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.