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 many advocates and the GAO have called for the creation of a single food-safety agency with cabinet-level status, centralizing authority is not a panacea for food-safety risks. Consider the cautionary tale of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Consolidating agencies with multiple missions into a single entity can actually reduce the capacity of the bureaucracy to act effectively. This is one unfortunate lesson of FEMA, which experienced a loss of morale and the departure of many old hands when the mission of the agency shifted from disaster relief to anti-terrorism after being absorbed into DHS. Nothing quite so vast is being considered in the case of food safety, nor is the creation of a new, stand-alone agency in the realm of political possibility right now. Nevertheless, we can still reduce the duplication and overlap of our current system by improving the division of labor among various agencies with food-safety responsibilities.
One way to think about this challenge is by distinguishing between risk assessment and risk management. Currently we have multiple agencies doing both: The FDA and USDA each employ their own staffs of scientists to assess the risks of various pathogens, as well as separate teams of inspectors to monitor slaughterhouses and production facilities for compliance with government standards. A smarter alternative would concentrate risk-assessment and risk-management functions separately in those parts of the government that can do the job best. For instance, the USDA already has more than 7,000 inspectors and compliance officers located throughout the country whose presence on site is required for slaughterhouses and production facilities to operate. By contrast, the FDA employs only 2,500 inspectors and other field staff to monitor domestic and imported food. Even if fully funded, the FSMA would only increase FDA staff size to just over 3,000, with almost half of the growth in staff going to import inspections.
Moving all inspection functions to the Food Safety Inspection Service in USDA could eliminate some of the duplication and gaps that have plagued food safety. Meanwhile, the FDA could focus its energies on risk assessment by becoming the nation’s premier source of scientific research on foodborne pathogens and how to address them. This focus on risk assessment better accords with the historic mission of the FDA in drug regulation, where the emphasis has been on pre-market approval and evaluation rather than post-market monitoring.
Skeptics will argue that any reconfigured food-safety system will cost money that’s difficult to come by in an age of austerity. Yet the combined USDA and FDA food-safety budget is just over $2 billion a year, or less than one-tenth of 1 percent of federal outlays. Given that the human cost of foodborne illness is estimated at $75 billion a year (higher if we include the product losses to industry from recalls), even a modest increase in our commitment to food safety would appear to be a good value. Others will rightly question whether the USDA can effectively protect the nation’s health when an important mission of the department is to promote the commercial interests of agriculture, including the food industry.
This is a legitimate concern. However, a departmental reorganization in 1995 separated marketing and food-safety functions at the USDA and created a new under secretary for food safety with responsibility for FSIS alone. One consequence of this reorganization is that food-safety issues now enjoy a more prominent place within the USDA bureaucracy; by contrast, food-safety concerns in the FDA must compete for resources within an agency primarily concerned with drug regulation in one of the largest departments in the federal government, Health and Human Services.
Politics and Persuasion
However, moving inspection authority to the USDA, the FDA, or some new stand-alone agency will not by itself improve food safety. So long as the political obstacles to reform remain in place, government will suffer from inadequate resources and limited powers to meet the risks of an industrial food system. Real reform requires that food-safety advocates take their case to the public, increase awareness about the risks we face every day, and reframe the issue so that it is government and industry that bear chief responsibility for foodborne illness, not consumers.
The unfortunate fact is that few of us really want to know what we eat. However, the success of books and films like Fast Food Nation and Food, Inc. suggests that when consumers do peek behind the veil of shrink-wrapped meat, they take notice. For example, between 2004 and 2008, the percentage of respondents to a Gallup poll who said they had “a great deal” of confidence in the federal government to ensure the safety of the U.S. food supply declined from 31 percent to 15 percent. Over the same period, those who said they had “not much” confidence or “none at all” in how government handles food safety increased from 14 percent to 29 percent. This suggests an opening for advocates to reframe the food-safety issue in a manner than can mobilize consumers.
In the case of food safety, the dominant frame is that consumers are responsible for the safety of their own food. This view is reinforced in various ways, from the mundane notion that consumers can protect themselves by keeping a clean kitchen to the claims of the food industry, enshrined in legal doctrine, that naturally occurring bacteria like salmonella are beyond the reach of government regulators. Foodborne illness, in this view, is an unfortunate but unavoidable feature of the world we live in.
To challenge this outlook, advocates must highlight the contradictions between the fiction of accidental illness and the reality of a broken system. People do not become ill because they failed to take certain precautions when handling their food. People become ill because they are exposed to risks that they cannot control, risks that are multiplied by the practices of the food industry and magnified by the shortcomings of the regulatory system.
Post a Comment