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Starving Food Safety

July 16, 1998

Americans now enjoying their summer picnics may suffer a glimmer of anxiety over recent outbreaks of food-borne illness: 6,500 people became sick in Illinois last month after eating commercial potato salad, and E. coli bacterial contamination occurred in fruit juice and lettuce that originated in California. Today, the U.S. Senate can take a big step to combat food contamination by restoring all or most of the $101-million initiative the Clinton administration has proposed to improve food safety. The money would go to hire new safety inspectors, upgrade technologies and bring coherence to disjointed oversight.

So far, the Senate has allocated only a piddling $2.6 million for the initiative at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and nothing at all at the Food and Drug Administration. The shame of this penny-pinching is that it comes when lawmakers are spending like drunken sailors elsewhere, for instance in the pork-laden transportation bill.

The need for better food safety oversight could not be stronger. The Centers for Disease Control estimated that this year 9,000 Americans will die and millions will fall seriously ill because of tainted foods, numbers that have been growing. CDC officials aren't sure why those statistics are rising, though they suspect part of the reason may be improved detection and the increase in imported foods bearing bacteria and other pathogens to which Americans have little resistance. Food imports have doubled in the last seven years and are expected to increase by one-third in the next three years.

The administration's Food Safety Initiative would get at this problem first by hiring new inspectors. Less than 2% of imported food is inspected now because the FDA's budget has not grown along with imports. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), the chairman of the Senate committee that decided not to fund the initiative at the FDA, suggested that some of the FDA's duties be delegated to states and local governments, but the increasing movement of food across state lines and national borders argues for just the opposite: a coordinated national strategy.

National planning, for instance, is the only way to successfully deploy new technologies like DNA fingerprinting, which within hours allows federal inspectors to trace the genetic signature of, say, a dangerous bacterium on apples marketed in the West back to the farm where the fruit was harvested in Maine. Funding the initiative would enable federal agencies to continue efforts to install such technology in sites around the country and train workers to quickly identify and track food pathogens. And Congress needs to consider pending bills to give the FDA and the USDA the power to recall food and to create a single food safety agency to consolidate scattered oversight.

Food safety is an unassailable cause. There are some things that only government can do, and guaranteeing the wholesomeness of our food supply is one of them.

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