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Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

Should there be Department of Food? Or, perhaps a single Food Safety Agency?

I was asked the other day by the Editors of the NYT to join in a discussion at “Room For Debate,” about a single food safety agency and to post a 300-400 word position. After whacking away at it, I finally got it down to size. Here was my original submission:

Perhaps it was Nicholas Kristof who coined it – “Department of Food” in his recent Op-ed in the New York Times. And, certainly, and with some regularity, Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) have held press conferences touting the miraculous powers of a “Single Food Safety Agency” – combining USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Services (FSIS), which oversees beef, poultry, pork and lamb, with FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN), which oversees everything else. I think they split jurisdiction if pepperoni is added to a cheese pizza?

At the mere thought of one department of something, or a single agency of anything, this compulsive trial lawyer begins to fidget with delight. However, as I slowly stop organizing my briefs (no, not those), I also think about the few times that governmental reorganization lead to consolidation of many agencies into one – like Homeland Security. The things I think about Homeland Security are “the heck-a-of a job Brownie” did after FEMA was absorbed and the frisking you see of three-year-olds and grandmas as your travel through airports.

But, I digress. I am not against the idea per se, but the issue of a governmental reorganization may or may not work. Perhaps it is more than “re-arranging the deck chairs on Titanic,” but I am simply not that sure. I worry that reorganization is potentially work without real progress. OK, perhaps it would be more efficient over time, and of course, you would get a new logo on stationary and an a new organization acronym.

Perhaps what might make a bit more sense is to put on hold that new stationary since we are now in the middle of yet another desperate food borne disease outbreak, that has sickened over 600, hospitalized 150 and killed nine. There’s no FDA or CFSAN head, there’s no CDC head, and there’s simply an acting FSIS head. I am presently reminded of the old adage, “if you are in a hole, stop digging.”

The time has come to pay attention and act and not continue simply to react. Consumers, Farmers, Suppliers, Manufacturers, Retailers, Regulators and Politicians need to work together to make our food supply safe, profitable and sustainable. When a quarter of our population is sickened yearly by contaminated food, when thousands die, we do not have the “safest food supply in the world.” We should, must and can do better. So, let’s do something and stop talking about governmental reorganization. Here are some ideas:

1. Improve consumer understanding of the risks of food-borne illness, and create a popular campaign similar to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the Citizen Food Coalition, which would use consumer power to promote a no-tolerance policy toward growers and companies that produce tainted food.

2. Proper food safety monitoring begins in the local health professional community, too. By the time it’s caught the attention of Federal authorities, it’s too late—there’s already a large outbreak. The most important thing we can do to stop large outbreaks at the initial cases is to improve surveillance of bacterial and viral diseases. First responders – ER physicians and local doctors – need to be encouraged to routinely test for pathogens and report findings directly to local and state health departments and the CDC promptly, at the first sign of questionable symptoms—diarrhea, vomiting, fever. Right now, for every person counted in an outbreak there are some 20 to 40 times those that are sick but never tested. The more we test, the quicker we know we have an outbreak and the quicker it can be stopped. Local, state and federal health agencies need to be encouraged to work together. Turf battles need to take a back seat to stopping an outbreak and tracking it to its source. That means resources need to be provided and coordination encouraged so illnesses can be promptly stopped and the offending producer – not an entire industry – are brought to heel.

3. Provide tax breaks for companies that push food safety interventions and employee training and fund University research to develop better technologies to make food safe and for testing foods for contamination.

4. We need a new emphasis on revamping homeland security, as well as changing the way international terrorism is dealt with. It’s time to start thinking about this issue from a food safety standpoint; imports pose an increasing risk, especially if terrorists were to get into the act. Points of export and entry are a logical place to step up monitoring. We need more inspectors – domestically and abroad – and we need to require that they receive the training in how to identify and control hazards.

5. We need all food manufacturing plants to have mandatory HACCP, GMPs and SOPs with risk-based inspections, product testing for bacteria and viruses and complete transparency.

6. Lastly, we can’t overlook the legal issues in food safety. Right now there are too few legal consequences for sickening or killing customers by selling contaminated food. We should impose stiff fines, and even prison sentences for violators, and even stiffer penalties for repeat violators.

So, let’s make some progress in stopping food poisoning and then later pick out the stationary.  Being in DC this week gave me a first hand look at how difficult it is to make progress on good ideas.  Over the next weeks, I will be reviewing all of the competing food safety plans floating through the halls of Congress and see if there is some common ground that can save lives, now.

  • M. Bucknavage

    To add one point….as proposed in the Food Protection Plan of 2007, there needs to be mandatory HACCP for the food industry. This requirement currently exists in certain sectors of the food industry, but in needs to be applied throughout. Food establishment personnel as well as auditors and inspectors must recieve certified training.

  • Mark

    How can the safety of foods and drugs be assured when the agencies responsible for inspections and decisions are in large measure controlled by the very industries which should be controlled by the agencies? The result of corporate-democracy is that the public will always get the short end of the stick. How many times does this have to occur before it’s recognized that these activites are equivalent to bio-terrorism?
    There are at least two areas of concern which have not yet received adequate attention. With regard to the current epidemic of Salmonella infection, a small number of those who have been infected will, unknowingly, become carriers of the organism and unless identified and treated may infect others. Thus secondary infections can occur. The Peanut Corporation of America should not only be held accountable for the direct infections which occured due to their greedy and irresponsible behavior, but also for any secondary infections.
    The other problem which is even more worrisome is the possibility of infection with agents which have long latent periods before the disease becomes evident. This is the case with CJD which can be transmitted from cattle to humans. We are assured by the Department of Agriculture that appropriate testing for the disease in cattle is done and that the puble is in little if any danger of contacting CJD from our beef. Can we trust the Department of Agriculture to resist the pressures of the lobbists who represent the cattlemen?