THE BLOG
07/02/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Something Is (Still) Rotten In Food Oversight

You say tomato. I say salmonella (with apologies to Fred Astaire). Some two months into the most recent food scare, the most FDA can tell us is that "Florida fits the time frame" for the source.

The cause of both was likely overflowing animal waste "lagoons" from adjacent fields. American agriculture generates some 1.4 billion tons of such waste every year -- enough if contained in 50 gallon drums laid end to end reach to the moon and back. Five times.

But it is not just the waste that is at fault; as was true during the spinach scare, the true threat comes from a patchwork quilt of outdated standards, inadequate inspections, porous statutes and divided jurisdiction, all combining to sicken millions of Americans each year. Replace E. coli with salmonella, spinach with tomatoes, and -- despite public uproar, outraged editorials, congressional hearings and industry promises, nothing really has changed but the bug and the vegetable (fruit actually).

During the spinach affair, Senator Dick Durbin (D Ill.) and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D Conn.) produced the best hope for real reform: The Safe Food Act of 2006 (5654 and H.R. 1148). Noting that 12 different government agencies and 35 different laws were failing to protect us, their legislation would have increased funding, required more inspections, established uniform standards, heightened controls on imported food (like Mexican tomatoes) and most importantly, consolidated food safety authority into a single independent agency. Then nothing happened. The fate of that bill demonstrates that it is not only our food safety system that is broken, it is our democracy.

Well, actually something did happen. Later that same year, 183 Americans in 21 states were poisoned by -- yes, you guessed it -- E. coli tainted tomatoes. Next, we had The Great Lettuce Taco Bell Scare of 2007 and then The Great Beef Scare of 2008 - resulting in the greatest recall in the nation's history.

According to the CDC all tolled, 76 million Americans each year are victims of food poisoning, 325,000 are hospitalized, 5000 die. With each "scare," more urgent calls for reform. Last November, the FDA finally released its new "food protection plan" -- but with no funding. Last year's FDA plan was actually tougher but was blocked internally by HHS Secretary Michael Levitt. The GAO blasted the newest FDA effort and pointed out that inspecting all 65,500 food processing plants in the U.S. just once would cost $524 million; inspecting the 189,000 foreign food facilities that send food to the U.S. would cost $3.16 billion.) The White House has now belatedly asked for far less money.

So who takes the fall for the tomatoes? Industry blames the FDA. Levitt blames Congress. Republican Senator Arlen Specter blames Levitt, stating his malfeasance "is subjecting people to bodily injury and death." They are all right.

The source of the current tomato poisonings is from salmonella Saint Paul (the Pope denies responsibility), a relatively rare bacterium that grows in the intestines of humans and animals. It cannot be effectively washed or cooked off and can live for months. Had The Safe Food Act been enacted, it is far more likely tomatoes would now be safe - so too would be the tomato industry.

Indeed, the loudest criticisms have come from tomato growers themselves -- now panicked that a fortune will be lost if Americans give up on their ubiquitous if often barely edible product. They complain that FDA has been too slow in "clearing" states so the food machine can get back into high gear. Where were they when The Safe Food Act was stalled in Congress? With powerful lobbyists like The American Farm Bureau and The United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Grower Association, why hasn't this industry been out front demanding Congressional action? Maybe it depends on whose ox is being gored -- or, rather, whose vegetable is being poisoned.

The public wants reform, the industry wants reform, the Democrats want reform, the Republicans want reform, and the White House wants reform. But we have no reform. The devil must be in the salad bowl. One freight train of an opportunity just blew by -- that behemoth of a multi-gazillion dollar farm bill. Surely there was enough there to address one major source of food contamination, lack of sanitation in the fields (including those lagoons) and to fund far more inspectors. Surely. But no. Jurisdiction over that mother of all sacred cows is vested squarely in the House and Senate Agricultural Committees -- and that is where historically reform legislation goes to die.

So hope dims for The Safe Food Act. "The window for Congress to take up comprehensive legislation to overhaul the food safety system," said Representative DeLauro recently, "continues to narrow." Committees with jurisdiction have their collective hands full of pharmaceutical drug and tobacco; the congressional calendar is dwindling; floor time is in short supply. Fate also intervened. Senate oversight hearings had just begun when Chairman Kennedy was diagnosed with brain cancer. A House committee chaired by Congressman John Dingell, is scheduled to hold oversight hearings soon but Dingell marches to his own food safety drummer. Representative Jack Kingston of Georgia probably speaks for many quietly opposing reform. Suggesting a bottom line approach, he urges that a mere 5000 deaths is a small price to pay given the billions of pounds of bounty we Americans receive annually. Kingston did acknowledge "that among other things, people vote from fear. Food safety sells." Apparently not.

Perhaps Americans need to take a page from Korea's book. Out of the kitchens, back to the streets. Only then will a Congress as atrophied as modern day tomatoes actually do something. Or, as those Brooklyn Dodgers always said, "wait till next year." And in the meantime, grow your own.

Past Director of the National Resources Defense Council ("NRDC") Public Health Program, Al Meyerhoff is an environmental lawyer in California (alm@csgrr.com).

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