This op-ed was written by GAP Food & Drug Safety Associate Jonathan Cantu, and appeared in several outlets across the country including: the Kennebec Journal (Me), Central Maine Morning Sentinel (Me), Newtown Bee (Cn), Valley-City Times Record (ND) and LaGrange Daily New (Georgia).
Spinach. Lettuce. Jalapeno and Serrano Peppers. Common agricultural products have been severely tainted in recent years amidst food-borne illness concerns. And rightfully so. These outbreaks caused multiple deaths and more than a thousand illnesses nationwide. The Center for Disease Control now estimates 76 million cases annual cases of food-borne illness, resulting in over 350,000 hospitalizations and 5000 deaths.
With massive product recalls seemingly constant, one would think that the federal government would have prioritized fixing its food system. Now, however, comes the peanut butter scare. In one of the largest food product recalls ever, peanut-laced items have been snatched from the shelves due to salmonella contamination that has killed at least eight Americans. Recent reports show that the culpable company, Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), knowingly sent out salmonella-tainted product to other food processors at least 12 times since 2007. Even worse is that the FDA, according to current rules, had to gain permission from PCA to initiate the recall.
Our food safety regulations are in need of a severe upgrade. But that alone is a reactive measure to a systemic problem of continual outbreaks. We need to approach food safety differently. It is paramount, and long overdue, for the federal government to create a solitary, national Food Safety Agency which oversees all food products.
The current division of food regulatory responsibility between the USDA and FDA is scientifically and organizationally irrational and indefensible. The USDA is tasked with overseeing meat and poultry products, and related products, with the FDA everything else. It’s the “related” that gets tricky. Say there’s problems with a frozen cheese pizza – that’s FDA responsibility. But if the pizza has sausage or pepperoni on it, that’s in the USDA’s bailiwick, because it’s meat related.
This confusing split of duties can result in oversight based on arbitrary distinctions, rather than which agency has the best expertise. Assume the problem with the pizzas is its tomato sauce, which is the FDA’s bailiwick. Doesn’t matter, because sausage pizzas are handled by the USDA, period. Worse than this, food producers have the opportunity to carom between the agencies in cases of concurrent jurisdiction to get a beneficial ruling from wherever they have better connections.
This is a problem of missions. Food concerns have always been an afterthought at the FDA, which is primarily focused on drug regulations – the FDA food safety budget is only around one-quarter of the entire agency’s. The USDA, meanwhile, is fundamentally an agriculture promotion agency – its food safety activities are subordinate to the department’s overall goals of helping America’s farmers. A noble task, absolutely, but a conflicting one for public health.
But a national Food Safety Agency would fix several gaping problems. Strategically, it makes sense to bring all food concerns into one house and utilize the synergy of all federal inspectors and monitors. This wouldn’t allow corporate representatives to pit one agency against the other. It also allows the FDA and USDA to jettison poorly fitting parts and focus on other important goals.
Understandably, Congress is currently focused on economic recovery plans. But strengthening the regulatory body will help our economy by installing greater consumer confidence in processed food, and by identifying serious problems earlier. Remember, tomatoes were initially blamed for the jalapeno salmonella scare – leading to a $100 million industry loss when their products were perfectly safe. Fixing our system helps ensure that future jobs aren’t lost because of faulty detection systems.
The last thing Americans should worry about during the recession is whether food their families eat is safe. Fixing the federal system would alleviate this growing public concern.