Wednesday, February 18, 2009

We Need Safer Food

As the recent NYT editorial Dangerous Food in the wake of the recent salmonella tainted peanut butter opines:

The more investigators look into the latest food-safety scandal involving the Peanut Corporation of America, the worse it gets. It now appears that as many as nine people have died and 19,000 have been sickened after eating cookies, crackers or institutional peanut butter tainted with salmonella from a plant in Georgia owned by the company.

This is far from an isolated case. It wasn’t that long ago that people got sick from E. coli in spinach and at Taco Bell, green onions.

According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), food borne illnesses infect about 76 million Americans every year, of which 325,000 become hospitalized and 5,000 die. The estimated total cost to the nation, including pain and suffering, medical expenses and lost productivity is between 10 and 83 billion US dollars a year.

Compared to other issues like the economy that President Obama has to deal with, food safety may not be at the top of the list. But it certainly needs some urgent attention.

In the US, it is the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that has jurisdiction over both food and drug safety. But with the FDA’s inability to keep our food safe, along with their problems in being slow to react to unsafe drugs like Vioxx, something clearly needs to be done to do a better job of protecting the public.

How did we get into this mess? Much of it was due to that same anti-regulation philosophy with the belief that government is not needed to protect its citizens from harmful business practices. After all they say, companies want to protect their good name and this will be enough incentive for them to do well by us.

But how is that working so far? Although the
Peanut Corporation of America has now been put out of business, it had a widespread reputation in the industry of the unsanitary practices for some time before the recent episode. And the FDA inspection of their Georgia plant in January 2009 gave us this:

FDA inspectors reported, following a two-week inspection of the Blakely, Georgia plant in January 2009, that the company had information that its peanut-butter products were tainted with salmonella but shipped them anyway after "re-testing" them. This occurred at least 12 times in 2007 and 2008. FDA inspectors also found mold growing on the plant's ceiling and walls, foot-long gaps in its roof, dead insects near peanuts, and holes in the plant big enough for rodents to enter. The company also didn’t clean its equipment after finding contamination and didn’t properly separate raw and finished products. In 2007 the company shipped chopped peanuts on two occasions even after salmonella was confirmed by private lab tests.

But most incredible of all:

The company had previously refused to divulge production test records until federal officials invoked the food safety provisions of a federal anti-terrorism law (the 2002 Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness Response Act).

I think this proves conclusively that we need far more than industry self-regulation to keep our food supply safe. And it also proves that the FDA clearly because of indifference and/or lack of manpower was not there to protect us until after the major salmonella outbreak that could have clearly been prevented.

In fairness to those in the food industry, I don’t believe that the great majority of them would ever consider criminal acts in knowingly shipping contaminated products. All it takes is a mistake somewhere in the process for something to go wrong leading to contaminated food being shipped out. But if companies knew that the FDA was regularly checking up on them like they are supposed to be, they would be motivated to be extra careful and fewer incidents would happen.

With the FDA having a lot on its plate in regulating both food and drug safety, maybe the agency should be split into separate ‘food’ and a ‘drug’ agencies. Nicholas Kristof back in December wrote an interesting article Obama's 'Secretary of Food'?

A Department of Agriculture made sense 100 years ago when 35 percent of Americans engaged in farming. But today, fewer than 2 percent are farmers. In contrast, 100 percent of Americans eat.
But his article shows the regulatory reform in food safety is more complicated than simply dealing with the FDA. The FDA which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services regulates food products that are mostly or totally non-meat. So looking out for dangers like mad cow disease in our meat supply falls under the Agriculture Department. So perhaps a ‘Department of Food’ can be made up of what each of these departments does in relation to food so that our food supply will all fall under one cabinet official responsible for the safety of all of our food.

While that may all make sense, at this writing, Health and Human Services does not yet have somebody to lead them with Obama nominee Tom Daschle having to withdraw because of problems with unpaid taxes. And even when somebody is finally installed there, the number one priority will understandably be health care reform.

But we all have to eat.
And we need our government to do a much better job of protecting the food supply which President Obama has acknowledged. Hopefully, we can get some badly needed reform before too many more people get sick or die from tainted food.

1 comment:

Mike Licht said...

Never fear. FDA insoectors are on the job.