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.

By , Staff writers

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    Food safety concerns grow in proportion to the increase in food imports flooding into the US. A Costco shopper in Everett, Mass., examines peppers from Canada and the Netherlands.
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It used to be that filling America's dinner plate was largely a domestic affair. Eggs came from nearby farms. The peanuts in the peanut butter on your sandwich were from Georgia. Apples hailed from Washington State.

Today, changing eating habits and food production mean that eggs are produced on American megafarms, sometimes 1,000 miles away, and served with salsa made from Mexican tomatoes and onions. Peanut butter could come from Canada. And while Mom's apple pie is still firmly domestic, most of the apple juice she serves is Chinese.

Although this globalized bounty remains among the safest food in the world, it is testing the limits of a creaky US food-safety system built on 70-year-old laws written before genetic engineering was invented, frozen foods had gone mainstream, or Interstate highways enabled a head of lettuce to make it – still crisp – from California to New York in the dead of winter.

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In Pictures: The foreign and domestic food chain

Problems at single megafarms have sparked huge, multistate recalls. Imports flow over the US border in such volume that government inspectors are capable of inspecting only a tiny portion of it.

While other nations modernize their food-safety systems – at least for their exports – attempts to do the same in the United States have lagged. Legislation that would strengthen the agency responsible for the safety of most of the nation's food supply has languished in the Senate for more than a year. Meanwhile, high-profile recalls of spinach, lettuce, and eggs remind consumers that gaps in food safety remain.

"The US is truly at risk if Congress continues to let our food-safety system languish," says Caroline Smith DeWaal, food-safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit in Washington.

* * *

An Iowa egg farm in August is nobody's tourist stop. The sweltering heat makes the manure extra pungent. Flies can be a problem. Even by those standards, however, the poor conditions in House 17 of the Layer 3 facility at Wright County Egg were noteworthy.

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."

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.

* * *

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.

"In another decade, Mexico will be the fruit and salad bowl of the US," says Michael Doyle, who heads the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia.

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.

The FDA does screen products at the border, targeting those products and producers that have posed problems in the past. But a 2008 Government Accountability Office report showed that the FDA examined less than 1 percent of the fresh produce coming through its borders between 2000 and 2007. So almost all the food that reaches the US passes through without being physically examined at all.

Earlier in the decade, outbreaks of food-borne illness in the US were traced back to Mexico – including a 2003 incident that linked hepatitis A with Mexican green onions and salmonella as well as outbreaks of illness blamed on Mexican cantaloupes in 2000, 2001, and 2002. These incidents spurred the Mexican industry to clean up its image by developing various voluntary standards. For example, México Calidad Suprema is a generic brand that growers and packers commit to operate by high food-safety standards.

"Nobody ensures that" quality, says Frank Pope, who exports carrots produced in Queretaro, in central Mexico, to the US. "The market takes care of it."

Such faith in the market and voluntary efforts by the Mexican growers and packers have won over some US wholesalers. "They're working very hard to counteract that" taint, says Peter John Condakes, whose New England produce wholesale and distributing company buys more than half of its Roma tomatoes from Mexican companies. "Truthfully, in a lot of cases, the packing sheds are as strict or more strict than in the United States."

The challenge with voluntary food-safety programs is that one farm's mistakes can ruin the reputation of the entire industry, as the US spinach industry found out in 2006.

* * *

E. coli contamination in spinach, which was linked to one California farm and three fatalities, cost the industry more than $200 million, according to a USDA study. It also sparked both industry and government reform efforts: California produce shippers and handlers came together to create tough new standards under the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA). Food-safety advocates in Congress, who had been focused on a comprehensive revamp of the USDA and the FDA, began to focus specifically on the FDA, which is responsible for spinach.

The LGMA initiated safety standards for growing and harvesting produce that went well beyond what the federal government required. Its members agreed to abide by enforceable third-party audits and inspections (including surprise inspections) multiple times a year.

"Our industry went through a door that it will never go back through," says Tom Nunes, vice president of operations for The Nunes Company, a large grower-shipper based in Salinas, Calif., that markets under the Foxy brand.

For all its success, however, the LGMA remains voluntary and is confined to two states: California and Arizona.

By reforming the FDA, Congress's food-safety advocates hoped to create a level playing field with national standards for all producers.

In 2009, the House passed a bill giving the FDA authority to make mandatory recalls and requiring more frequent inspections, a food-safety plan from each food-processing facility, and an annual registration fee from companies.

The new legislation would also make it easier to trace food from farm to fork, as the industry likes to put it. This is hard enough to do within the US when, say, a wholesaler mixes batches of tomatoes to get uniform color. For importers, it could mean having to identify the farmer in Sri Lanka who grew the peppercorns used to flavor a TV dinner, being expected to know that those peppercorns were not dried in the same shed where the farmer keeps his pesticides, and needing to find out whether the flatbed truck that brought the peppercorns to market also sometimes transports manure.

The Senate was poised to pass a similar, though somewhat watered-down, bill in September. It had bipartisan cosponsors and important support from grocers, food marketers, and consumer groups. Small farmers did complain, worried about the increased paperwork and costs of government intervention.

