The New York Times, writing about a just-released Center for Disease Control report, offered up this smack-to-the-forehead-and say ‘DOH!’ statement: “After decades of steady progress, the safety of the nation’s food supply has not improved over the past three years, and, in the case of salmonella, the dangerous bacteria recently found in peanuts and pistachios, infections may be creeping upward.”
The report painfully outlines the shortcomings of the nation’s food safety system which was developed over a century ago when food was truly a ‘locavore’ thing, mostly grown, prepared and consumed locally. The current system draws a significant portion of the food supply from often uncertain and uninspected sources around the globe and it “needs a thorough overhaul to regulate an increasingly global food industry,” according to top government health officials.
In other words, that tired old phrase, “In America, we can take pride in the fact that we have the safest food supply in the world,” needs to be retired until we can reclaim that spot. With inspection within our borders seriously lacking and almost non-existent for imported products, U.S. food safety has become a back seat issue hauled around by two unrestored and underpowered Model T’s often headed in opposite directions.
In one of those accidental but perfectly timed coincidences, the Farm Foundation had organized a roundtable discussion that occurred at almost the same time as the release of the CDC document. “The Future of Food Safety Regulation” at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. featured panelists Jim Hodges of the American Meat Institute, Carol Tucker Foreman of the Consumer Federation of America’s Food Policy Institute, Scott Horsfall of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, Margaret Glavin, food safety consultant and Debra Bryanton of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
Hodges began the roundtable by using that tired old phrase about the “safest” food system in the world. “Billions of meals are consumed each year without incident. Is the system broken?” he asked. “Not for meat and poultry.”
He said that no industry can offer a “guarantee that its products are risk-free,” but suggested food safety “can be improved” with better prevention efforts and stronger public health funding. Perhaps overly confident in the strides made by his own industry, Hodges said, “We have met the challenge of improving the safety of meat and poultry.”
Let’s put Hodges’ comments in perspective. CDC statistics show increases in food-borne illnesses. Last year, 16 of every 100,000 people had laboratory-confirmed cases of salmonella infections or about 48,000 serious illnesses nationwide. In 2005, the figure was 14 people per 100,000, about 42,000 cases of salmonella infections.
Between 1996 and 2004, illnesses from campylobacter, listeria, shigella, E. coli O157 and Yersinia actually decreased. Those food safety improvements came to an end in 2005. Recently. there has been an increase in vibrio, a relatively rare disease mostly associated with raw oysters, and E. coli contamination is mounting a puzzling comeback, too.
When contacted in his Seattle office, well-known lawyer Bill Marler strongly disagreed with Hodges’ aphorisms. Pointing to a painful statistic that shows a recent increase in E. coli related illnesses, he mounted his well-worn food safety soapbox and said “With less than 200,000 pounds of hamburger recalled in 2006, illnesses were trending down – but 44,000,000 pounds were recalled since then and illnesses are trending up. Broken? Not Broken? Tell that to the families of five kids who suffered acute kidney failure in the spring of 2007 in Arizona and California, the women who nearly died in the summer of 2008 in Georgia, and a 19 year old dancer who now cannot walk due to the ravages of E. coli O157:H7. Platitudes mean nothing to these people. Do you see them as just an after-thought to the “safest” food system in the world?”
Dr. David Acheson, Associate Commissioner for Foods at the Food and Drug Administration, acknowledged that we’re saddled with a beat-up and outmoded system when he said it “needs to be modernized to address the challenges and changes of the globalization of the food supply and rapid distribution chains.”
With the cartoon ghost of a forehead slapping Homer Simpson rising behind him, he agreed that the “F.D.A. needs to do more inspections.”
After the non-inspections of the Peanut Corporation of America plant in Georgia were revealed and the belated realization by FDA and Texas authorities that the company had been operating another uninspected and unknown plant in Texas for as long as five years, the only credible response is a sarcastic “Do ya think?”
The men and women of the FDA must feel like that lonely brigade defending the Alamo in 1836 – too few of them defending against too many attackers. The only difference is Davey Crockett and his band of Texians earned the respect of Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna who led the invasion. The Administration seems to have little or no respect and still doesn’t have the authority to force companies to recall foods. They can only rely on the threat of bad publicity to encourage food safety offenders to do the right thing. By law, though, they do have to grant entry for inspection and allow access to distribution records.
Case-in-point: When the FDA asked PCA customer Westco to initiate a recall on March 23 and followed up three days later with a request to see the records of the distribution of PCA peanut-containing products, company management thumbed its nose and declined both requests. Legal? Maybe. Ethical? Not by a long shot.
Talking about Westco’s bold but imprudent decision with USA Today, Bill Marler said, "In 16 years of doing this, I'm frankly at a loss to think of a time where I've ever seen a company react this way. I can't think of a situation where a company simply said 'No.' "
With little more than the threat of ‘bad publicity’ aimed at a company with no recognizable brand and faced with a major financial loss, I’m surprised that Westco’s nose-thumbing approach to the problem hasn’t happened before. Only the serving of federal warrants, a face-saving step forced on the FDA by Westco’s actions, will help prevent it from happening again.
The undermanned and underfunded FDA and the USDA are scrambling to find food safety solutions, often duplicating efforts or working at cross-purposes. And there is the usual Washington turf wars, using valuable resources to defend a ‘political/power’ position while the real needs go unsolved. The damage it can do to the cattle and beef businesses is staggering.
Bottom Line: Money’s getting tighter as the need is getting greater. We must have one well-funded and well-staffed food safety inspection agency with one set of easily definable rules doing consistent, frequent inspections to again become the country that can honestly say “We have the safest food supply in the world.” The beef industry must lead the way.