Once upon a time, the United States might have had the world's safest food supply. But that was long ago.
Europe's Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) Annual Reports show very clearly just how badly the safety of food produced or processed in the USA has deteriorated. One of the tables in each Annual Report ranks safety notifications by Country of Origin. In 2002 (the first year for which an on-line report is available), the United States ranked 15th, with 25 notifications. China was in first place, with 147.
The USA managed to stay out of the top ten through 2005. Then, in 2006, the country vaulted into 4th place. Only China, Turkey, and Iran posted more RASFF food safety notifications than the US that year. Nor was this a one-year statistical blip. Since 2006, the United States has maintained its position among the top five countries of origin for food safety notifications. In 2009, only China and Turkey registered a higher number.
It takes hard work and careful thought to destroy a safe food supply. The US achieved this by doing all of the following – and more.
#1. Cutting FDA staff and reducing the number of inspections.
- Here's what the Office of the Inspector General told Congress in May.
"Our study found that 56 percent of food facilities that were subject to FDA inspection went 5 or more years without an FDA inspection. If FDA does not routinely inspect food facilities, it is unable to ensure that these facilities are complying with applicable laws and regulations and that the food handled by these facilities is safe. Except in a few instances, there are currently no specific guidelines that govern the frequency with which inspections should occur.
Our study also found that the number of food facility inspections has declined, even as the number of food facilities has increased. In FY 2004, FDA inspected more than 17,000 facilities; in FY 2008, this number dropped to fewer than 15,000. During the same period, the number of food facilities subject to FDA inspection increased from about 59,000 to almost 68,000 facilities. We also identified a decline in the number of high-risk facilities inspected by FDA.
FDA officials attributed the decline in inspections primarily to a significant decrease in staffing levels that resulted from funding cuts. These officials noted that between 2003 and 2008, FDA lost almost a quarter of the staff that performs food facility inspections. They also noted that many of those losses came from the ranks of FDA’s most experienced employees."
#2. Spreading and overlapping responsibility for food safety oversight
- There are fifteen separate federal agencies responsible for administering and enforcing at least 30 federal food safety laws.
#3. Keeping consumers in the dark about recalled products
- USDA posts a retail distribution list for recalled products under its jurisdiction; however, the list does not include restaurants or food service establishments. FDA does not provide any retail distribution information, unless a food processor includes that information in the recall notice of its own volition. This half-baked recall notification system ensures that recalled foods will remain in the hands of consumers as long as possible.
#4. Frittering away resources on finished product testing
- Testing finished products is a useful way to obtain a snapshot of the overall safety of the food supply. But it's a lousy way to ensure safe food. Using safe ingredients, maintaining a sanitary food processing operation, and paying careful attention to correct processing, handling, storage and transport conditions is the only way to ensure a safe food supply.
#5. Avoiding action until a problem becomes a crisis
- We've learned that USDA egg graders were told of the unsanitary environment at Wright County Egg and did nothing, because the conditions were considered to be routine.
#6. Allowing animal waste to contaminate the environment
- No one took effective action when E. coli O157:H7 first appeared in dairy cattle. We allowed it to spread in feedlots. As a result, the pathogen percolated into the soil and has contaminated some of the nation's most sensitive agricultural zones, including California's Salinas Valley. Now we are contending with the consequences – contaminated leafy green vegetables.
#7. Procrastinating on implementation of new rules and regulations
- Congress passed the Food Safety Transportation Act in 2005. FDA finally began the rule-making process in April 2010.
- FDA closed the final comment period for its Egg Safety Rule in July 2005. The Final Rule was not promulgated until July 2009 and went into effect for the largest producers in July 2010.
Following this recipe will enable any country to reduce the safety of its food supply to equate the current status in the United States.
I'll be offering my suggestions for improving the US food safety situation in a separate article.
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