Food Safety: A Few Questions for the U.S. Government

The American public is still extremely concerned about the deaths and illness caused by the Peanut Corporation’s food poisoning debacle earlier this year. So, apparently, is President Barack Obama – who in his 14 March radio address described the U.S. food-safety system as “a hazard to public health.”  

From the U.S. taxpayer’s point of view, the president’s statement, combined with the food poisoning caused by peanuts – one of the most popular foods consumed by the nation’s children – brings up three important and closely related questions: (1) How did the U.S. government itself reach such a low point in safeguarding Americans’ food? (2) When can the public once again have confidence that its meals will not include a generous helping of healthcare concerns? (3) What specific factors led to what are obviously major deficiencies in safeguarding the nation’s food supply?

Probably the most important factor – which partially answers the first and third questions posed above – is that food safety and security were not placed under the aegis of the Department of Homeland Security, an omission that left this critical area without the funding and attention that are obviously needed to safeguard the huge quantities and seemingly limitless varieties of food that are consumed by the American people each and every day. Another contributing factor, it seems, is that food-industry lobbyists were also quite successful in recent years in limiting the legal responsibilities of the food industries themselves.

What matters now, and what President Obama also discussed in his 14 March weekly address, is that the U.S. government is today faced with what can only be described as a monumental task of revising and re-assembling virtually all components of its now fragmented food safety and security “system,” such as it is, into a well coordinated, adequately funded, and well staffed cooperative and interdisciplinary multi-agency whole that is partnered with academia and with the domestic and international food industries.  Moreover, because so many executive-branch departments and agencies – the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), for example, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to name just a prominent few – are assigned different aspects of the U.S. government’s food safety responsibilities, it is only natural to ask another relevant question: namely, how long will it take to unravel this – i.e., how long will it take before the American people will see significant progress in food safety?

Some Forward Progress – But More Needed 

There are, of course, several ongoing processes and programs already in place in the U.S. government that focus on securing the nation’s food supply, and several important steps that have been taken since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 to improve the safety and security of that supply.  Among the most important of those processes and/or post-9/11 improvements are: the FDA’s Protecting America’s Food Supply Initiative and the same agency’s Food Protection Plan; the Import Safety Action Plan; an 11 December 2007 agreement with China on food protection; the establishment of a $450 million federal food-safety laboratory at Kansas State University; and the formation of the FoodShield communications network.

These initiatives, and others that could be mentioned, are important in themselves – but relatively lightweight when one considers that contaminated food outbreaks within the United States have nearly tripled since the 1990s. Probably the best publicized of those outbreaks and incidents, in addition to the peanut poisonings earlier this year, were the unprecedented 2008 beef recall caused by a California slaughterhouse situation involving “downer cows,” the 2008 and 2009 warnings about the widespread and deadly Salmonella contamination of foods, and the 2006 E. coli outbreak linked to spinach. These and other less-publicized alarms and alerts have amply demonstrated that, despite the helpful but relative modest forward steps, noted above, that have been taken to improve the safety and security of the foods that Americans eat, the United States is still falling short in its efforts to protect those foods and ensure they are not only available, reasonably abundant, and healthful, but also not intentionally or accidentally harmful.  

Intentional threats to Americans’ food supply, such as the use of insects and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as ecological weapons, are a separate consideration, and of course require special attention. Nonetheless, unless and until the Obama administration is able to fully grasp and act on the multi-faceted issue of food security it seems very likely that: (a) significant new outbreaks will continue to occur; (b) such outbreaks will have some extremely adverse health consequences – and, quite possibly, cause additional deaths; (c) imported foods will remain a significant (and probably growing) safety and security threat; (d) the clear “tracking” of adulterated foods from source to table may well be impossible; (e) it is not only human beings  who will suffer (because animal feeds also will be at risk); and  (f) the average American consumer, who now spends approximately 20 percent of his income on food, will have very little confidence in the safety and security of the food he purchases.

