies with a finger in the food-safety pie, the bureaucracy has been resistant to reform. In 2005, the GAO issued a report reviewing seven high-income countries (Canada, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom) that had consolidated food-safety authority in a single agency, finding that all seven experienced improved performance, reduced gaps in oversight, and improved accountability and transparency. In their response to the report, the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services discounted the experiences of other countries, arguing instead that food-safety goals are “better advanced through enhanced interagency coordination rather than through the development of legislation to create a single food agency.”
With so many agencies involved, holding someone accountable when things go wrong is extremely difficult. This partly explains why government and industry place so much emphasis on the role and responsibilities of American consumers in food safety. The government site FoodSafety.gov instructs consumers to “clean, separate, cook, and chill” their food “to help keep your family safe from food poisoning.” Although household hygiene is important, these simple steps cannot protect consumers from the most virulent microbial pathogens. Kevin Kowalcyk died because of an invisible killer that our system failed to stop, not because his mother failed to keep a clean kitchen. Framing the food-safety issue as one of individual behavior rather than as a systemic risk shifts responsibility away from industry and government and places it squarely on the individual.
Fixing food safety in the United States requires action on two levels. On one level, we need a reform agenda that lays out the legislative and administrative changes that can solve the problems we’ve identified. But broad reform will require something bigger than a policy program. To change our food-safety system, we need to change the way we talk and think about the issue. This will require reframing food safety so that Americans insist government and industry play their proper role in managing risk.
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