Top | Features

Eyes wide shut

(article, Anne Laufe)

[%pageBreakSettings maxWords=1200]

Feel like an open-faced sandwich for lunch? Every day, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspects manufacturers of open-faced meat and poultry sandwiches sold via interstate commerce. 

Prefer that sandwich to have two pieces of bread instead of just one? The sandwich then becomes the inspection responsibility of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA); chances are, its manufacturer gets inspected only once every ten years instead of every day.

Welcome to America’s food-inspection system. The food we eat is checked (or not) by a patchwork of agencies with confusing responsibilities, and some critics say the system compromises the safety of our entire food supply, from farm to table. 

Currently there are no fewer than 15 different federal agencies overseeing domestic and imported food, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Marine Fisheries Service. The majority of our food, however, is under the jurisdiction of either the USDA or the FDA. 

The nation’s food-inspection system has evolved over time, largely in response to problems rather than in a preventive or proactive manner. “It’s not like anyone sat down and drew up a plan on a napkin,” says Elisa Odabashian, the food-safety director for Consumers Union, publishers of Consumer Reports. “No one has stepped back and asked if this is working.” 

Given the myriad and far-reaching food-safety violations of the past few years — E. coli-tainted spinach, pet food laced with melamine, beef from downer cows — people are finally stepping back to take a look. Richard Raymond, the undersecretary for food safety at the USDA, says, “If it isn’t broken, why fix it?” But numerous elected officials, scientists, and consumer groups believe our food-safety system is antiquated and in need of sweeping changes to protect public health.

How did we get here, and where might we go from here? A brief look at the nation’s food-regulatory history offers insights for the future.

h3. The USDA and the Food Safety Inspection Service

In 1862 President Abraham Lincoln, who’d come from a farming background, established the USDA for the express purpose of encouraging the development of agriculture. In the beginning, the department focused mostly on providing seeds and reliable information to farmers. 

As the railroad system expanded and the use of electricity became more common, meat processing developed into a large, year-round industry. In 1884, President Chester Arthur established the Bureau of Animal Industry (BAI), considered the forerunner of our current Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), a department within the USDA focused on preventing diseased animals from being used as food. 

Farmers soon called for a national approach to meat processing so they could compete in the foreign market, resulting in the Meat Inspection Act of 1891. This covered salted pork, bacon, and live cows which were to be either exported or slaughtered for export, but did not address meat for domestic consumption.

It wasn’t until the 1905 publication of Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle, which revealed the unsanitary and dangerous condition of the slaughterhouses in Chicago, that Americans really started paying attention to the safety of the burgeoning meat industry. A more stringent and wide-reaching Meat Inspection Act was passed in 1906, the same year that the Pure Food and Drug Act, which prohibited the sale of fraudulent or misbranded food, was passed. 

Over the next 100 years, more regulations were added and the BAI went through several transformations. The Poultry Products Inspection Act was passed in 1957 and the Food Additive Amendment in 1958. In 1972, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service was created and became responsible for meat and poultry inspection; in 1977, these responsibilities were transferred to the newly established Food Safety and Quality Service. This was renamed the Food Safety Inspection Service in 1981. 

FSIS is currently the branch of the USDA responsible for the inspection of all domestic and imported raw beef, pork, turkey, lamb, chicken, and egg products. FSIS also inspects all processed meat and poultry products, including hams, sausages, stews, pizza, and frozen dinners — generally anything that contains two percent or more cooked meat or three percent or more raw meat. 

