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Food safety: How to keep our global menu off the recall list

As the food recall list grows and food imports flood into the US, it may be time to revamp America's 70-year-old laws on food safety.

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Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspectors who went to the facility in Clarion, Iowa, found gaps in the doors, through which wildlife could get in, possibly contaminating the feed. The live and dead flies inside the egg-laying house were too numerous to count, the inspectors reported. The manure pile under the house was so big – at least four feet high – that it had pushed out the doors to the manure pit, giving open access to rodents. The inspectors wrote: "Dark liquid which appeared to be manure was observed seeping through the concrete foundation."

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Wright County Egg was hardly a fly-by-night operation. A major egg producer, it was forced to initiate a massive recall in August in 22 states after inspectors linked its feed operations to a salmonella outbreak that sickened 1,600 people, estimates the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Unfortunately, the FDA inspection came after the outbreak was already under way. Although egg graders from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) had repeatedly noted subpar conditions in the company's egg-grading operation, those concerns never reached the FDA.

The egg recall illustrates the patchwork, inefficient nature of America's food-safety system. Fifteen federal agencies – and many state agencies – are responsible for food safety. The two primary watchdogs – the FDA and the USDA – have overlapping responsibilities. While the USDA grades the eggs, making sure each carton has the same size egg, the FDA is responsible for keeping them from being contaminated.

Moreover, the two agencies have radically different approaches to securing the food supply. The USDA is inspection-focused. US law requires it to inspect every carcass of meat and poultry that it's responsible for, even though numerous scientific reports have questioned the effectiveness of those rapid conveyor-belt inspections.

"There is an awful lot of money being spent on guys standing around watching the chickens fly by," says Glenn Morris, director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida, Gainesville, and a former official at the Food Safety and Inspection Service at the USDA. "It's hard to tell what you are getting for your money."

The USDA's costly carcass-by-carcass inspection soaks up about 60 percent of US food-safety funding, even though it covers only about 20 percent of the food Americans eat (mostly meat). That leaves the FDA with only around 40 percent of the funding, even though it's responsible for ensuring the safety of 80 percent of the food supply. With less funding, it's difficult for the FDA to inspect food facilities on a regular basis.

"In my mind, [the FDA] doesn't have an inspection system," says Scott Hurd, a veterinary professor at Iowa State University and former deputy undersecretary of agriculture for food safety at the USDA. "It has a 'wander around and hope you bump into something' " approach.

If American inspectors can't keep adequate tabs on what goes on within US borders, imported foods pose a special challenge.