With E. Coli and Salmonella on the Rise, Effectiveness of USDA and FDA QuestionedNov 15, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP E. Coli and Salmonella, along with other food borne pathogens, have caused dozens of food poisoning outbreaks and food recalls this year. With food poisoning incidents reaching record levels, many are starting to ask -- is there a disconnect in the nation’s food safety system?
Today’s system was put together, bit by bit, over the past century and covers as many as 35 laws and is comprised of a dozen federal agencies, including the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the U.S. Customs Service. Although agencies can overlap in jurisdiction, no two agencies follow the same protocols.
Although the U.S. food supply is considered the safest in the world, the way food is grown, processed, and transported enables contaminated food to reach more people. For example, there’s E. Coli. Tainted ground beef from one processing plant can end up as cooked hamburger that is distributed nationwide. It’s not surprising that food borne illness outbreaks have been on the rise in the past decade with Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) annual estimates reporting 76 million cases, 325,000 of which require hospitalizations and 5,000 resulting in death.
The USDA and FDA are the two ruling agencies, often inspecting the same plants but with differing processes and resolutions. Take two recent recalls linked to salmonella outbreaks and involving ConAgra foods’ Peter Pan peanut butter and Banquet chicken and turkey pot pies. When health officials raised questions, ConAgra immediately recalled the peanut butter. When the outbreak was linked to the pot pies, they waited two days to issue a recall, at first only releasing a consumer health warning. According to the CDC, the pot pies sickened nearly 300 people; peanut butter, double that. Here’s where the disparity occurred. The FDA regulates peanut butter; but because of their meat and poultry content, the USDA regulates pot pies. Also, since all food recalls, except those involving infant formula, are voluntary, the FDA and USDA could not order a recall. Recalls are generally prompted by agency warnings and warnings are at the discretion of the issuing agency.
Critics of the nation's food safety system say it is disjointed, disorganized, inefficient, and sluggish; that it is riddled with overlapping authority, differing regulations, and multiple processes; and that today’s system suffers from a lack of funding, inspectors, and enforcement powers.
One school of thought is that multiple agencies actually allow to tainted foods to reach consumers and causes inconsistent handling of outbreaks. This faction feels that a unified agency would reduce food borne illnesses. While they did not recommend an agency, the National Academy of Sciences urged Congress to establish one entity to oversee food safety back in 1998.
The other school of thought is that the country needs a unified food policy, that a coordinated approach to food safety—focusing on risk assessment, management, and communications—would better protect the public. This group feels that creating a new agency wastes valuable resources; funding should be deployed to research better methods of detecting and eliminating harmful bacteria. And while the President's Council on Food Safety was established in 1998 to strengthen and focus federal efforts to coordinate food safety policy and resources, they oppose the single agency approach. So do the FDA and the USDA.
Regardless, Congress will consider proposals to reform the system, including creating a single food safety agency.