Byelashov: Funding needed to make food safe

Food safety is essential to public health, consumer confidence in the food supply and the success of the food sector of the U.S. economy. However, in recent years, the public perception of the safety of the nation’s food supply has been compromised because of illness and death stemming from the microbial and chemical contamination of foods, and the accompanying costly recalls of potentially unsafe foods from the market. Human memory fades quickly, but many of us remember well the foodborne outbreaks and product recalls owing to E. coli in spinach and cookie dough, salmonella in lettuce, serrano and jalapeño peppers, tomatoes, peanut butter and chicken potpies, and melamine in imported pet food and dairy products.

Why is the U.S. struggling to ensure the safety of its food?

The U.S. imports a large portion of the food it consumes; more than 80 percent of seafood, and approximately 50 percent of fresh fruits are imported. Many of these foods come from countries that have substantial difficulties with enforcement of their food safety standards. For example, in China, a major exporter of the seafood into the U.S., food supplies are found to have residues of drugs that are banned in the U.S. due to toxic effects in people, including chloramphenicol, nitrofuran, malachite green and other chemicals.

Although the Food and Drug Administration — charged with regulating about 80 percent of the U.S. food supply — inspects domestic food manufacturers, food imported from foreign suppliers and foreign processing plants, it is constrained by a lack of financial resources and accompanying professional personnel. At the current rate of inspection, it would take more than 10 years for FDA inspectors to visit each foreign food-exporting manufacturer, and the agency currently inspects less than 1 percent of all imported food.

The challenges this agency faces are increasing. The FDA needs to inspect a growing number of imported goods — according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, between 1998 and 2007, fruit, vegetable and nut imports more than doubled, and imports of seafood increased by almost 60 percent — while maintaining its level of inspection of domestic food companies and their products.

Both the Obama administration and Congress realize that the FDA currently lacks the ability to adequately ensure food safety but neither has adequately addressed them. While President Obama increased the FDA budget by 19 percent for 2010, this extra money must be split many ways as the FDA is charged with regulating an array of heterogeneous products — from foods to medical devices and drugs, from cosmetics to animal feed. Moreover, the new budget came with the additional responsibility of regulating tobacco products, further spreading funding and staff thin.

In response to the latest foodborne outbreaks, this summer, the House of Representatives approved the Food Safety Enhancement Act, H.R. 2749, which slightly increased the FDA’s regulatory power. However, the bill only has provisions to finance 40 percent of the additional expenses that will be incurred by the FDA in carrying out the new mandates. If anything, it strains resources further.

This bill now sits in the Senate. Unless significant additional funding is added to the proposed legislation, nothing of significance will be accomplished — the limited success of the FDA in meeting its responsibilities has more to do with the allocation of resources and the accompanying priorities, than with regulatory power. Expanded jurisdiction is meaningless for an agency so underfunded and understaffed. Unless priorities are shifted to give the FDA the resources they need, it is not a question of whether more public food poisonings are yet to come, but a question of when.

Oleksandr Byelashov is a master’s candidate in the School of Public Health.

Comments

  • Yale 08

    Leave our food alone. The last thing we need is more government meddling.

    The FDA is buffoonish. They slow production, increase costs and send contradictory signals.

    Our food is the safest and cleanest that humanity has ever experienced. We eat exotic foods year round, and do so cheaply.

    The FDA is a useless relic. A suckhole of productivity.

    Walmart and Whole Foods alike have an incentive to provide safe, clean, fresh food because if they fail in this objective, they lose customers & money. The FDA has no such interest in our health or satisfaction. Just more gov’t bureaucrats wasting oxygen.

  • alum

    “they lose customers & money.”

    But only after lives are potentially lost.

    “Just more gov’t bureaucrats wasting oxygen.”

    Having worked on food science in a government chemistry lab I have to disagree. Tracking down the causes of food-borne illness is hardly a waste. Do we really want empty labs when people are getting sick and dying? Do we really want to mistakenly leave tainted food on store shelves because government scientists no longer track where products came from?

    I recall one case where three people ended up sick in hospitals because of bottled smoothies. The smoothies were purchased at three different locations in two states. In a single day we were able to track down why the smoothies that appeared completely innocuous were making people sick (the absence of an important preservative led to rapid bacterial growth in the yogurt even under refrigeration). The FDA sent agents who were able to get the tainted products destroyed before most even hit the shelves.

    So without our buffoonish, meddling response what might have happened when hundreds of infected smoothies were sold throughout the east coast?

