It seems that almost monthly, there is news of yet another outbreak of food poisoning.
Last week, Hudson Foods recalled 25 million pounds of potentially contaminated ground beef after 17 people in Colorado contracted poisoning from E. coli O157:H7, a particularly dangerous strain of bacteria.
In March, strawberries contaminated by Hepatitis A were served in public school lunches, causing hundreds of illnesses. In May and June, imported raspberries containing the cyclospora parasite caused more than a thousand people to get sick.
While the Clinton administration has been tough in addressing these individual emergencies, there is a fundamental flaw in its approach. It has dealt with each crisis as it has come up instead of creating a single process to prevent and deal with all future outbreaks. Now that food is increasingly mass produced and shipped all over the world, this piecemeal approach to addressing safety problems is a hazard to public health.
Food poisoning is responsible for millions of illnesses and as many as 9,000 deaths every year in the United States. The economic cost of contaminated food is high - it may be as much as $22 billion per year. This estimate fails to take into account the pain and suffering experienced not only by the victims, but also by their families and extended communities.
And these costs will only increase. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the incidence of food-borne illnesses and deaths is likely to grow 10 percent to 15 percent over the next decade, as new, more dangerous contaminants are spreading.
Also, familiar bacteria like E. coli are appearing in unexpected foods. For example, last year there were several E. coli outbreaks from contaminated lettuce and unpasteurized juice. Moreover, while imported foods have increased by nearly 50 percent since 1992, government inspection of imports has declined.
That’s why President Clinton’s food safety initiative, which was recently passed in the balanced budget legislation, isn’t comprehensive enough. The initiative proposes tinkering with the current system by establishing new systems of industry-designed hazard controls for processing plants.
But multiple agencies will still share responsibility for inspecting food. The Department of Agriculture oversees meat, poultry and egg products; the Food and Drug Administration inspects and oversees the safety of all other products, and the Environmental Protection Agency sets limits for certain chemicals in food.
Jurisdictions for these agencies sometimes overlap, so there is little accountability, and the agencies also have other duties, like promoting American agricultural products or approving drugs, that interfere with their safety responsibilities.
Moreover, the current system is inefficient and focuses too much on recalling food after it has already been contaminated, rather than on keeping food from becoming contaminated to begin with.
We need a new approach that combines all the federal government’s food-related functions into a single agency. There are many benefits to consolidating these duties. For example, safety inspections could be done on a frequent and consistent basis.
Currently, food plants regulated by the Department of Agriculture receive daily visits from government inspectors, while those regulated by the FDA, including some that deal with high-risk products like seafood and eggs, are inspected an average of once every 10 years.
A single food safety agency would also have the power and the flexibility to enforce food safety regulations from farm to table. That would increase the chance that contamination would be caught at an earlier stage, before dozens of people became sick.
In addition, the agency would be most effective if it had tough enforcement tools, such as authority to recall tainted food and to enforce penalties on companies that don’t meet standards.
At a time of government downsizing and reorganization, we cannot afford to continue to have multiple systems. The only way to achieve a successful system of safety regulation is to create a single agency with uniform standards.
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