In Pictures: The foreign and domestic food chain

Despite the publicity surrounding the huge egg recall in August, the bill went nowhere after Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma raised concerns about the cost of the bill. If the bill isn't passed in Congress's lame-duck session after the elections, food-safety advocates will have to start afresh in both houses.

Although the bill would be a first big step in strengthening the FDA, food-safety advocates say much more needs to be done. In a major report in June from the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council, a panel suggested that the FDA needs a risk-based system in which the agency focuses its scarce resources where they're needed the most.

Reformers also hope eventually to create a single agency responsible for food safety. As an interim step, the panel recommended the creation of a centralized food-safety data center that could effectively collect data and quickly evaluate food-safety risks.

"We need to do better because there's too much of a problem," says Robert Wallace, panel chairman and a professor of epidemiology and internal medicine at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

If the US doesn't create a stronger system, the effects could not only put consumers at risk but, in the long term, American food producers as well.

* *

"'I refuse to buy shrimp in the U.S.," says Roger Berkowitz, CEO of the Boston-based Legal Sea Foods restaurant chain.

The American shrimp industry says lax federal regulation has allowed the US to become a dumping ground for cheap Asian shrimp.

But Mr. Berkowitz, wearing a white hairnet and blue disposable smock on the temperature-controlled receiving dock of his $15 million food-quality center, flips that logic on its head: Asian shrimp is gaining in the US, not because it's cheaper but because it's safer.

"We've inspected plants in Vietnam. Those plants are state-of-the-art," he says. "They're certainly better than shrimp-handling in the US."

If imports are becoming a larger part of America's vegetable and fruit consumption, they dominate its seafood intake. Twenty years ago, imports supplied half of US needs. By 2008, that share had grown to 85 percent, much of it in the form of shellfish – lobster, shrimp, and crab, for example – and frozen fish. Asia supplies nearly half of America's shellfish imports. China, alone, supplied 49 percent of frozen fish filets to the US in 2007.

Consequently, seafood – with its high susceptibility to salmonella and other pathogens, is of prime concern to the FDA. And inspectors see a range of quality.

At ports of entry, inspectors target what they think could be problematic. Of the 50,000 food import shipments the US rejected between 1998 and 2004, one-fifth was seafood, according to the 2008 USDA report. The most common reason for rejection? Filth, which the FDA defines as an article that "appears to consist in whole or in part of a filthy, putrid, or decomposed substance or is otherwise unfit for food."

Inspections are only part of the puzzle.

"You cannot inspect your way to safety," says Christopher Hickey, head of the FDA office in Beijing. "If you want safe products in the end, you have to build in safety from the beginning."

In the US, that has meant working with industry on new risk-control procedures. In the 1990s, the FDA selected Legal Sea Foods and a handful of other seafood companies to pilot its Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point program for seafood. HACCP, which involves specific procedures and critical temperatures for harvesting, handling, storing, processing, and cooking food, has since become a standard for food used by many countries.

In other countries, it's more difficult.

In China, for example, that means sending FDA inspectors to local companies that supply the likes of Kraft, General Mills, and Kellogg with everything from apple juice – widely used as a sweetener in food – to xanthan, a product used to thicken salad dressings and dairy products. Because the FDA has only two food inspectors to cover 22,000 registered Chinese food exporters, the more important effort may be the FDA's work with the Chinese General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, the agency that oversees food exports and imports. The FDA examines how AQSIQ labs check for contaminants in milk, for example, and trains AQSIQ officials and Chinese businessmen in US standards and methods.

"The aim is to get to the point that we are confident enough in their system to use it to designate higher and lower risk products," says Mr. Hickey.

So far that hasn't happened. But Chinese firms are knocking on the door. They supply 60 percent of America's apple juice and nearly half its xanthan gum needs. Even if the US does enact stricter standards, it's not clear that that will keep out Chinese food either.

Ever since the international scandals over exports of contaminated Chinese toothpaste, pet food, and seafood caused international scandals, Beijing is anxious to improve its own image and food-safety laws. Among Chinese officials, "there is a quite different attitude from what we saw in 2007," Hickey says.

* * *

That new attitude toward food safety internationally contrasts with some complacency in the US. It's not just the inaction on the food-safety bill, despite bipartisan support. Tougher egg regulations, which took effect in July and might have headed off the salmonella egg outbreak if adopted earlier, had been formulated a decade earlier. For more than 20 years, reformers have called for a single agency devoted to food safety.

"It's hard to say we've backed off food safety in the last 10 years," says Robert Buchanan, director of the Center for Food Safety and Security Systems at the University of Maryland in College Park. But "we've sort of hit a plateau."

That's not a big problem now, because the US still has one of the world's safest food supplies. It becomes problematic as the food system evolves.

"There are so many changes in the way food gets to the table," says Dr. Wallace at the University of Iowa. "The number of people in the country is increasing.... More and more food is being imported. More and more food is being consumed locally."

The US can do a better, more efficient job of protecting its dinner plate, he adds. "There's a lot of opportunity out there."

In Pictures: The foreign and domestic food chain

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