Is food inspection reform coming?

Until now, a motley crew of federal agencies was responsible for managing the safety of the U.S. food supply.

But following the recent 43-state salmonella outbreak eventually traced to peanut butter processed at a Blakely, Ga., plant, a growing number of people both inside and outside the new Obama administration have decided this crew should be considerably less motley and more streamlined.

Regulating a food supply that has grown more complex and globalized is proving too daunting a challenge for this patchwork of agencies to handle, critics contend.

What is often described as the shotgun approach to food inspection began decades ago, when part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food inspection responsibilities were assigned to the newly established Food and Drug Administration, created in the early 20th century and now organized under the federal Department of Health and Human Services, according to Jean Weese, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System food safety specialist and Auburn University professor of nutrition and food science.

“The reasoning was that there should be different types of inspections for different types of food,” says Weese, adding that all commodity foods, such as beef, remained under the Department of Agriculture.

And with the problem of multiple hands associated with food inspection, she says there’s the added challenge of enforcement.

Weese fears that under the current law, FDA has plenty of jawbone but few teeth.

Indeed, in cases where an outbreak has occurred or is likely to occur, she says FDA can adopt one of two approaches: It can jawbone — persuade the affected plant to correct the problem — or build a court case.

“They currently do not have the statutory authority to go in and close any plant,” Weese says. “They either jawbone the plant or they develop a very good case and take it to a judge — often a local judge where the plant is located — and make their case.”

Even then, the decision of whether to close down a plant is left to the discretion of the judge, not to FDA.

In most cases, the jawboning works, Weese says.

“In most cases, when you come to them and tell them they’re doing something wrong, they’ll try and correct it and move on,” Weese says.

But in some cases, plants refuse to heed the FDA’s advice despite repeated warning.

This appears to be the case with the Blakely, Ga., plant to which the recent salmonella outbreak was traced.

Food inspectors uncovered repeated sanitary problems at the plant from 2006 to 2008, including grease and food buildup and gaps in doors allowing entry by rodents.

Weese believes these types of outbreaks will continue to occur until two things happen: The federal government is provided with more enforcement powers and inspection responsibilities are assigned to fewer agencies.

Connecticut Congresswoman Rosa De Laura has advocated the consolidation of the patchwork of food inspection agencies into one superagency charged with food inspection oversight.

Such a change would follow reforms in other European Union nations, including the United Kingdom and Ireland. Following a series of food safety-related crises in these two countries, food inspection responsibilities were consolidated into agencies that report directly to ministers of health. Both countries also vowed to put consumer health ahead of other issues, such as industry interest and production.

Most significant, Weese says, is that these agencies, unlike their U.S. counterparts, have the power to require producers to recall products when contamination is suspected.

Weese agrees that something similar is needed in the United States, though she fears interagency rivalries, a problem that has reared its head time and again in the past, may ultimately jeopardize these efforts.

“The perennial question is which agency leader is going to be the overall boss?” she says, adding this issue, more than any other, has stymied progress.

Following his election, President Obama promised to cut programs “that have outlived their usefulness or exist solely because of the power of politicians, lobbyists or interest groups.”

Weese and other food safety experts and advocates hope this sentiment will be reflected in a new food safety system better equipped to meet the needs of an increasingly complex food processing and supply system.

For her part, she says she’s not holding her breath.

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