Why Your Food Is Still Not Safe
If we want our food to be safer, our government policies need to be smarter.
Each year, 48 million Americans suffer from illnesses caused by dangerous microbial pathogens lurking in the food they eat. For most people, food poisoning leads to temporary stomachaches or diarrhea. But the effects can be much more serious. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 125,000 Americans are hospitalized and 3,000 die each year from pathogens in our food. Foodborne illness is estimated to cost more than $75 billion a year for health care and lost time on the job for people who get sick.
Most of us believe that the United States fixed these problems more than a century ago after Upton Sinclair’s famous book The Jungle revealed the ghastly facts about unsafe methods of commercial food processing for a mass-market economy. But in fact, the rules and regulations we assume will protect us are inadequate. Duplication and gaps in government responsibilities leave Americans highly vulnerable to a variety of risks from industrial food production.
In 1906, Congress took important steps toward protecting consumers by pass-ing both the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act. The two laws divided authority for food safety between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. Since then, authority and oversight have fractured even further.
Today, responsibility for ensuring U.S. food safety is scattered across at least 12 federal departments and agencies. Responsibilities are divided in ways that make little sense, and resources often do not match responsibilities. For example, five different agencies share authority over frozen pizza, with responsibilities divided according to the type of food topping. Cheese pizza facilities are inspected by the FDA, while companies that make pepperoni pizza are assigned to the Food Safety Inspection Service in the Department of Agriculture.
Another example: Federal rules require on-site inspectors to be stationed at all meat processing plants, and the FSIS employs more than 7,000 inspectors to carry out this task. Meanwhile, other food processing facilities do not require on-site inspections, so fewer than 3,000 inspectors monitor 65,000 domestic plants and oversee food imports. More than half of all the facilities in the United States have gone five or more years without a single inspection.
In 2010, Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act to begin to address long-standing problems. The FDA now has the authority to order mandatory recalls of tainted food (previously the recalls were voluntary). It can also conduct more frequent inspections and exercise greater control over imported foods.
But serious risks remain. For example, animals consume 80 percent of antibiotics in the United States, mostly in low doses intended to increase the quantity and speed of meat production. Despite mounting scientific evidence that routine use of antibiotics results in dangerous, drug-resistant strains of bacteria, the government has been slow to act. In 2012, the FDA finally acknowledged that giving antibiotics to healthy animals poses a threat to human health. Rather than regulate antibiotic use, the agency created “voluntary” guidelines.
Today, responsibility for ensuring U.S. food safety is scattered across at least 12 federal departments and agencies.
Fixing food safety requires new efforts from government and citizen advocates alike. Instead of using multiple agencies, a smarter alternative would concentrate functions in those parts of the government that can do the job best. For instance, the FSIS could take charge of all inspections, freeing the FDA to focus its energies on food pathogens.
At the same time, food safety advocates must inform and arouse citizens, changing the way we talk and think about the issue. Today, industry and government often try to shift responsibility to everyday consumers—for example, by claiming that people can protect themselves by keeping clean kitchens, or by suggesting that foodborne illness is an unavoidable feature of the world we live in. But increasingly, people get sick because they are exposed to unsafe products. Food advocates need to get this message out and make the case for strong public regulations to reward companies that provide the safest food and allow adequately empowered public officials to root out harmful industry practices well before people get sick or die.
America knows enough to make our food safe. We just need to remove political obstacles and overcome governmental inefficiencies to get the job done.
Adam Sheingate is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the Johns Hopkins University. This article is adapted from the original published by the Scholars Strategy Network.