Something's Rotten in Food Oversight

By Al Meyerhoff and William B. Schultz
Sunday, September 24, 2006

Federal agents are scurrying across the Salinas Valley -- the nation's "salad bowl" -- in search of the source of the E. coli contaminating the spinach supply. They won't find it without a mirror, because the real culprit in this case is the U.S. government. A half-dozen federal agencies administer a patchwork quilt of outdated standards, inadequate inspections and porous statutes that allow pollution in the fields, filth in the packing houses and contaminated food on the supermarket shelves. Millions of Americans are sickened by food each year; some 9,000 die.

Today American food is more manufactured than grown. Following a scorched-earth approach, workers wearing "spacesuits" inject nerve agents into the soil before planting, leaving nothing alive. Hogs grow enclosed in facilities several stories high. Tomatoes are picked green, gassed and then canned. Writing almost 70 years ago, journalist Carey McWilliams was prescient in his classic work: We now truly do have "factories in the fields." And factories, whether manufacturing steel or frozen peas, generate waste -- in agriculture some 1.4 billion tons per year, 10,000 pounds for each American.

Some of these wastes have a nasty habit of returning in our food. The E. coli in spinach most likely came from the Salinas River or its tributaries, a system of virtual sewers from agricultural runoff and flooding. Since 1995 there have been 20 other E. coli poisonings of spinach and lettuce, eight of them in the Salinas Valley, where nearly every waterway violates national clean-water requirements.

Pathogens, animal waste, agrichemicals and fertilizers routinely enter our food supply, either from environmental pollution, as with E. coli, or intentionally, as in the case of pesticides. Infected animals confined in feed lots are dosed with antibiotics; the lots themselves produce "lagoons" of runoff, contaminating the land, water and the food itself.

Three agencies within the Agriculture Department and two within the Department of Health and Human Services, plus the Environmental Protection Agency, have overlapping jurisdiction over the food supply. None has overarching authority or responsibility for the quality of food. The Government Accountability Office said recently that "it is at times difficult to determine which agency is even responsible for a particular food product," and "arbitrary jurisdictional lines can make the current system difficult to assess and, more importantly, unresponsive to the needs of the public."

Contaminants are not even subject to a single standard. Instead, from the field to the table, different rules apply, reflecting differing regulatory philosophies. Most are many decades old and showing their age. "Tolerances" for pesticides, some from the 1950s, were originally set to address immediate, "acute" health effects. Only now, following a 1996 amendment to the law, are the standards being slowly reassessed to address cancer and other long-term, chronic health effects.

Rules for other food contaminants are even less exacting. There are the "unavoidable environmental contaminants" that get into food indirectly from the soil, surface or irrigation water. These include everything from insect fragments and fly eggs to mercury and lead. They are typically subject only to "action levels": informal, discretionary limits that lack the clout of regulations and are set without sufficient scientific data.

In the late 1990s, in adopting a modest $43 million Food Safety Initiative, the Clinton administration accurately described the problem and made a plea for help. "Our understanding of many pathogens and how they contaminate food is limited," a White House statement said. "For some . . . we do not know how much must be present in food for there to be a risk of illness; for others, we do not have the ability to detect their presence in foods . . . . Resource constraints increasingly limit the ability of state and federal agencies to inspect food processing facilities."

With the federal food safety system so inadequate, it's particularly troubling that earlier this year the House of Representatives passed legislation to override state laws establishing food quality requirements that are more stringent than the federal standards.

Unlike prescription drugs, food does not go through an approval process. The integrity of the system depends heavily on the agency's inspection force in the food production system. Yet the Food and Drug Administration, with responsibility for all processed food products except meat and poultry, has 1,962 inspectors for more than 100,000 facilities -- a decrease of more than 250 inspectors since 2003. Today food processing plants are inspected on average once every 10 years. Imported food is almost never inspected. The USDA has about 6,000 employees who inspect meat and poultry plants, but use of the inspectors is "not based on the food safety risk of particular products," the GAO says.

As a public policy matter, all food safety functions (setting standards, inspection, risk assessment, research) should be consolidated under a single, independent agency (either the Food and Drug Administration or a new federal agency). This approach is supported by scientists and consumer advocates and has been included in legislation introduced by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.). In the past, however, similar recommendations have been consistently blocked by agency turf wars and agribusiness clout. But don't despair. September is National Food Safety Education Month.

Al Meyerhoff, an environmental attorney, is a past director of the Natural Resources Defense Council public health program. William B. Schultz was an FDA deputy commissioner from 1994 to 1998.

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