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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.

Both lawmakers have asked the Government Accountability Office , Congress's investigative arm, to compare the response time of the food agencies to the recent E. coli outbreak in spinach with those of countries that have a single food agency. They said states began reporting illnesses at the end of August, but the first FDA spinach warning didn't come until Sept. 14.

The big food companies and meat processors have steadfastly opposed handing more authority to the two agencies.

"The members don't believe the system is broken," said Craig Henry , chief science officer for the Food Products Association , a Washington-based group that represents the large producers. "There are very few countries, if any, that set a gold standard like the U.S."

Henry said mandatory recall might actually stand in the way of how companies now respond to getting contaminated food out of supermarkets and people's homes. "Companies don't want the liability, so they move very fast," he said.

He said the industry would rather see better communication across agencies than creation of a single bureaucracy. The industry also is campaigning, along with consumer groups, for more FDA funding.

The Food Marketing Institute , a trade group for the retail side of the business, long has advocated a single food agency.

"One agency would make more efficient use of inspectors and send a clearer message to consumers," said Timothy Hamm onds , the institute's president.

Hammonds's group counts 20 agencies that have some responsibility for food safety, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Comm erce . "The current system is designed more to encourage rivalries between the agencies than to foster cooperation," said a report issued by the group.

DeWaal said agencies have little interest in giving up their authority -- or jobs. And the current complexity of the system works to the financial advantage of lawyers and lobbyists who navigate it, she said.

Hammonds said any support in Congress for unifying the agencies has been eroded by problems that have arisen with creating the Department of Homeland Security. Whether one agency or two, he added, the government doesn't need more enforcement power.

Advocates for change disagree.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest is concerned that companies shipping food into the United States from abroad might not be as responsive to a voluntary recall.

"One of the scary aspects of a voluntary recall system is it has no meaning for food shipped from other countries," said DeWaal. "Foreign companies don't understand a voluntary recall system. Why should they comply?"

Henry, of the large producers group, said overseas manufacturers are required to comply with the food laws of the United States.

According to USDA statistics, about 12 percent of the U.S. food supply is imported, a figure that has been growing steadily.

The National Farmers Union , which represents commodity and livestock producers, would like more regulatory rigor. "You have to have confidence that the system works and is responsive," said Thomas Buis , president of the group. "The secretary ought to have mandatory recall authority. What if someone says no?"

Taylor, of the University of Maryland, predicts it will take more than an occasional crisis to spur comprehensive action. "Politicians will wait until there is a sufficient sense of urgency," he said.

Cindy Skrzycki is a regulatory columnist for Bloomberg News.

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