The food we eatFood poisoning outbreaks prompt oversight efforts, I

Published 18 May 2009

In 1973, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) employed 35,000 inspectors; in 2007, the FDA employed 6,700 inspectors; at the same time, food imports into the U.S. increased exponentially

Let us look at two sets of figures:

  • During the past thirty years, the importation of food — and food ingredients — into the United has grown exponentially
  • In 1973, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) employed 35,000 inspectors. In 2007, the FDA employed 6,700 inspectors

The discrepancy is obvious. The FDA, after years of contraction, is now trying to regain its regulatory footing.
The recent recall of salmonella-tainted peanut butter from Peanut Corp. of America — not before 700 people were sickened, nine died, and hundreds of companies forced to pull thousands of products — taxed the FDA, which has faced successive outbreaks in recent years. The agency, hobbled by a decentralized U.S. food safety system, lack of resources, and weak enforcement authority, has come under fire by critics who say it has done too little, too late and too slowly.
The Oregonian’s Lynne Terry writes that, ironically, the outbreak and recall may be the best thing that has happened to America’s food supply in decades. Congress is moving to bolster food safety in the U.S. with reforms many say are long overdue.

The FDA is a product of a food safety system that dates to 1906, when Theodore Roosevelt was president. It was also the year that muckraking author Upton Sinclair published his The Jungle. The novel, depicting the Chicago meat-packing industry, described workers falling into vats and sausages stuffed with poisoned rats. It sparked widespread disgust and outrage.Months after the novel’s publication, Congress passed the Meat Inspection and the Pure Food and Drug acts, which made it a federal crime to sell adulterated, filthy food and established federal inspections.

Terry writes that the authority for enforcing the new laws was given to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Chemistry Board. In 1927 a new agency was created that came to be the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees most of what Americans eat — except meat, poultry, and egg products. Those fall under the USDA.

The new system mandated that officials inspect facilities for unsanitary conditions. The inspections were visual and were appropriate to a time when food was largely unprocessed and bacteria such as E. coli O157:H7 were unknown. Moreover, it was also a time during which Americans bought food locally for the most part and cooked from scratch.

The development of food preservation techniques, refrigeration, and an explosion of food processors changed all that. Manufactured food brought convenience — but also the threat of nationwide outbreaks. “That kind of change in the food system also changed production so that a problem can radiate through the food system in a way it might not have done 20 years ago,” Michael Taylor, a former top official in the FDA and USDA, told Terry. “If you get a pathogen in a facility, it can contaminate a lot of product that goes all over the country.”

The food revolution in the United States was not accompanied by a bolstered FDA. On the contrary, the agency has been the victim of ever-changing government priorities, fluctuating budgets, and anti-regulatory sentiments in the White House. According to William Hubbard, a former associate commissioner at the FDA for fourteen years, the agency lost about 1,000 food scientists, inspectors, and other staff between 1994 and 2007. His figures show that the number of inspections plummeted as well, from nearly 35,000 in 1973 to nearly 6,700 in 2007, with a big drop during the Bush administration.

But the agency has not made across-the-board cuts. Between 1994 and 2007, it added about 1,300 drug specialists with money from drug application fees.

The food function has tended to take a back seat in the FDA, where the leadership is more highly focused on pharmaceuticals and medical products than it is on food,” said Taylor, who co-wrote “Stronger Partnerships for Safer Food,” a recent report on the fractured food safety system.

Tomorrow: Changes are coming to the FDA