A good summary of the state of food safety regulation in the United States.
These known cases make up a tiny fraction of the overall problem–an estimated 76 million illnesses and 5,000 deaths in the U.S. from food poisoning each year. Meanwhile, imports of food, some from countries without strict controls, soared to more than 9 million shipments last year doubling since 2002. The cash-strapped FDA is able to inspect less than 1% of imports. It’s a recipe for disaster. “Our food-safety system in this country is broken,” warned former FDA Commissioner Dr. David A. Kessler at a recent congressional hearing.
Few incidents ever have a body count high enough to shock the country into making fundamental changes. Overall, “we do have a very safe food supply,” says Sanford A. Miller, former director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition. But the alarms over pet food and vitamin A have lit a fire under lawmakers and executives. On May 2 the Senate rushed to pass a bill by a vote of 94-0 giving the FDA more responsibilities, such as creating databases of adulterated food. Meanwhile, food producers have been holding emergency meetings with suppliers, looking for problems in their factories or supply chains. Companies are “feverishly examining their own purchasing policies and trying to ensure they are followed,” says Kovacs.
Note that it is always tempting to blame the bureaucrats here. Bureaucracy is a dirty word in this country, associated with “red tape”, “corruption”, “standing in the way of business”, “pencil pushers”, “big government”, you name it, they get called it. But, agencies like the EPA and the FDA have competent scientists who know what they are doing. But, without the money and the authority, which is given to them by the political arm of the government, they cannot do much. They have also, in recent years, been headed by political appointees who come from the industry they are supposed to regulate and show a distaste for regulation which is in complete opposition of the mandate they are supposed to fulfill as the head of a regulatory agency.
It’s easy to take potshots at the FDA, but remember who gives them the money, makes the rules and tells them what not to oversee.