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US Far Behind Other Countries on Food Safety

Jul 16, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP We’ve long been reporting on the sorry state of food regulation in the United States, as well as the frequent, nationwide outbreaks of deadly food borne illnesses such as Salmonella, Listeria, and E. coli that are the result. Given the recent problems with meat and produce that have sickened thousands and hospitalized dozens in the past couple of months, it is apparent that our food safety systems needs—if not an overhaul—some changes to better protect Americans.

Although the US is not the only “developed country” to suffer problems associated with tainted food products, we are quickly gaining a reputation for being terribly lax in handling the problem.  And, now, a new federal report on the “common-sense steps” which have been taken by other countries, including Japan, Canada, and Ireland as well as a variety of other nations, might provide a “practical guide to food safety.”  Many are wondering why the US has not yet begun to follow at least some of the proven steps in the report, which was released this week by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The report outlines steps that don’t involve large “government bureaucracies” but do seem to have some tangible solutions.  For example, one of the suggestions is the creation of one agency to oversee food safety.  In the US we have the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees meat and poultry and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) which oversees most everything else.

Foreign agencies can recall dangerous food products and also require producers to recall products when there is reason to believe products might be unsafe.  This is not done in the US.  Also, the foreign agencies responsible for protecting consumers don’t mitigate responsibilities by promoting the industry in which it monitors, which is done here and can be seen with the USDA in which it both inspects meat and protects the cattle industry.  Perhaps this is why the USDA conducts minimal testing and is hard at work to cease the efforts of a beef producer looking to increase its safety standards.

The foreign countries also adopted a "farm to table" policy in which safety laws cover every stage of food production, beginning at the field and following the food to shipper, processor, and so on, placing the bulk of food safety responsibility on food producers.  Also, importers are required to pay for the disposal of bad food and must focus inspections on foods carrying the greatest contamination risk.  Also, the European Union tracks food from field to table in a "one step forward, one step back" system, wherein at each stage the company shipping or handling the food must know both its supplier and its customer.  It is the lack of such a tracking system that is contributing to why the FDA cannot find the source of the salmonella outbreak that has recently sickened over 1,100 people across the US.

Worse, the FDA has not implemented the food protection plan it announced last year, which included focusing its resources on the highest risks.  The FDA has only gone so far as to have recently informed Congress on how much money is needed for the plan.

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