08/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Killer Cookie Dough?

Can you imagine a commercial airline refusing to turn over aircraft maintenance records to a Federal Aviation Administration inspector upon request? Or blocking the inspector from taking photographs of a faulty part or a crash scene?

Would you fly on such an airline?

Well, fold your napkin and put down your fork.

As it turns out, when inspectors from the Food and Drug Administration arrive at a food processing facility, the company can actually dictate the terms of the inspection in pretty much the same way. According to astonishing documents obtained by the Wall Street Journal's Jane Zhang, employees at the Danville, Va., processing facility churning out E. coli-contaminated cookie dough for Nestle have, at various times, refused to turn over customer complaints, safety plans, pest control records, and other paperwork, and refused to allow photography inside the plant.

(An imaginative Nestle spokesperson calls that "full cooperation," leaving one to wonder what stonewalling looks like.)

Most Americans are shocked to learn that federal inspectors rarely visit most food processors. Whereas the U.S. Department of Agriculture conducts daily inspections of every factory that churns out chicken noodle soup and other meat and poultry-containing products, it might be five or ten years before the FDA sends an inspector to check out a spinach farm or a peanut-processing plant.

And, when the FDA does find or confirm that a food product is tainted with E. coli or Salmonella, it doesn't even have the authority to order a recall. Instead, consumers rely on food companies themselves to voluntarily recall tainted foods, though the government does have considerable influence on companies' behavior.

The silver lining behind the tragic illnesses and deaths related to spinach, tomatoes, peppers, peanuts and other foods is that Congress is finally moving legislation that would bring our country's food-safety system into the 21st century. And on July 7, a presidential working group led by the Secretaries of Agriculture and Health and Human Services released sensible recommendations aimed at preventing contamination before it occurs.

The Food Safety Enhancement Act pending in the House of Representatives would go a long way toward making food safer. The bill would require all food manufacturers to identify possible sources of contamination and to develop plans for controlling hazards. It would require the FDA to make more frequent inspections of farms and factories based on the degree of risk involved. It would give the FDA the authority it now lacks to order recalls of contaminated foods. And the bill would put a wider range of civil and criminal penalties at the government's disposal to punish violators. (That alone should spur food processors to treat food safety inspectors with greater hospitality than Nestle did at Danville.)

The bill is far from perfect. After all, it still leaves two separate cabinet agencies in charge of most food safety functions. Ideally, we wouldn't have the Secretary of Agriculture regulate sausage pizza and the Secretary of Health and Human Services regulate plain cheese pizza. But the Food Safety Enhancement Act would make great improvements in strengthening the FDA's ability to ensure a safer food supply.

Whether your culinary preferences lean toward cookie dough or spinach, the bill deserves your support -- and your representatives in Congress should hear it directly from you.

This article was co-written with Caroline Smith DeWaal

Michael Jacobson, Ph.D., is executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the nonprofit publisher of Nutrition Action Healthletter and long-time advocate for stronger food-safety laws. Caroline Smith DeWaal directs CSPI's food-safety program.