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The Politics of American Food Safety

By Michael R. Taylor

The San Diego Union-Tribune
Friday, January 16, 2004. B9

In response to the discovery of a single animal with mad cow disease, the Department of Agriculture has been given a political blank check to impose new regulatory controls on the beef industry. These measures are justified not by any significant risk to public health – there is not a single known case of anyone contracting the human equivalent of mad cow disease from eating U.S. beef – but rather to stem a crisis in public confidence and to protect markets for U.S. beef exports.

That is all well and good. Public confidence in the food supply and the economic welfare of the beef industry are important public interests that can justify regulation. But, at the same time, some genuine food safety hazards are not being addressed.

As many as a quarter of the beef cattle offered for slaughter in the United States during summer months are colonized with a deadly strain of the bacteria E. coli, which we know kills scores of people every year when it shows up in ground beef and spreads via cow manure to fresh produce. Likewise, much of the salmonella and other bacteria that contribute to an estimated annual toll of 5,000 deaths and 325,000 hospitalizations from food-borne toxins also originate on the farm.

Rest assured, however, that USDA does not have a political blank check to tackle these problems at the farm level. It can regulate on the farm all it wants to protect the health of animals, but Congress has given it no authority to do so to protect the health of people. In fact, due to long-standing opposition from livestock producers, it is virtually taboo in food safety circles to suggest that USDA consider on-farm regulatory interventions to address the real public health problem of food-borne illness.

To be sure, there are practical limitations on what government could do, even if politically empowered, to regulate or otherwise change the practices of America's 800,000 beef cattle producers. But the lack of any USDA mandate or resources to consider on-farm food safety interventions leaves the burden of reducing harmful contamination on slaughter plants, ground beef processors and consumers.

Many of the leading meat processors have invested heavily in sanitizing systems and other measures to reduce bacterial contamination, and they have had some real success; but they are working to correct a problem that could, with further research and focused effort, be prevented to at least some extent by interventions at the farm level.

This situation reflects a much broader problem in our country's system of food safety protection. Both USDA and the Food and Drug Administration operate under antiquated statutes that provide no mandate for looking at the food system as an integrated whole – and then using the best science to reduce food-borne illness.

Indeed, the meat and poultry inspection laws administered by USDA block such an approach by mandating a century-old approach to slaughter inspection that consumes most of USDA's food safety resources, but which has been found in numerous reports by the National Academy of Sciences and the General Accounting Office to be deficient in protecting food safety.

Congress and the administration should act to correct these fundamental problems in the nation's food safety system. The solution is not more command-and-control regulation but rather a much more science-based approach to identifying risks and opportunities to reduce risk wherever they arise across the food system. This will require major statutory reforms, which will happen only if all participants in the food safety system, industry and consumers alike, come together to write the political check for change.

In the 2002 farm bill, Congress authorized a Presidential Food Safety Commission to design the statutory and organizational change necessary to implement a more science-and risk-based food safety system. Neither Congress nor the administration saw fit, however, to fund the commission, and it was never established. Maybe the time has come to dust off that idea, expand the charge to include the new threats posed by mad cow disease and bioterrorism, and get started on modernizing the food safety system so that we can make changes to prevent a crisis rather than only respond to one.

***

Michael R. Taylor, a former administrator of the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, is a senior fellow at Resources for the Future (www.rff.org), an independent institute dedicated to analyzing environmental, energy and natural resource topics.

© 2004 San Diego Union Tribune 

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