Whom would you consider more trustworthy when it comes to ensuring the safety of your food?: A) an impartial government inspector, or B) an inspector hired and paid by the company producing, transporting or selling the food?
If you answered "B," you will love the Food and Drug Administration's plan to implement part of a bill passed in 2011. And I'll let you have that first slice of cantaloupe.
Here's why. Congress adopted the Food Modernization and Safety Act to try and cut back on the scandalous level of food-borne illnesses, which afflict as many as 48 million people and cause 3,000 deaths a year. This costs the economy up to $150 billion annually in time lost from work and medical treatment.
Among other things, the bill for the first time requires inspections of imports, which make up as much as 15 percent of the U.S. food supply. Imports have roughly doubled as a share the nation's food chain in the past decade, and account for a large portion of all fresh fruits and vegetables. The FDA's inspectors now manage to check just less than 1 percent of all food from abroad, which explains why some of the most serious episodes of contaminated food in recent years have been traced to foreign products, such as salmonella from Mexican cucumbers that sickened people in at least 18 states this spring.
The issue, of course, is paying for the inspections. The Obama budget had called for funding them through the appropriations process, but Congress is intent on cutting spending. So here's what the agency came up with, in a set of rules now up for public comment: U.S. companies will contract with inspectors who will audit overseas facilities, run tests on food and compile records. (There's a gaping loophole in the law that exempts seafood and fruit juices.)
In short, this would bring the inspection regimen for imports more or less into line with part of the domestic food industry. The cost to business would be as much as $500 million a year.
There's just one hitch: Over the years, as the FDA's inspection staff has struggled to keep up increased demands, domestic food companies and processors have been allowed to use contractors to conduct inspections. As Bloomberg News and others have reported, the record of these so-called third-party inspectors is checkered at best. Some lack the necessary expertise or training. Others work for trade groups financed by the companies the inspectors are supposed to examine.
Maybe it's just a coincidence, but several of the worst cases of food poisoning in U.S. history owe to shoddy contract inspections, including 33 deaths in 2011 from cantaloupes tainted with listeria and nine deaths from salmonella in peanut butter three years earlier.
The FDA has estimated it would need $3 billion to bring all inspections in-house, but Congress gives it only about half of that much. A better alternative would be for food companies to pay fees to the FDA to cover inspections, a protocol the agency had recommended and now uses to review and screen drugs and medical devices. But the food industry balked and Congress rejected the proposal.
Using third-party inspectors is better than nothing. But the results may be less than first-rate.
(James Greiff is a member of Bloomberg View's editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)
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