Fortunately, President Obama himself seems to understand the dimensions of what is a clear and present – but not well recognized – danger, and is on record as saying that underfunding and understaffing in recent years were significant factors limiting the FDA’s inability to keep up with food-safety dangers and difficulties.  Even so, it is important to remember that, even with adequate staffing and resources, food safety and security is a very complex, multi-faceted area to manage. Moreover, it is even more difficult to define and prioritize, on a continuing basis, all of the numerous threats that must be considered – and protected against.  Fluid factors such as consumer demand, for example, frequent changes in production-to-consumption processes (including those related to distribution), and the ever-increasing centralization/globalization of food production, in almost every country in the world, will continue to add to the complexity of any nation establishing firm and continuing control over the safety and security of the food consumed by its citizens.

Turning to a New and Safer Course 

Establishing security measures in the management of domestically traded foods in the United States is difficult enough in itself, but that difficulty is compounded exponentially by trying to establish similar security measures over the huge volume of foods imported into the United States.  

Imported foods will always require more focus and management for a number of reasons – mostly, though, because import processes have a natural tendency to be less transparent, and transparency is needed not only to safeguard foods but also to speed up official reactions to events, enable the back-tracking of food-borne diseases, and achieve accountability.  The U.S. import volume has doubled since 2003 and includes not only luxury items but also everyday staples as well as huge tonnages of meat, grain, processed foods and beverages of all types, dairy products, fish, poultry, fruit, and vegetables.  A related concern is that importing an ever-increasing share of the nation’s food supply, is slowly but steadily increasing the nation’s vulnerability in many ways.

Another factor to consider with regard to food safety is that the United States has gradually been changing the source of much of its food. One interesting aspect of food security relates to America’s move from an agrarian society to one that relies on a centralized/globalized food supply. To put it into another context: From colonial days to and after World War II, most U.S. foods were home-grown, and moved from local farms to the consumer’s fork in a few easily accountable steps.  Cattle were raised in smaller numbers, usually on local farms that also grew corn, wheat, vegetables and other crops. Today, though – with meats, dairy products, grains, and other consumables being shipped to U.S. customers from centralized locations across the globe – it has become almost impossible to track the sources of many foods, to ascertain the quality of health measures taken before, during, and after the food is ready for export, and/or to confirm the security of the various production and distribution processes involved.

The centralization of a nation’s food supply makes that supply – and, therefore, the nation itself — increasingly vulnerable to intentional threats. In addition, the sometimes unhealthy context of centralized food supplies – e.g., overcrowded feedlots – can and does result in massive pathogenic contamination. Two related concerns are: (a) how the massive use of antibiotics on animals in centralized food supply areas may be (and actually is) propagating antibiotic-resistant bacteria; and (b) the probability that many of these antibiotics remain in the foods consumed by the public.  

One of the few bright spots in an otherwise grim picture is that almost $700 million is included in the federal government’s budget for fiscal year 2009 (which started on 1 October 2008) for the Departments of Agriculture, Health & Human Services, and Homeland Security; most of that funding is intended to continue the individual and collective efforts of those departments to improve the nation’s food and agriculture “defense system.”

One final point: Not only during last year’s presidential campaign but also since taking office, President Obama has frequently compared the U.S. government to a huge ocean liner in explaining how long it takes to change the course of government programs – in other words, to turn the ship around. It seems clear, in that context, that several additional changes and improvements may be just over the horizon. With regard to the time factor, however, the American public must continue to be patient and cautious.

diana hopkins
Diana Hopkins

Diana Hopkins is the creator of the consulting firm “Solutions for Standards” (www.solutionsforstandards.com). She is a 12-year veteran of AOAC INTERNATIONAL and former senior director of AOAC Standards Development. Most of her work since the 2001 terrorist attacks has focused on standards development in the fields of homeland security and emergency management. In addition to being an advocate of ethics and quality in standards development, Hopkins is also a certified first responder and a recognized expert in technical administration, governance, and process development and improvement.

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