Monday, February 2, 2009


Since the peanut product contamination incident hit the media, there has been a lot of talk about what needs to be done to fix America's food supply. "The safest food supply in the world?" You have to be kidding. Whoever said that (and I forget which bureaucrat it was) has to be eating his words...and hopefully getting indigestion.

Actually, in many ways we are way behind most of the European countries and even some Asian ones in terms of food safety. Stricter legislation is hard to pass because of the power of the food industry coupled with inadequate government resources. But this is not the only reason we are lagging.

One of the weaknesses in our system is that responsibility for the safety of our food is divided up among a number of agencies. Depends how you count it: 3 main ones, maybe 12 at the next level, and if you really want to be comprehensive, you can get to 21.

The division of responsibility between the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture is particularly strange and leads to some totally irrational situations in practice and shifting of blame when things go wrong and the public is up in arms. Some of this is happening during this peanut butter and product outbreak. It was also obvious during the 2007 tomato/not tomato contamination. Several European countries like France and even Canada realized that to do the job properly, you had to have a single agency in charge. We still haven't got there.

And of course, if you don't have enough resources, you can't do the job. Take the ongoing peanut contamination and safety at the plant where it all started. One government inspector was responsible for some widely scattered 260 facilities, one of which was the Peanut Corporation of America plant. And don't think that food safety inspectors spend all day every day running around inspecting. Or, that all you have to do for a thorough inspection is to take a two minute look-see about. It takes more - and, a thorough inspection takes time.

Most people would agree that it is even worse with our imported foods, where some of the plants are in developing countries, in remote areas, with terrible road access. Not to mention the fact that salaries are low and the bakshish is tempting. I've spent a lot of my life working in countries where much of U.S. food comes from these days, and I know how things work.

So where do we go from here? President Obama - I know you have your hands full right now, and this is not what you needed, but you did make a promise. For starters, there was that Food-Borne Illness and Surveillance Response Act you introduced in July, 2008 to make our food safer. To quote, your words were: "We must do everything we can to ensure that our families don't get sick from the foods they eat." On...on...

But remember, that is just the beginning.


UPDATE: We now have the updated and improved legislation (as of 2010), but not enough money to do the job properly. One without the other doesn't do much good. I guess we'll have to wait until...what? The end of the recession?


Anonymous said...

Keep up the pressure- we need this. Poisoning our keeds with their favorite school lunch? Unbelievable!

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