  • Yale 08

    You mistakenly believe that the government can catch errors and prevent illness better than the private incentive system provides. The gov’t only creates a false sense of safety (a moral hazard).

    The government does 10% of the regulatory work of the private sector at 1000% of the cost.

    The only effective regulator is profit and loss.

    We have some of the wildest tort settlements in the world. Companies that fail to produce safe goods will be sued and lose consumer confidence. They will go bankrupt.

  • dk

    Private incentive is a joke. The penalties are too small. One reason why we have government is to impose controls that the free market, coerced by big corporations that act in virtual monopoly, can no longer impose for itself.

  • wow

    Yale08, you are either the best YDN troll that has ever lived or a very sad excuse for a Yale alum.

    If you’re serious, though, take a look at the recent NY Times report on what’s happened to many communities in West Virginia as a result of large corporations flagrantly violating environmental regulations and poisoning the drinking water as a result. It’s pretty depressing.

    But not as depressing as a Yale alum spouting this nonsense.

    (If you are a troll though, this is A+ stuff)

  • yale 08

    Look behind every flagrant corporate offense and you see a willing and enabling government regulator who approved the project.

    Even the tragedy of the Titanic exhibited this flaw: UK shipbuilding officials approved weaker iron and metal working. UK Safety Officials approved the limited # of lifeboats.

    The US gov’t's implicit support of the credit rating agencies supported the irrational investment in mortgage backed securities.

    Bernie Madoff was stamped and approved by the SEC.

    Enron’s financials were certified by a US gov’t backed accounting firm.

    Three Mile Island was deemed 100% safe by Energy Department officials.

    Remove the moral hazard of government involvement and people take greater concern for their own safety.

  • alum

    In a brief google search for “private food inspection” the first applicable result is this (http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/03/20/health/main4878412.shtml) CBS article describing the failures of private inspection.

    Again I’d like to point out that while you are correct in stating that grocers whose products sicken and kill will lose business, they must first sicken and kill. The tragedy can be avoided by regulation and inspection.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/06/business/06food.html?pagewanted=1

    The above article from the NY Times describes the same incident in the CBS piece and goes further, illustrating more examples where the federal government had to clean up after the disasters created by private inspectors. It’s easy to see that your system of “effective” regulation by profit and loss does not include prevention, as illustrated by the firings of private inspectors who reported problems. In the short term it was profitable to ignore the unhealthy conditions. Profit loss and action was only taken after people became sick.

    “Our food is the safest and cleanest that humanity has ever experienced.”

    This is because everyday government inspectors and agents examine food and send samples back to labs where they are carefully tested. More problems than you can imagine are caught everyday and never become newsworthy because of our abilities to analyze and enforce. In my own work every week or so huge lots of fruits and vegetables were discovered with possibly toxic levels of chemicals. No private agency has the scope to investigate on the same scale nor enforce safety with the same power as the federal government. Any consumable that you can purchase has had samples from the same field or lot extensively tested for a huge host of dangers. And yet things to slip by, which leads me to:

    “The gov’t only creates a false sense of safety (a moral hazard).”

    Indeed there is a false sense of safety, which leads to the ignorant belief that we would be fine without these federal inspections, instead relying on industry to do the right thing and police themselves. The FDA, among many other science based branches of the government is repeatedly short changed during budget decisions, partly because of the excellent work that is done. The safety of the food supply is in fact one of our nation’s weakest links, if not the weakest and needs funding that allows all its branches to function effectively.

  • alum

    In a brief google search for “private food inspection” the first applicable result is this (http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/03/20/health/main4878412.shtml) CBS article describing the failures of private inspection.

    Again I’d like to point out that while you are correct in stating that grocers whose products sicken and kill will lose business, they must first sicken and kill. The tragedy can be avoided by regulation and inspection.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/06/business/06food.html?pagewanted=1

    The above article from the NY Times describes the same incident in the CBS piece and goes further, illustrating more examples where the federal government had to clean up after the disasters created by private inspectors. It’s easy to see that your system of “effective” regulation by profit and loss does not include prevention, as illustrated by the firings of private inspectors who reported problems. In the short term it was profitable to ignore the unhealthy conditions. Profit loss and action was only taken after people became sick.

    “Our food is the safest and cleanest that humanity has ever experienced.”

