INTERNATIONAL FOOD SAFETY CONSULTANCY
DR WILLEM MARSMAN
WASHINGTON, Oct 8 – TO APPRECIATE HOW BYZANTINE THE NATION’S FOOD SAFETY SYSTEM IS, CONSIDER: ONE GOVERNMENT AGENCY IS RESPONSIBLE FOR CHEEZE PIZZA AND ANOTHER FOR PEPPERONI. THE MEAT MONITORS ARE AT THE AGRICULTURE DEPARTMENT, WHICH ALSO OVERSEES POULTRY. THE FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION IS RESPONSIBLE FOR MOST OTHER FOODS, 80 PERCENT OF THE SUPPLY.
YET ALSO consider this disparity: FDA has only 750 inspectors, and about $260 million, to safeguard a staggering 55,000 food plants. USDA, in contrast, has more than twice the money and thousands more inspectors to oversee 6, 000 food plants.
One result: FDA manages to inspect less than 1 percent of the foods and ingredients imported from other countries. And in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, that has Congress worried that the nation’s food supply is vulnerable to bioterrorism.
“We have a gaping hole out there,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who heads an Appropriations subcommittee that is considering boosting spending to help. One pending bill would provide $350 million to increase the security of the food supply.
But one senator is hoping the concern about bioterrorism will help spur a more dramatic change – creating a new, single agency to ensure everything Americans eat is held to the same safety standards.
“The time couldn’t be better to move this forward, because we’ve now moved our focus from food safety to include food security,” says Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill, who introduced his Safe Food Act last week. “Even if the terrorists were put out of business, a single food-safety agency would be the right way to go.”
Food experts agree that the Unites States has the world’s safest food supply. Yet it could be better: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that some 76 million Americans will get food poisoning this year. It says some 325,000 will be so sick they require hospitalisation and 5,000 will die.
The elderly are particularly vulnerable to food borne germs, and federal health officials predict the aging population could spur a 10 percent increase in food poisonings in the next decade.
Those statistics are run-of-the-mill food poisonings. Bioterrorism, in contrast, has happened only once before in the United States, in 1985 when a religious sect contaminated Portland, Ore., salad bars with salmonella that sickened 750 people.
To ensure today’s food are more tamper resistant, manufacturers last month began working with federal health officials to beef up security, checking shipments, containers and even hiring practices.
The bigger question is how to make food safer overall. After all, germs lurk in every step of the production process.
Taxpayer money to ensure food safety goes not just to FDA and USDA but to the illness-monitoring CDC, pesticide-monitoring Environmental Protection Agency, and half a dozen other agencies. The resulting system is fragmented and has created conflicting interests, Durbin says.
Take listeria, a germ particularly dangerous for the elderly and pregnant women. Deli meats are prone to it, so USDA has proposed forcing manufacturers to do routine Listeria tests. It’s also often found in smoked fish and soft cheeses, but FDA doesn’t force testing there, says Caroline Smith DeWaal of the consumer advocacy Center for Science in the Public Interest, which backs Durbin’s legislation.
Another example: USDA can almost immediately shut down meat plant if it finds safety violations, but FDA doesn’t have that authority.
The system is improving, says FDA’s food safety director, Bob Brackett. The agency inspected more than 90 percent of the 6,250 highest risk plants last year, and is implementing new rules to keep foods safe from farm to table.
But, he says, “We are in desperate need of more inspectors.”
Tommy Thompson, the nation’s health secretary, told Durbin last week that FDA has the expertise to properly oversee all of food safety if given the money. He does not favour creating a new bureaucracy, a stance some manufacturers’ lobbies agree with.
“There’s resistance,” Durbin acknowledges. But he’s pressing ahead, citing recommendations from Congress’ advisory National Academy of Sciences and the General Accounting Office, in addition to the European Union’s plan to create a Europe-wide-food-safety agency.