Our 100-year-old food inspection system is not aging gracefully. Despite a century of improvements, consumers are still playing Russian roulette when it comes to the food they eat. Even today, one in four Americans —- 76 million people —- endures a food-borne illness and 5,000 people die each year.
This year’s peanut meltdown alone has killed nine people, sickened thousands and shaken consumer confidence in food safety. Reports of the filthy conditions at Peanut Corporation of America sound more like Upton Sinclair’s 1905 “The Jungle” than a 21st-century food facility. Health inspectors and former employees described roaches, mold-covered walls and a rat dry-roasting in the peanuts.
Yet, no one seems to take responsibility for the depressingly routine food safety fiascos. Congress wants to know who is culpable and which agency —- the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the Food and Drug Administration —- is in charge. It is no wonder that some are calling for a single food inspection agency to consolidate accountability.
Before rushing to create the Department of Homeland Security of food safety, Congress must consider what could be lost by combining two agencies with radically different levels of authority and resources.
USDA inspects 20 percent of the food supply, including all meat, poultry and egg products, while FDA is responsible for the rest. This confused jurisdiction is highlighted in the ubiquitous pizza example —- FDA oversees cheese pizza and USDA inspects pepperoni pizza. This seemingly idiotic division of labor reflects the important differences in the authority and mission of these food inspection agencies. We shouldn’t ask which agency inspects which pizza. Instead, the question should be this: How often and how well is food inspected?
USDA’s billion-dollar food safety budget funds 7,400 inspectors that provide at least daily inspection to 5,600 meat and poultry facilities. In contrast, FDA has two-thirds the food safety budget of USDA, but oversees 80 percent of the food. FDA’s fewer than 500 inspectors only visit the nation’s 150,000 processing plants under its jurisdiction once every decade. So, USDA inspects pepperoni pizza makers every day, but FDA inspects cheese pizza factories once every 10 years.
Moreover, USDA has a powerful tool that FDA lacks. USDA can withdraw inspectors from a substandard facility, which legally prevents the plant from operating, effectively preventing contaminated pepperoni pizzas from reaching grocery store shelves. FDA cannot block tainted food from the marketplace or enforce mandatory recalls. This has proved to be a fatal weakness.
Nonetheless, USDA has its own set of problems, and its oversight has been eroded over the past decade. In 1996, the Clinton administration reduced USDA authority by allowing meat processors to write their own inspection plans —- plans that are not certified by USDA. Inspectors began focusing on paperwork audits instead of inspecting products for possible contamination. Additionally, USDA has not kept up with the increased volume of meat and poultry being processed. In 1981, USDA employed about 190 workers per billion pounds of meat and poultry inspected and approved. By 2007, USDA employed fewer than 88 workers per billion pounds, a 54 percent drop.
Considering the disproportionate resources, inspection authority, and the flaws plaguing both agencies, a rapid merger of USDA and FDA would make a rocky marriage. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was right when he said, “Before there can be any conversation about merging of entities or a single agency or anything of that sort, you’ve got to get the foundation right.”
Legislative proposals abound for mending the broken food safety system, especially the glaring failures of the FDA. Rep. Rosa DeLauro’s (D-Conn.) bill, the Food Safety Modernization Act, would require FDA to mirror USDA’s inspection model and correct the statutory limitations that have shackled the agency. DeLauro’s bill has the strongest framework to upgrade the FDA’s outdated and ineffective food safety oversight.
After reforming FDA, then we can update USDA laws and restore USDA’s inspection authority to prevent future outbreaks of food-borne illnesses from meat and poultry. However, if USDA and FDA are combined before the basic building blocks of food safety reform are in place, the merger could do more harm than good.
Wenonah Hauter is executive director of Food & Water Watch, a Washington consumer organization.
Charles Stanley Painter chairs the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Local Unions.