Fresh ground hamburger is portioned out for packaging at Ehresman Packing… (Keith Myers / Kansas City…)
In addition to the 3,000 deaths it causes each year, contaminated food is very expensive. The cost of food poisoning in this country comes to $14 billion a year, according to a July 2012 study published in the Journal of Food Protection, including the medical expenses of the 128,000 who are hospitalized annually. That figure does not include the millions of dollars that each food recall costs the company involved, the legal expenses from victims' lawsuits or losses incurred by other companies when consumers hear, for example, about contaminated cantaloupes and then avoid all cantaloupes, including those that are perfectly safe.
It has been only a couple of weeks since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released an overdue but worthy set of rules to implement the 2-year-old Food Safety Modernization Act. The regulations aren't complete — a third set on imported food is still due — but it's already clear that the associated expense, even though it's a blip on the chart compared with the cost of contaminated food, faces adamant opposition.
The act calls not just for increased inspection but for a major shift in approach, from trying to fix unsanitary conditions in food-processing plants to preventing such conditions in the first place. Food companies will be required to develop safety protocols, which must pass FDA muster, and keep records showing they adhere to their plans. If they are found to be violating their own procedures in any major way, they will be subject to various FDA sanctions, including temporary shutdown.
Food companies have supported the concept, even though the change is expected to cost the industry $320 million to $475 million a year. Some businesses, especially those whose products have been associated with deadly outbreaks of salmonella and other pathogens, already have been moving in this direction, and others are aware that their reputations are on the line. And if the extra cost is passed on to consumers, it will be almost unnoticeable — less than $2 per year.
Companies are balking, however, at taking on any of the government's costs for the initial implementation of the regulations, and those are considerable — up to $1.5 billion over the five years it would take to get the new system up and running. The FDA was supposed to receive extra funding to pay for it, and it has, but so far the amount hasn't come close to what's needed.
Beyond that is the continuing expense of enforcing the rules. So far, the FDA hasn't put a dollar figure on this except to say that it would range from $220 million to $500 million a year. That's a big spread, and the agency needs to develop more specific figures before there can be serious talk about how much the nation would pay and how.
Even so, this is the time for Congress and the public to accept the fact that we cannot markedly improve the safety of our food by cutting corners. Until now, the FDA has been expected to inspect food plants at least once every 10 years, an utterly inadequate schedule that it has not always met. Under the new law, food-processing plants are supposed to be inspected at least once every three years, with more frequent inspections for foods that are at higher risk of contamination, such as peanut butter. The inspection requirement is just as important as the food companies' safety protocols. Even the best plan is worthless if it isn't followed, and this nation's recent history of food-borne illness shows that without frequent inspections, too many companies get sloppy.
Some sort of expense-sharing — a combination of taxpayer dollars and industry fees — is the most reasonable and practicable solution. Polling conducted for the Pew Charitable Trusts has found that Americans strongly support the kinds of provisions included in the new law, and three-fourths say they would be willing to pay 1% to 3% more for their groceries to achieve them. The typical family of four spends more than $12,000 a year on groceries; an extra 1% would amount to $120 a year. Adding up all the elements needed to put the new system in place — company changes, federal implementation and strong annual enforcement — the total would be a fraction of that, perhaps $20 a year, for that family to eat more wholesome food.
No one likes to pay more at the checkout stand, but the nation already is paying heavily, in sickness, death and dollars, for failing to properly police the food industry.