FSIS faced a major public-health threat in 1993, when an outbreak of E. coli 0157:H7 in ground beef sickened 400 and killed four. Following public calls for more science-based inspection systems, Pathogen Reduction and Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) systems were introduced in all meat-processing plants. Under the HACCP regulations, each meat and poultry plant must develop and implement a written plan for meeting its sanitation responsibilities and address all significant hazards associated with its products. All slaughter plants must regularly test for E. coli and are subject to salmonella testing by FSIS, with the intent of reducing microbial contamination over time. 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 credit="Photo: iStockphoto/draschwartz" caption="How carefully is our food inspected?"]

h3. The FDA

During the 1800s, U.S. states exercised individual control over domestically produced and distributed foods. Laws were inconsistent from state to state, and misbranding and adulteration of foods was common. In the 1860s, the federal Bureau of Chemistry was formed, but its focus was mainly on drugs. When Harvey Washington Wiley became chief chemist at the bureau in 1883, he expanded the division’s role to include inspection of food.

Wiley succeeded in unifying a variety of groups behind a federal law to prohibit the adulteration and misbranding of food and drugs. The Pure Food and Drug Act, which President Theodore Roosevelt signed into law in 1906, made it illegal to transport across state lines unlawful food and drugs, including spoiled products and poisonous preservatives and dyes; it also prohibited the addition of any ingredients that would substitute for the food, conceal damage, or constitute a filthy or decomposed substance. The law relied on product labeling, not on pre-market approval.

The Bureau of Chemistry went through several name changes and reorganizations, developing into the Food and Drug Administration in 1931. Although pleas were made by consumers and FDA officials for further regulation of food and drugs, none came until after the Elixir Sulfanilamide disaster of 1937, when 100 people, many of them children, died after using a sulfa-related drug dissolved in diethylene glycol, a product used in antifreeze. The formula had been tested by its maker, the Massengill Laboratory, for taste and smell — but not for toxicity. 

The following year, President Roosevelt signed the new Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which increased federal regulatory authority over drugs, mandating pre-market review of the safety of all new drugs. It also banned false therapeutic claims, authorized factory inspections, expanded enforcement powers, set new regulatory standards for food, and brought cosmetic and therapeutic devices under federal regulatory authority.

Regulations addressing chemicals, including food additives, color additives, and pesticides, as well as false nutritional claims and unscientific enrichment, were added in the 1950s and 1960s. By the 1960s, about half of the nation’s food supply was subject to a federal regulatory standard. Recipe standards were developed listing the ingredients that could be included in various products; food that varied from the recipe had to be labeled “imitation.” Meat and poultry inspection remained under the auspices of the USDA.

The FDA is now an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It’s responsible for the safety regulation of most of our food supply, as well as a litany of other products, including dietary supplements, drugs, vaccines, biological medical products, blood products, medical devices, radiation-emitting devices, veterinary products, and cosmetics. The agency also oversees labeling of nutrition facts and ingredients on the foods over which it has jurisdiction.

While the FDA today is responsible for ensuring the safety of 80 percent of our food (everything except meat, poultry, and eggs), the agency’s budget of $509 million for the 2008 fiscal year is just over half of what the USDA gets for food inspection. The FDA employed an estimated 1,940 inspectors in 2007; with this number of inspectors, each food-processing plant can be inspected an average of once every 10 years. By contrast, the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service will receive $930 million this year to inspect 20 percent of our food supply. The USDA currently has approximately 7,600 inspectors working in 6,282 establishments.

According to Caroline Smith Dewaal, the food-safety director at the nonprofit watchdog Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the USDA receives more funding due to its greater number of inspectors, greater frequency of inspections, and the mandatory nature of USDA inspections. The Meat Inspection Act provides for carcass-by-carcass inspection in meat and poultry processing plants. In addition, meat and poultry products must be approved before sale, while foods regulated by the FDA do not require pre-market approval. “This skews funding toward the USDA,” says Smith Dewaal, “because failing to fund the agency would have an impact on commerce.”

h3. Recent challenges 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that food-borne pathogens cause 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 human deaths each year in the U.S. The recent recalls of spinach, chicken, pet food, and beef have left many industries reeling and caused the closure of some plants. 

