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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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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Places like California, Florida, and New Jersey, which once supplied most of America's fruits and vegetables, compete increasingly with produce from abroad. In 2008, the US imported nearly half of its fresh fruits and nearly a fifth of its vegetables, much of it from Mexico. Mexican imports of onions to the US have grown 28 percent this past decade; tomatoes, 77 percent; broccoli and cauliflower, 429 percent.
That's problematic if the US government cannot ensure that Mexican fields of lettuce, carrots, strawberries, and onions are free of dangerous bacteria or pesticides. Neither the FDA nor its Mexican counterpart requires fresh produce growers to be certified before they send food into the US.