Our Fractured Food Safety System
Progressive Era Agencies Can’t Manage the Risks of Modern Eating
Most Americans pulling into a highway rest stop to pick up a sandwich this summer vacation season will probably feel confident that the U.S. government is up to the task of ensuring that a bite to eat won’t spell a quick end to their road trip. But as things stand, responsibility for the safety of even the simplest of meals falls messily to any number of federal agencies and offices that make up the fractured food safety system.
As a Government Accountability Office report dryly notes, an open-faced ham sandwich sold at a highway rest stop is the responsibility of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and subject to daily inspections. But add a second slice of bread and it becomes the Food and Drug Administration’s job to check in on the sandwich, which it does about once every five years.
And so it goes with just about every type of food Americans consume, resulting in a food safety system that verges on the absurd. The FDA regulates chicken broth, but beef broth is under the USDA’s watchful eye—except in the case of dried soups, in which case the agencies swap duties. Responsibility for packaged baked beans depends on whether the meat in the can is pork chunks (FDA) or bacon (USDA). And under which agency’s purview a pizza falls depends on whether it is of the cheese lover, meat lover, or seafood lover variety.
The American food supply chain’s remarkable ability to assemble a coherent meal independent of the season masks stunningly uneven oversight of the production and assembly process. A single cheeseburger purchased at the “to go” window of a fast food chain off any highway in America can contain a beef patty made from a hundred heads of cattle, cheese from the milk of a dozen dairy farms, lettuce from Arizona engineered to look fresh for days on end, and tomatoes “strip-mined in Texas,” as Garrison Keillor once joked. And yet the inspection of these ingredients rests with a bureaucratic alphabet soup of agencies. Take the 2004 case involving two USDA agencies, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the Food Safety and Inspection Service. At the very same time APHIS was testing the carcass of a cow infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or “mad cow disease,” FSIS was clearing its beef to head out to market.
Food production today is a well-oiled system, as we saw in 2006 when spinach contaminated with E. coli spread quickly from California’s Salinas Valley out across the country, turning up from Oregon to West Virginia. But where the food supply is a symphony of cooperation, the federal oversight of that system is a nearly completely atonal chorus. More than a dozen different federal agencies share differing and overlapping areas of responsibilities and ways of doing business.
Plans for a single government public health body to take command have long foundered in Congress, but interest grows as the news today is filled with tales of outbreaks, from multi-million pound beef recalls to salmonella-tainted peanut butter and pot pies to melamine-laced imports from China. According to the CDC, each year in the United States an estimated 76 million illnesses and 5,000 deaths are tied to unsafe food.
Putting American eaters at risk is a fractured federal system overseeing what we put into our mouths—one crafted for days when Upton Sinclair’s 1906 book The Jungle turned Republican Theodore Roosevelt into the nation’s leading progressive food reformer. Since the days of The Jungle, the U.S. food safety system has evolved in fits and starts. When Franklin Roosevelt sponsored the creation of the FDA in the 1930s in response to food and drug scares, much responsibility was left behind at the USDA.
Visit the food section of Recalls.gov, a joint project of a collection of federal agencies, and the problem immediately becomes clear. To go any further on the website, you must opt to click the logo of either the FDA or USDA—leaving it to eaters to know which federal agency is responsible for overseeing the safety of which foods. What’s more, recall notices on a .gov website may be misleading, given that food recalls are nearly always voluntary.
The result is a system designed to put out fires, not for ensuring food safety in line with modern science. “When we had the spinach episode, everyone acted like it was a great surprise,” former FDA Commissioner Lester Crawford, a Bush-appointee and long-time federal food safety official, told Science Progress. “But the likelihood of something bad happening [with the food supply] is always quite high.”
The Wrong Recipe for Federal Food Oversight
Marion Nestle, New York University professor and the author of Safe Food who has served in a number of food positions on the federal level, describes “an overlapping system with huge gaps where everybody blames everybody else.” Indeed, asked about the working relationship between FDA and USDA officials, Crawford says, they “generally don’t bump into each other. I don’t know if I ever tried to make a phone call to the USDA. And if I did, I don’t know if it would have been returned.”
The GAO, which has long called for a single food agency, last year bumped the current system up to the level of “high-risk area.”
The GAO, which has long called for a single food agency, last year bumped the current system up to the level of “high-risk area.” When it comes to the FDA, part of the problem, says Lisa Shames, GAO’s Director of Food Safety and Agriculture Issues, is “a mismatch between funding and food oversight responsibility,” where the FDA oversees four-fifths of the food supply but receives just a fifth of the total federal budget for the effort. The FY2009 presidential budget calls for increasing the Food and Drug Administration’s funding level to $662 million, a meager 7 percent boost covering little more than inflation. The FDA itself says it needs an additional $275 million to beef up its overseas inspections.
