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Making food safe

The U.S. needs to streamline the bureaucracy and get tougher with inspections and recalls.

March 04, 2008

The U.S. Department of Agriculture just issued the biggest beef recall in history.

Not really. It was, in fact, the biggest recall, but not by the USDA, which has no power to recall tainted food. The agency has to prod and push meatpackers to do that. It also won't tell consumers in 49 states that they might have bought some of the 143 million pounds of suspect beef from a Chino slaughterhouse. Only Californians have access to such a list. (Go to the state Department of Public Health website, www.cdph.ca.gov.)

The net of regulations and inspections that is supposed to ensure food safety is fraying to the point of breaking. Food is overseen largely by two agencies, with contradictory practices and uneven funding. Sometimes the problem is a severe shortage of food inspectors; other times it's an agency at least as interested in promoting the food industry as in protecting consumers. Congress has considered various fixes over the years, and under pressure from the agriculture industry has repeatedly backed off.

Neither Congress nor consumers -- nor, for that matter, agribusiness -- can afford to wait any longer. In the last two years, consumers have worried over one food scare after another: E. coli-related recalls of lettuce and spinach; salmonella-tainted peanut butter; holds on contaminated seafood from China, and the deaths of hundreds of animals that ate pet food from that country. Five months ago, a New Jersey plant recalled 21.7 million pounds of ground beef. The recall last month by Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. eclipses that number.

Each year, food sickens 76 million people in this country, according to an April 2007 report by the Government Accountability Office. It sends 325,000 to the hospital and kills 5,000.

In the latest recall, no actual contamination has been found, but there's evidence that the meatpacker cut corners and that USDA inspectors either weren't aware or looked the other way. With failure on such a large scale, it's easy to understand why Americans and foreign markets are losing confidence in what was once an enviable food supply. And with that falling confidence have come real consequences: The spinach recall alone cost agribusiness up to $74 million. Safeguarding the nation's food would be far less costly than failing to do so.

* One agency. Twenty percent of the meat imported by the U.S. is inspected. But less than 1% of imported seafood, produce and processed foods is even looked at; a fraction of that actually goes to labs for testing. Meat destined for frozen pizza is inspected every day. The cheese for those pizzas is examined every 10 years.

Two federal agencies, the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration, are responsible for most food safety oversight. But the gaps in regulation between them, and the confusion over which does what, are vast.

The USDA oversees meat and poultry, but the FDA is in charge of seafood. The USDA inspects the meat that will go into processed foods, but the FDA is responsible for it once it's processed. The FDA is responsible for eggs when they're in the shell, the USDA when they're out of the shell. The FDA regulates produce, but the USDA sets up the agreements under which growers police themselves. The contradictions carry over into funding. The USDA oversees 20% of the food but gets most of the food safety budget, according to the GAO; the FDA oversees 80% of the food but gets 24% of the funding.

The FDA has been badly understaffed for years, but the shortage is worsening. As food imports tripled since 1998 and the number of domestic food establishments increased by 10%, the GAO reports that the number of food safety inspectors dropped by 11% and inspections of foreign food firms fell by more than half.

The USDA suffers from a different ailment: mixed mission. It is charged with the contradictory jobs of promoting agriculture and protecting the consumer, and lately the consumer has been losing. The agency has dragged its heels on rules to guard against mad cow disease. It tried to stop one beef producer from testing all of its cattle, and in 2005, it kept secret for seven months a positive test for the disease in a U.S. beef cow. It still has only a voluntary tracking system for cattle.

The missions of the USDA and the FDA should be combined into one food agency charged solely with consumer safety and given adequate funding to perform the job. Some of that cost should be borne by food importers. Considering the cost of the latest recall, which will probably run well over $100 million and might force some smaller, unwitting retailers to close altogether, increasing the food safety budget would prove a wise investment.

* Authority. Whether the country has two food agencies or one, regulators cannot ensure public safety without the power to recall dangerous food. This is so basic that most consumers assume the USDA and the FDA can force such recalls.

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