No Stomach for Tougher Food Oversight

By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, October 3, 2006

It took a book called "The Jungle," a grim assessment of work inside slaughterhouses, plus a campaign by labor unions, medical professionals and consumer groups, to pressure Congress to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act on the same day in 1906.

The food industry was opposed to legislative and regulatory oversight then, as it is in many instances today. That is despite periodic instances of bad publicity, such as that accompanying the recent discovery of fresh spinach contaminated with E. coli bacteria.

The increased complexity of agriculture and distribution systems, the influx of foods from all over the world and threats to the meat supply such as mad cow disease haven't shaken the resistance of most producers and sellers to major modification of the U.S.'s food-safety system.

In particular, the industry and Congress have no stomach for giving federal regulators the power to order recalls, fine transgressors or unify the sprawling regulatory authority. That authority is now shared by the U.S. Department of Agriculture , which oversees meat, poultry and eggs, and the Food and Drug Administration , which is responsible for everything else, which amounts to about 80 percent of the food supply.

"It's not for lack of knowing the right solution," said Michael Taylor , former director of the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service and now a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Without mandatory authority, the USDA and FDA rely on the states to notice a problem and then for food companies to voluntarily recall their product, as occurred in the spinach case. The agency then issues a press release informing the public. In the case of meat and poultry, federal inspectors can shut down a plant by withdrawing their required inspection services.

Dan Glickman , a longtime congressman from Kansas who was secretary of agriculture in the Clinton administration, recalls giving speeches in 1997 in support of legislation that would have given food-safety agencies stronger enforcement powers, including mandatory recall authority and the ability to impose civil penalties on violators of up to $100,000 a day.

The proposal didn't pass.

"This issue has never gotten resonance on the Hill," said Glickman, who now is president of the Motion Picture Association of America. "It goes to the economic power of the industry. The real answer is the powers in the industry don't want it."

A similar effort -- following an E. coli outbreak in hamburger served in Jack in the Box restaurants that killed four children -- also failed in 1994.

More recently, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) has introduced several bills to establish a single Food Safety Administration and authorize mandatory federal recalls. Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.) has been carrying the banner in the House.

"They can't even get a hearing. These public-interest, good-government issues -- there is no hearing," said Caroline Smith DeWaal , director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest , a Washington-based consumer-advocacy organization.

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