Beyond FDA’s meager budget is the challenge of having an agency with so vast and diverse a mission, one responsible for the safety of America’s food and drug supply. Says former commissioner Crawford, “I just can’t recall an incident when I said, ‘My gosh, thank God we have the drug people with the food safety people.’” Crawford discounts the possibility of finding agency-level leadership equally skilled in food science and pharmaceuticals. “They just don’t make people like that,” he says.
USDA, home to the majority of agencies with food oversight duties, is an altogether different entity with its own special challenges. In 2003, then-Secretary Ann Veneman lamented that the department was bound by laws that pre-dated the Model T. Says Mike Doyle, director of the University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety, “USDA is in the plant to look at gross morphology, basically looking for lesions. That was relevant back when the statutes were written,” in the turn-of-the-century days when Sinclair wrote of meat in Chicago’s packinghouses found to be “moldy and white, stinking and full of maggots.” But visible problems like rotting meat aren’t the modern concern, says Doyle. Today’s worry: bacterial pathogens such as E. coli and salmonella, both of which are invisible to the naked eye.
What’s more, USDA is a department internally conflicted. Its primary role in Washington is to promote the food trade—to boost the amount of American pork the Chinese eat, not to worry over whether the pork Americans consume is safe to eat. GAO recently profiled seven countries (Canada, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and the United Kingdom) that have consolidated food oversight under one roof. Most interesting is the holistic farm-to-fork approach of EU member countries. Ireland is a typical case, moving its food safety agency under the auspices of its existing public health authority—in recognition of the fact that the raison d’etre of their own Department of Agriculture is promotion, not policing.
Added to those challenges is that we’re now pulling an enormous amount of food into our supply stream from overseas—up to 15 percent of what we eat, by volume—and inspecting a miniscule one percent of it at most. The current regime sends a message to food producers in the wake of the melamine scare, says NYU’s Nestle. “The Chinese were very frank about it,” she explains. “’You asked us to give it to you at the cheapest prices. You didn’t say anything about quality.’” Even occasional point-of-entry inspections can act as a deterrent. Nearly non-existent inspections simply set the expectation that the fractured U.S. food supply is willing to absorb foods of dubious quality.
Calls for a Single Federal Food Safety Agency
What’s the solution? For years now, diverse voices in Washington—from GAO to the National Academies’ Institute of Medicine and National Research Council to former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge—have been calling for the creation of a single food safety agency, a player in the federal bureaucracy with the necessary mission, might, and budget to ensure a safe food supply. On Capitol Hill, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) routinely introduce the Safe Food Act, a legislative vehicle that not only creates a Food Safety Administration but establishes a firm schedule for inspections and gives the new body the power to invoke mandatory recalls.
Interestingly, given Ridge’s past support for the idea, GAO recently eased its strong call for single agency plans in response to the rocky process of getting the Department of Homeland Security up and running. A spokesperson for Rep. DeLauro counters GAO’s concerns by arguing that the creation of DHS was a different effort entirely—an attempt at unifying offices and agencies with unique aims and cultures. She argues that the creation of a Food Safety Administration would be more akin to federal reorganizations like the 1947 establishment of the Department of Defense, which united federal agencies and offices already committed to a common mission.
Even industry opponents of current single-agency proposals, such as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, are quick to say that they are united behind the common goal of ensuring a safe food supply. Reached via email, the Cattlemen’s Phyllis Marquitz objects to Durbin and DeLauro’s plans as “political solutions that rearrange agency structures but do little to show potential for real-world practical change.” But the beef industry spokesperson adds that she judges beef producers to be receptive to a convincing case that one unified federal food safety agency is indeed the best way to ensure safe food.
Former FDA Commissioner Crawford echoes the sentiment. In his experience, everyone involved in the food chain “agree[s] with the idea that we have to put safety first,” he says. “The question is how we get there.”
Of course, restructuring the way the federal government handles food safety is no easy task. Agency heads are generally loath to give up jurisdiction and budget. From deep-pocketed meat lobbyists to members of House and Senate agriculture committees, many in Washington with a role in the food supply chain have an interest in maintaining the idea that food safety is an industry issue, rather than a public health concern.
But perhaps most important is Congress’s limited supply of attention. It’s been nearly 70 years since the last time the public demand for safe food forced politicians to act. But given our globalized way of eating and the mounting reports of food-borne outbreaks, that time is likely coming again. The day has certainly arrived for Congress to consider the Safe Food Act with all the thoughtfulness that what we put in our mouths deserves.
Nancy Scola is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, NY.
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