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Downer Cows Out of Burgers Is Good, but as for the Rest of the Food Safety System…

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed a rule that cattle too sick to stand should not be turned into hamburgers. The move raises the opportunity to consider broader issues regarding federal food safety structures, which have been under additional scrutiny since this summer’s outbreak of salmonella St. Paul, which was eventually traced to imported serrano peppers.

executives from Hormel Foods Corporation and Cargill, Inc. testify before Congress on food safety in November 2007


Executives from Hormel Foods Corporation and Cargill, Inc. testify before Congress on food safety in November 2007.

Previously, “downer” cows were deemed fit or unfit for slaughter on a case-by-case basis. But concern over the safety of the beef supply peaked earlier this year when the USDA issued the largest meat recall in history of 143 million pounds. A congressional hearing following the recall raised serious questions about both the ability of the USDA to keep food-borne pathogens out of the food supply, and the problem of overlapping jurisdiction between the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control, and the USDA.

In this instance, oversight responsibility seems clear and it’s a good thing that the USDA is aiming to close this loophole through which E. coli, salmonella and other such nasties can slip (UPDATE: see testimony from the February hearing by Michael Greger, M.D.). But the proposed rule highlights the broader problem of trifurcated food regulation. Writing in Science Progress about “Our Fractured Food Safety System,” Nancy Scola reported recently that, “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.’” She goes on to describe internal conflicts at USDA:

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.

Keeping sick cows out of the food supply is a good start, but rationalizing food safety will take more than just rulemaking. The comment period on the USDA rule extends until September 29. More info here.

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