    This is because everyday government inspectors and agents examine food and send samples back to labs where they are carefully tested. More problems than you can imagine are caught everyday and never become newsworthy because of our abilities to analyze and enforce. In my own work every week or so huge lots of fruits and vegetables were discovered with possibly toxic levels of chemicals. No private agency has the scope to investigate on the same scale nor enforce safety with the same power as the federal government. Any consumable that you can purchase has had samples from the same field or lot extensively tested for a huge host of dangers. And yet things to slip by, which leads me to:

    “The gov’t only creates a false sense of safety (a moral hazard).”

    Indeed there is a false sense of safety, which leads to the belief that we would be fine without these federal inspections, instead relying on industry to do the right thing and police themselves. The FDA, among many other science based branches of the government is repeatedly short changed during budget decisions, partly because of the excellent work that is done. The safety of the food supply is in fact one of our nation’s weakest links, if not the weakest and needs funding that allows all its branches to function effectively.

  • Yale 11

    I agree with yale 08 100%, with the caveat that we leave our tort system alone.

    If you get abused, you can sue the pants off a company.

    That will make them feel much more pain, than some idiot gov’t regulator.

    A gov’t regulator will not pay you millions of dollars when they screw up.

  • alum

    “Look behind every flagrant corporate offense and you see a willing and enabling government regulator who approved the project.”

    You make the same classic mistake as many who do not understand scientific thought. An examination of a handful of popular case studies without any analysis of a much larger body of examples showing alternatives. Five examples cannot possibly lead to any conclusion regarding “every flagrant corporate offense”.

    I’m curious to see if you will acknowledge the point that people must become sick and possibly die before corporations suffer the loss of consumer confidence and go bankrupt. Government testing is the best of both worlds, nobody has to get sick and nobody has to lose their job over a simple mistake.

    I’d also like to point out you’ve stretched back almost a hundred years into the history of foreign countries in your examples.

  • Bowl

    A bigger problem with the FDA is that it is overrun by lobbyists. It would be much more effective if it didn’t constantly cow to private interests.

  • yale 08

    People get sick & die.

    But more people get sick & die when they think the government will protect them from bad products.

    The government won’t let you sue the FDA when they miss something (and they miss almost many serious problems, luckily companies have their own quality control staff).

  • Yale Med ’11

    get rid of the FDA!

    It needlessly delays the development and release of life saving drugs!

  • to #9

    Yes, because suing a large corporation is easy, simple, and not costly in the least! And the monetary award comes swiftly enough to pay for the medical care you now permanently need! Yep, if there’s one word to describe our judicial system, it’s swift. And balanced between corporations and individuals, to boot!

  • @#13

    Because government bureaucrats are models of efficiency, goodwill, virtue, and objectivity???

  • Stephen Fox, Editor, New Mexico Sun News

    The reason the US is failing in its efforts to “protect” its food is that corporate powers making deadly food additives like aspartame control and manipulate the FDA. This is like wondering whether the Big Bad Wolf has Little Red Riding Hood’s “best interests at heart.” What a joke!

    I have worked for about 8 years to ask the FDA to take Aspartame/Methanol/formaldehyde/Diketopiperazine off the market as it is the reason for hundreds of millions of people worldwide to develop neurodegenerative illnesses (the FDA itself lists 92 of them!); I have tried through legislation, education, political pressure: nothing works! The USA is really doomed to see even great spikes in neurodegenerative illnesses, but that doesn’t mean other nations have to follow mindlessly.

    How did aspartame get approved? Its approval was forced through the FDA in one of the most sordid and dirty stories in the checkered history of that trouble agency. Just google and read this article: RUMSFELD’S BIOWEAPON LEGACY. Read it then forever put down that Diet Coke and that Equal and that Sugarless gum like Eclipse, Orbit, all Wrigley’s products, etc. Tell your friends, family, colleagues, and associates to do so also.

    What do medical doctors have to say about aspartame? Just google and read away, from the many articles by Internist H.J. Roberts, Neurosurgeon Russell Blaylock, Pediatrician Kenneth Stoller, and Psychiatrist Ralph Walton.

    They are the only few telling or even knowing the truth, and certainly don’t expect any truth or even an answer back by writing to Dr. Margaret Hamburg, MD, the present FDA Commissioner.

  • yale 08

    get rid of the FDA, it is a cesspool of mediocrity and special interests

    Let independent, private testers verify safety.

    Force companies to protect their brand by providing safe products.

    Get rid of tort caps. If your product kills me, my family should get to sue you to oblivion.