In the past decade, our increasingly industrial and global food supply has put new pressures on our food-safety system. According to a recent article in USA Today, imports now account for 80 percent of our seafood, 45 percent of fresh food, and 17 percent of fresh vegetables. That means inspecting food at the source is frequently impossible, and inspecting food as it travels around the country is nearly as difficult.

While the USDA requires exporting countries to have safety systems equivalent to those in the United States, the FDA does not. In addition, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, inspections conducted by the FDA have declined by 81 percent since 1972; the USDA inspects an estimated 16 percent of imported meat, and less than one percent of imported food overall is inspected. 

It’s not just foreign foods that are causing problems. Because processing in the U.S. is concentrated in a relatively small number of plants, recalls of domestic produce and meat, such as the ground-beef recall in September that forced the closure of the Topps factory in New Jersey, can affect large numbers of people in a wide geographic area. An outbreak of E. coli in spinach in the fall of 2006 killed three people and sickened more than 200 in 26 states. 

Yet food recalls in the U.S. remain completely voluntary. “That doesn’t make any sense. There’s mandatory recall on exercise equipment,” says Consumers Union’s Elisa Odabashian, whose employer has been a food-industry watchdog since its inception in 1936.

Newer areas of consumer concern — many of which have only recently begun to register with regulatory agencies — include biologically engineered food, cloned food, and the widespread use of antibiotics and hormones in farm animals. 

h3. Possible fixes

A dozen food-safety bills are currently being considered by Congress, but many deal only with imports and not with domestic farms and food processors. The Center for Science in the Public Interest and Consumers Union both support a bill introduced before Congress by Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT). The Safe Food Act of 2007 is the most comprehensive bill pending before Congress. It includes every element of the CSPI’s platform for modernizing food law and would create a single food-safety agency with mandatory recall authority from the current units within the FDA, the USDA, and other agencies. 

The bill includes greater civil and criminal penalties, product traceback and detention, and whistle-blower protection. Other provisions of the bill are mandatory process-control systems, such as HACCP, for all food processors regulated by the FDA (they are already required by the USDA). Frequent and intensive inspections of high-risk products (such as raw meat, raw eggs, poultry, and seafood) and a minimum inspection frequency for other foods would be required. Imported food would have to be produced under safety systems at least as strong as those in the U.S., and the FDA would begin certification of food-safety programs and facilities in foreign countries. Programs on farms would begin with written food-safety plans for every farmer. 

Richard Raymond, the USDA’s undersecretary for food safety, says the USDA is opposed to creating a single food-safety agency as well as to mandatory recalls. “We have the ability to seize and recall products if a company refuses to do it voluntarily. In our 101-year history, we haven’t had to use it,” he says.

One area that the Safe Food Act doesn’t address is biologically engineered food, a growing concern in the 21st century. Andrew Freese, a science policy analyst for the nonprofit Center for Food Safety, says regulating these products is essential. “We need more science and real science,” he says. “It’s amazing when you look at the submissions \[for approval\] from the food companies and see how poor they are. This is incredibly bad science, and it doesn’t ensure the safety of these foods.”

Even the Government Accountability Office (GAO) is calling for an overhaul of our food-safety system, citing inadequate coordination among the multiple agencies involved and inefficient use of resources. Lisa Shames, the director of food and agricultural issues for the GAO, says, “To really tackle food safety, it needs to be done not on a piecemeal approach. It needs to be looked at government-wide.”

Many activists believe that implementing safe growing programs on farms, ensuring that producers and processors follow HACCP rules, establishing mandatory recall laws, and prosecuting those who violate these provisions are the first steps toward a safer food system. But change, as always, is slow.

“Unfortunately, it’s not going to be until a whole bunch of people are hospitalized and sickened and die, until a whole generation of kids has lower IQs, that change will occur,” says Odabashian. “It’s got to be this confluence of the right people in power, enough people who are outraged and harmed and putting out lawsuits, to make anything happen.”

p(bio). Anne Laufe is a freelance writer who lives in Portland, Oregon.


reference-image, l