“Federal Food Safety Oversight: Does the Fragmented Structure Really Make Sense?”
Statement of Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D., Executive Director, Before the Senate Committee on Government Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management Hearing
My name is Michael Jacobson, and I am the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). CSPI is an advocacy and education organization focused on food-safety and nutrition issues. We are supported principally by the 900,000 subscribers to our Nutrition Action Healthletter.
Food-safety experts estimate that contaminated food causes up to 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths each year. Several well-publicized foodborne-illness outbreaks names after such companies as Jack in the Box, Sizzler, and Sara Lee, have awakened consumers to the fact that unintentionally contaminated food is a risk that must be reduced.
More recently, the terrorist attack on the U.S. has spurred widespread concern about the vulnerability of our food supply tointentional contamination-and the ability of our nation’s food-safety system to minimize the risks. Those concerns are not unfounded. Last year, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention strategic-planning workgroup warned that terrorists might try to contaminate our food supply using deadly pathogens such as Clostridium botulinum and E. coli O157:H7. A recent National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report agreed, explaining that biological agents can be produced relatively quickly and inexpensively and without technical skill. We saw how easily biological agents could be used for food terrorism when, in 1984, members of a religious commune in Oregon contaminated ten restaurant salad bars with Salmonella typhimuirum, sickening 751 people.
Bioterrorism is just the latest example of the problem with relying on old laws to regulate new hazards. Senator Durbin’s Safe Food Act of 2001 offers a much-needed strategy to correct some of the deficiencies in our federal food-safety system that have left consumers-and the food industry itself-vulnerable. Today, for example, just 150 Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspectors are responsible for ensuring the safety of four million shipments of imported foods. Not surprisingly, they inspect less than one percent of those millions of shipments.
Responsibility for food safety is split among 12 federal agencies-from the Department of Agriculture to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Balkanization and inflexible restrictions on applying resources results in many gaps and inconsistencies in government oversight. For example, the FDA shares with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) the regulation of genetically engineered (GE) plants used for human food, but it does not approve GE plants or even require a safety review before they are sold to consumers. Nor does FDA give the public an opportunity to comment on GE foods before they are introduced into the food supply. The FDA says that, to date, all biotech companies have voluntarily consulted with the agency before marketing their foods. However, that “behind-closed-doors” system does little to instill public confidence in the safety of this powerful and potentially valuable new technology. Although the FDA has proposed mandatory notification and data submission requirements, CSPI has urged FDA to both review and actually approve the safety of every genetically engineered crop before it is marketed. We also are pleased to be working with Senator Durbin’s staff on legislation to improve FDA’s GE foods program.
A stronger, federal food-safety system is an essential component of a defense against terrorist attacks on the food supply and also would help to prevent foodborne illnesses due to unintentional product contamination. CSPI has documented more than 1,600 foodborne-illness outbreaks since 1990 and, of these, foods regulated by the FDA, such as vegetables, eggs, and seafood, account for almost 80 percent. The FDA has about 770 food inspectors for its 57,000 plants, so, on average, a single FDA inspector has responsibility for 74 food plants. By contrast, USDA has approximately 7,600 inspection personnel for about 6,500 meat, poultry, and processed-egg plants. That imbalance between risk and resources led CSPI and other consumer organizations to call on Congress and the President to develop a single, coherent food-safety statute that is implemented by a single, independent food-safety agency. Such an agency could allocate its resources according to risk.
Whether the problem is intentional food contamination by bioterrorists or unintentional contamination by a dirty food plant, our food-safety system is flawed. The challenges are so great, in fact, that they led Professor John Bailar, the chair of the committee that wrote the NAS’ report Ensuring Safe Food from Production to Consumption, to conclude: “Our country needs a single independent food safety agency. . . . When bioterrorism is added to the mix, the case for prompt and sweeping change becomes compelling.”
That is why CSPI strongly supports Senator Durbin’s Safe Food Act of 2001, which provides a blueprint of how our food-safety system should be designed. We also would support a parallel-and equally essential-effort to develop a unified food-safety statute.
Weaknesses in our government programs could set the stage for a crisis in consumer confidence, a crisis that we would like to see prevented. This is why we support the creation of an independent food-safety agency with responsibility from farm-to-table. Such an agency must be strongly oriented to protecting public health as a means of protecting public confidence. So far, other nations, including the United Kingdom and New Zealand, are ahead of the U.S. in unifying their food-safety activities. It is time that the U.S. joined those leaders.
Thank you for your continuing leadership to improve food safety and for giving me the opportunity to share CSPI’s views on food-safety priorities.
Contact Jeff Cronin (jcronin[at]cspinet.org) or Ariana Stone (astone[at]cspinet.org).