Do You Know Where Your Food Comes From?

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Remember E. coli in the bagged spinach in 2006? Or salmonella in the tomatoes—no, the jalapeno peppers—last summer? Now it’s peanut butter’s turn.

The discovery of the salmonella-tainted peanut butter produced and sold by the Peanut Corporation of America at its Georgia plant raises once more a vital question. Does the Food and Drug Administration have the resources to ensure the safety of America’s food supply, both domestic and imported?

This year Congress has given the Agriculture Department $952 million to oversee meat, poultry and eggs, the one-fifth of America’s food supply by value that is based on animal products. The other four-fifths fall under the jurisdiction of the FDA, whose appropriation for food safety is only $538 million in a budget of $2.3 billion.

Our government does a thorough job of inspecting meat. The U.S. Department of Agriculture examines meat, poultry and eggs, produced both domestically and abroad, and USDA inspectors are in every American processing plant. Foreign companies which export to America adhere to USDA standards and are subject to periodic inspections.

Food that falls under the jurisdiction of the FDA is a different kettle of fish, so to speak. Not only is the FDA failing to oversee adequately its share of domestic food, but it is practically impossible now for it to 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 FDA’s responsibilities have grown at the same time that its resources have diminished. In the 1970s FDA performed 35,000 inspections a year on the 70,000 food processing plants subject to regulation. Today, FDA conducts only 7,000 inspections a year, yet the number of plants has grown to 150,000.

The situation for inspection of imported food is worse. Last year, America imported about $18 billion of fruits and vegetables from other countries, more than twice as much as a decade earlier, and 67 percent more than five years ago. FDA inspects only a fraction of one percent of the 216,000 foreign facilities importing food into America.

Congress has not even given FDA authorization to block the entry of food from foreign firms that refuse to allow overseas inspection by FDA officials. Nor has it allowed FDA to require preventative controls to hinder terrorists or industrial saboteurs, such as locks on tankers carrying milk or trucks parked overnight at rest stops.

Perhaps this doesn’t matter. After all, companies that rely heavily on their brand names, such as McDonald’s and Coca Cola, already do a good job of inspecting their products. The discovery of a rodent’s tail in a can of Coke or a McDonald’s hamburger, for example, would do indescribable damage to the brand, and so companies have an incentive to put strong systems in place to preserve quality.

But other companies, such as the Peanut Corporation of America, aren’t sufficiently influenced by these incentives. And we’re living in a dangerous world, at war with terrorists who don’t stop at suicide bombings. Their idea of a good time might be to make Americans panic by trying to poison the food supply.

What can be done? Congress could give FDA more money and staff, as well as more authority to mandate measures to prevent contamination. If another $500 million were allocated to inspections, spending on food inspection would once more equal half FDA’s budget, the same as it was in the 1970s. The costs might be justified by American taxpayers and consumers who avoid illness and don’t miss work or school.

Another alternative is to authorize private companies to inspect food, like Underwriters Laboratories for electrical appliances or kosher inspections 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 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, FDA would check that the independent organizations were doing a good job.

A similar system has developed for kosher foods eaten by observant Jews. Rabbis inspect food production and grant producers the right to display a symbol to say that it is kosher. Various rabbinical groups have different reputations, and some Jews trust some kosher symbols more than others. The producer pays the rabbinical organization for the inspection, and the price of the food can be higher.

Contamination of food, whether deliberate or accidental, whether from peanut butter, spinach, or peppers, can be lethal and costly. We’ve just spent $787 billion on economic stimulus—surely we can spare a few million to make our food supply safer.

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