Sickness and death are no way to regulate food
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. For previous columns, click here.