Tilting at Food Safety Windmills

The papers have been filled the past few weeks with stories about the recent peanut contamination problem. And, as this article from today’s New York Times, and this from Saturday’s Washington Post, indicate, the conventional wisdom is that America’s “food safety net” is badly frayed due to Bush Administration cut-backs in FDA spending. As is typical, the problem isn’t so simple.

Unfortunately, as long as the world’s food production system continues to be highly decentralized and fragmented, there will continue to be foodborne illness outbreaks like the most recent salmonella contamination problem and the E. coli contamination outbreaks seen in the past few years. The trouble, of course, is that food is, by and large, grown outside in dirt, and microbial contamination is a fact of life. Measures can and should be taken by food producers, processors, and packagers to identify contamination where it occurs and remove it from the food chain. But, with over a billion meals consumed in the United States every day, there is not enough money in the world to meaningfully increase inspections of the hundreds of thousands of facilities that produce, process, and sell food in the United States.

Currently, there is no requirement for FDA to inspect any one food production facility on a regular basis, and many facilities go years between inspections. FDA sets its own priorities based on the types of food products and production activities involved, by trying to determine where the likeliest risks lie. That, say the critics, is the root of the problem. FDA needs the financial and personnel resources to inspect every food production facility in the country (as well as foreign facilities that export to the U.S.) on a regular basis.

But will this really do anything productive? In short, the answer is “no.” The proposed Food and Drug Administration Globalization Act of 2009 would expand FDA’s authority substantially, requiring additional money for agency personnel and more frequent inspections. How frequent? Not less than once every 4 years. So, even after this massive influx of taxpayer cash, the best we can expect is that most food production facilities will now be inspected once every four years instead of once every decade. Does anyone really think that’s going to help? Of course not — no thinking person could. Instead, this is designed to make us all feel that the government is “doing something,” while taking more money out of the productive economy and funnelling it to Washington.

If recent stories are true -– that operators of the Peanut Corporation plant in Georgia willfully failed to remove contaminated product from its shipments and did not clean equipment after contamination was identified –- it is hard to imagine that a doubling or tripling of inspections could have prevented this tragedy. News accounts indicate that Peanut Corporation executives actually identified the presence of salmonella in various products and PUT THEM ON THE MARKET ANYWAY.

Fortunately, this kind of conscious cheating is rare in a country like the United States. But, in order to help deter it, penalties for such willful misconduct must be beefed up (so to speak). I’m not suggesting we start executing food plant operators or safety inspectors found to be willfully negligent, as China has been doing recently. Though, for acts that serious, serious penalties are warranted. The penalties for knowingly putting contaminated foodstuffs into commerce need to be more than simple slaps on the wrist.

Finally, it’s worth repeating that we can never realistically eliminate all foodborne illness. The shear size and scope of the problem –- that is, bacteria and viruses are all around us all the time -– means that we must recognize there are diminishing marginal gains to be had from increased spending on food safety. Not that we should accept defeat, but that at some point we have to recognize that diverting more and more public resources to combating an intractable problem means having fewer resources to spend on other things -– like health care, education, occupational safety, etc. -– that could increase safety by a far greater amount.

On the other hand, there are a handful of regulatory changes that could both help the private sector combat foodborne illness while also lower the cost of food safety. For example, food irradiation is a safe and effective technology for killing or denaturing bacteria and viruses in and on foods, such as meat and poultry, grains, and even some fruits and vegetables. But, a variety of regulatory restrictions on the use of irradiation (as well as mandatory labeling that seems designed to scare consumers away from irradiated foods) make it uneconomical for food processors to use irradiation in the United States on a wide-scale basis. The most innovative breakthroughs in food biotechnology are rarely ever tested because the regulation of biotech plants and animals are too costly. And the more recent panic about nanotechnology, combined with burgeoning regulation in that field, could strangle in the crib some of the most innovative efforts to improve food safety.

Thus, FDA, USDA, and EPA -– the same regulatory agencies charged with ensuring that the American food supply is safe -– are actually contributing to lower safety by creating and maintaining poorly thought out rules regarding technology regulation. It ought to serve as a cautionary note that, in trying to make changes that will improve food safety, we need to be conscious that some well-intentioned efforts can actually make us less safe.