Sickness and death are no way to regulate food

February 19, 2009

 Diana Furchtgott-Roth— Diana Furchtgott-Roth is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor. The views expressed are her own. —

The discovery of the salmonella-tainted peanut butter produced and sold by the Peanut Corporation of America at one of its plants, at Blakely, GA, raises a vital question for all Americans.  Does the Food and Drug Administration have the resources to ensure the safety of America’s domestic and imported food supply?

The Agriculture Department does a good job of inspecting animal-based products such as meat, poultry, and dairy, but the remaining part of the food supply that falls under the jurisdiction of the FDA is a different kettle of fish.  The FDA is failing to oversee adequately its share of food and cannot guarantee the safety of foreign food imports.

Former FDA Deputy Commissioner William Hubbard, now of the Alliance for a Stronger FDA, testified before the Senate Committee on Agriculture earlier this month that the FDA’s responsibilities have grown as its resources have diminished.  In the 1970s the FDA performed 35,000 inspections a year, with 70,000 food processing plants subject to regulation.  Today, the FDA conducts only 7,000 inspections a year, yet the number of plants has grown to 150,000.

Inspection of imported food is worse.  The FDA inspects only a fraction of one percent of the 216,000 foreign facilities exporting food into America.

What can be done?  The FDA could persuade Congress to give it more authority to mandate, money and staff.  Congress has not even granted the FDA permission to block entry of food from foreign firms that refuse to allow overseas inspection by FDA officials. Nor has it allowed the FDA to mandate preventive controls to hinder terrorists, such as locks on tankers carrying juice or trucks parked at rest stops.

If another $500 million were allocated to inspections, then spending on food would once more equal half the FDA’s budget, the same as it was in the 1970s.  American taxpayers and consumers would gain by avoiding illness, thereby increasing productivity at work, school, and home.

Another alternative is to authorize private companies to inspect food, along the lines of Underwriters Laboratories for electrical appliances or kosher certification for food. UL sets standards, tests products, provides certification, and conducts follow-up tests for a wide range of products and services all over the world.

Food producers would apply to be certified by independent organizations, and the FDA could monitor those organizations.  In time, independent firms would develop their own brand recognition with the public for reliable certification of food products.  Rather than inspecting food producers, the FDA would check that the independent organizations were doing a good job.

Such a system is already in place in the form of kosher foods eaten by observant Jews.  Rabbis inspect food production and grant food products the right to display a symbol to say that it is kosher.  The producer pays the rabbinical organization for the inspection, and the price of the food can be higher.

Companies that rely heavily on their brand name, such as McDonald’s and Coca Cola, already do a good job of inspecting their products.  If a rodent’s tail were found in a can of Coke or a McDonald’s hamburger it would do indescribable damage to the brand, and so companies have an incentive to put strong systems in place to preserve quality.

Unfortunately, that was not the case with the Peanut Company of America, which shipped peanut butter under other brand names and as ingredients to other products, such as cookies and crackers.  Although the Virginia-based, family-owned corporation filed for voluntary bankruptcy, it sickened hundreds and may have killed nine people.

Sickness and death are not the way to regulate America’s food supply.  If the government takes on the role of food inspector, it needs to do a better job.

Diana Furchtgott-Roth can be reached at For previous columns, click here.


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This lady likes a double standard. When Bush is in office she is all about not wasting money on the FDA or education for that matter. But as soon as a Dem is in office he must be held accountable. Why does Reuters even put this Ladies rants here. It will be the decline of the Republican party if her views remain here. They make us look stupid. Were was the funding for the FDA in 2008? No wonder we lost the elections.

Posted by Edward | Report as abusive

No the government DOES NOT do a good job of inspecting animal-based products such as meat, poultry, and dairy or anything else. The peanut problem is not the first time this has happened. There is the Chinese milk and Heparin contamination. The system is broken and it needs to be completely revised. This time without the help of any GD Republicans – thank you very much.

Posted by Art | Report as abusive

I recall CNN journalist in “Planet in Peril” talking about dangerous chemicals in his body that came from fish he ate from Hudson river, and other chemicals that come from TV make-up.

Also, the controversy of aspartame (substitute of sugar that presumably damage neurons) never surfaced again as the man who questioned seemed (AFAIK) to be fired from FDA some decades ago.

US may have a big problem. Money and business is a good incentive to hide unhealthy products.

Posted by Pablo | Report as abusive

Sickness, death and no food at all, what about that?

Due in the second half this year.


Posted by Me | Report as abusive

Is it all that or do they simply lack the will>?

Seems to be Bush pretty much gutted all of the consumer safty systems that once use to protect us.

Posted by eron | Report as abusive

Excellent opinion piece. Unfortunately, last week Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told a group of rice growers that the only reason to work on food safety issues in the US is because it will “preserve markets” and “income opportunities.”

This is an a-moral position, and frankly terrifying for all Americans.

Posted by Eddie Gehman Kohan | Report as abusive

Importing trinkets and oil is one thing, but importing food when we are the bread basket of the world is insane. Then inspecting less than 5% of the imports when the #1 threat of terrorist attack is biological. I can’t believe there is even a debate regarding the import of foods. This issue falls into the same category as the Mexican border. It appears the powers that be want chaos so they can implement marshall law before they all get arrested for violating every oath and law in the book. Both political parties need to be abolished for the corruption and out right rape and pillage of the United States of America.

Posted by Earn Snyder | Report as abusive

Deregulation and the swindle of “Free Trade”. The USG prays at the altar of deregulation and once again the disastrous results of these failed policies are laid bare for all to see.
The USG must be forced to revise its trade and regulatory policies as the policies followed during the past ten years or so have proven to be dismal failures.

When money is on the table ethics go out the window.

Posted by RFL | Report as abusive

welcome to codex alimentarius, a “humane” way to reduce our population slowly through food manipulation

Posted by bnv | Report as abusive