The food we eatFood poisoning outbreaks prompt oversight efforts, II

Published 21 May 2009

President Obama had an organic vegetable garden planted at the White House, and his nominees to the FDA are pushing a more aggressive approach to food safety; many are are pinning their hopes on the Food Safety Modernization Act, which would essentially split the FDA, creating a separate agency to focus on food safety

Yesterday we described how the number of inspectors the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) employed went down from 37,000 in 1973 to 6,700 in 2007. Most of the staff cuts were made during the George W. Bush administration. The drastic reduction in food inspectors occurred at the same time that the importation of food and food ingredients into the United States increased dramatically. What is more, much of the food and food ingredients brought into the United States came from countries such as China, where food safety and health standards are lax or non-existent, and where the weak enforcement mechanisms are weakened further by corruption.

The Oregonian’s Lynne Terry writes that, to be fair, we should recognize that on top of the steady cuts in personnel, the FDA has had to cope with an explosion in the pharmaceutical industry and the birth of biotechnology in the mid-1970s. It also has overseen more than a doubling of food processors, from about 70,000 in the 1970s to 150,000 today, William Hubbard, a former associate commissioner at the FDA for fourteen years, said. It is little wonder that Americans keep getting hit with food poisoning, he said.

The Peanut Corp. plant in Plainview, Texas, was never inspected after it opened in 2005. When Texas officials investigated earlier this year, they found filthy conditions, leading to its closure. Peanut Corp. was not the only source of foodborne illness this year. In the past three months alone, salmonella-tainted ground white pepper and alfalfa sprouts have sickened nearly 75 people. They are among 76 million, or one in four Americans, who get food poisoning every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). At least 300,000 are hospitalized, and 5,000 die.

President Barack Obama, with a freshly planted organic vegetable garden at the White House, has promised Americans safer food. Obama’s pick to head the FDA, Dr. Margaret Hamburg, has pledged to revamp the food safety system, and Congress is considering several reforms. “Finally, after all these years, there’s a chance that Congress will actually fix the problem,” said Hubbard, the former FDA official.

Terry writes that a number of food safety groups are pinning their hopes on the Food Safety Modernization Act, which would essentially split the FDA, creating a separate agency to focus on food safety. Others say an FDA shake-up would waste time with a bureaucratic shuffle. “I believe change can happen with the current structures,” said Dr. David Acheson, associate commissioner for foods at the FDA. “The philosophy needs to change and the leadership to go with it.”

There are signs of change, though. At the end of March there was a recall by Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella, Inc. in central California. Instead of waiting for consumers to get sick from salmonella, the FDA asked the public to avoid all pistachios while the investigation was under way.

The FDA warned the public again at the end of April — this time to avoid alfalfa sprouts. No recall had been issued yet, but dozens had fallen sick, and Acheson wanted to stem the outbreak rather than wait for all the data to trickle in.

Industry seems to go along. In the past, many companies lobbied for fewer regulations, but with many consumers losing confidence in their food supply, many processors are pushing Congress to level the playing field with legislation.

Acheson said several fixes are needed, including a bolstered FDA, the use of preventive practices by industry and better communication among the myriad agencies responsible for food safety. A year from now, therefore, America’s food supply is likely to be safer.