Safer U.S. Food, Slowly

Each year, 3,000 Americans die and one in six gets sick from the food they eat. The Food Safety Modernization Act signed by President Barack Obama in January 2011 was designed to fix the problem through the most comprehensive food-safety reform in more than 70 years. More than three years later, none of the act’s major provisions are in force, and the $1.2 trillion food industry still operates under decades-old measures such as the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938. Consumer advocates point to the political clout of food companies as one reason for the delay. The industry itself has split over some provisions, with grocers and giant food sellers like Wal-Mart, who deal directly with consumers, pushing against farmers and food processors for tougher rules and enforcement.

The Situation

In January 2015, the Obama administration called for the creation of a single food-safety agency within the Department of Health and Human Services, consolidating responsibilities now split between the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to “rationalize the food safety regulatory regime.” This followed a major set of rules the administration proposed in 2013 — after activists filed a suit — under the new food safety act. One of the Food and Drug Administration’s 2013 proposals would require food brought into the U.S. to meet the same safety standards as domestic products, including onsite auditing of suppliers and periodic sampling of food and another to boost the safety of pet food and feed for farm animals. Elsewhere in the world food safety issues are more dire. In China, an activist started the equivalent of a Wikipedia for tracking brazen violations like cooking oil being reused after being scavenged from a garbage dump, while Taiwan increased food safety violation fines by tenfold in a bid to restore confidence in the nation’s meat and produce.

The Background

For decades, the Department of Agriculture has covered meat, poultry and processed eggs, while the FDA has monitored produce, juice, dairy products and manufactured food such as cereals and candy.  Food recalls, when they happen now, are voluntary, although companies know the government could seize unsafe food if they ignore a recall recommendation. The 2011 law was designed to turn the FDA into a regulator empowered to prevent outbreaks, rather than just react to them.  It hands the FDA authority to mandate safer practices in the growing and processing of fruits and vegetables and order recalls of contaminated food. Congress passed the measure after poisonings from contaminated cookie dough, spinach, jalapenos and other foods killed at least nine people and sickened more than 700 in 2008 and 2009. What followed was delay, not action. The FDA missed a July 2012 congressional deadline for rolling out regulations, inflaming activists who suspected an election-year dodge. Two advocacy groups filed suit to compel completion of the rules. A listeria outbreak in autumn 2011 killed 33 people, and in September 2013 more than 120 people were hospitalized from salmonella linked to chickens. Meanwhile, millions more got sick without their illness being formally recorded as part of an outbreak.

The Argument

The modernization act passed with bipartisan support and the backing of the entire food industry. But the industry has split over putting the law into practice. The American Farm Bureau Federation says the estimated $935 million annual cost of the proposed rules will be too much of a burden. In March 2012, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and other business groups joined with consumer advocates to ask Obama to implement food safety provisions, saying the industry would benefit from regulatory certainty. Growers and food processors also oppose an FDA proposal to fund enforcement by levying  about $220 million in industry “user fees,”  an idea that’s stalled in the face of complaints registered by groups ranging from the American Bakers Association to the Vinegar Institute. In the meantime, big food retailers, who have broader concerns about liability, are moving to improve safety on their own. Costco, for example, conducts random microbiological testing of high-risk food products such as cantaloupe. Wal-Mart is using third-party auditors to help ensure quality control, although it suffered embarrassment in China, where a series of food scandals have heightened concern, including a case where meat being sold as donkey contained fox.

The Reference Shelf

First published Feb. 3, 2014

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John O'Neil at