President Barack Obama, appearing on the "Today" show, has urged a "complete review" of the Food and Drug Administration. "At a bare minimum, we should be able to count on our government keeping our kids safe when they eat peanut butter. "That's what Sasha eats for lunch," Obama said, referring to his 7-year-old daughter.
President Obama is correct to call for a review of the FDA -- the agency needs more resources and powers both to prevent contaminated foods from poisoning consumers and to deter and punish wrong doers. However, increased government inspection and enforcement alone will not address the two root causes of our food safety problems.
The first root cause is that too many companies in the food industry spend far more resources on marketing, advertising, and fancy labeling of their products than on food safety and quality assurance. Over 800 separate products, with peanut ingredients sourced from one plant in Blakely, Georgia, have been recalled since January 10, 2009. It appears many of these food companies may not have invested sufficient resources in quality assurance, supply chain traceability, and consumer protection, even after the massive spinach, pet food and ground beef recalls of 2007 and 2008.
This peanut containing product recall reveals that hundreds of food companies are sourcing their base ingredients from the same plant; yet with the recall spanning several weeks, overall supply chain traceability is lacking or non-existent, since it is taking weeks for the FDA to sort out which products went where. The 800 recalled brands of peanut cookies, cakes, ice cream, pet food, and energy bars have been sold under national brands, private labels and store names. Many have also been sold as natural, organic, vegan, and gluten free products, revealing that even producers of supposedly higher end products are not paying sufficient attention to the safety of their base ingredients. This time, unlike with the melamine in the pet food, no one can shift the blame to the Chinese.
Many types of food sellers or servers have been involved in this recall: hospitals, nursing homes, famous diet foods, national grocers, regional grocers, home delivery services, discount retailers, and upscale retailers. You can see the complete list on the FDA website -- it spans several pages. Not just U.S. consumers are impacted; Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, and Singapore have received contaminated peanut containing products.
The food industry and government regulators have depended too much on periodic inspections of manufacturing conditions and random sampling of final products. Although, in this case, where were the third party inspectors working for the food companies and retailers higher up on the supply chain? How come they did not see any or all of the reported problems at the Blakely plant -- rodents, dirty mops in the same sinks as food production utensils, leaks in the AC units, etc. We know the FDA had not inspected the plant since 2001 and had delegated this to the state of Georgia. Obviously, no one was paying any real attention to what was going on at this peanut plant. This is the same pattern where the USDA failed to take action against the kosher meat packing plant in Iowa which was employing children and the California meat packing plant cruelly treating so called "downer" cows and processing them illegally.
The outdated government inspection alone approach is reactive and failing, and is far less effective at preventing hazards causing food-borne illnesses than by applying science-based controls, from raw ingredients to finished products (HACCP and similar quality assurance systems).
We need a much stronger and competently managed FDA and USDA combined into one agency. More importantly, the entire food industry needs to move into the 21st century and start applying the principles and methods of quality assurance that other industries, such as the American electronics, aerospace, and defense systems and Japanese automotive industries have been successfully employing for decades.
The second root cause of our food safety problems is that American consumers have not demanded or been willing to pay for safer food. Except for the 35 million Americans who go hungry, a national disgrace; the majority of Americans spend too little of their incomes for food, not too much. Hence, we have a nation eating cheap, unhealthy food, with terrible rates of obesity and the consequent health care costs.
The Obama Administration, working with a changed food industry and responsible consumers can develop a new holistic food policy for America, to deliver safe and healthy food, accessible for all Americans, consistent with decent compensation and working conditions for agricultural and food processing workers, humane treatment of animals raised for food, and reasonable profit margins for industry.
Yes we can!