While the Bush administration's failures in financial regulation are getting much-needed attention, its laissez-faire approach to government regulation of more kitchen-table issues like food safety also needs urgent repair. And as with failures in our homeland security or emergency response, disasters often illustrate the gaps in federal oversight.
Since the fall six consumers have died and nearly 500 have been sickened in a nationwide outbreak linked to peanut butter, the second peanut butter-related outbreak in two years. That exceeds the deaths that occurred in the Jack in the Box outbreak of 1993 (when President Clinton was being inaugurated) and the deaths in the spinach outbreak of 2006. An increasing concern is that peanut butter has a very long shelf life: Unlike spinach, this tainted product can sit on the shelf like a time bomb, ready to cause illnesses for years.
Processed foods are only part of the challenge. Outbreaks from various vegetables have become an all-too-common part of our nation's diet. Spinach tainted with deadly E. coli in 2006 awakened many Americans to the problem. Since that outbreak, tomatoes, lettuce and even hot peppers have been linked to large multistate outbreaks.
Pet food containing melamine — a chemical intentionally added to grain by crooked Chinese merchants — caused the deaths of thousands of pets. That episode clearly illustrated the vulnerability of our food supply to bioterrorism. Last fall, Chinese infants were sickened and killed by intentionally contaminated infant formula. We were lucky that that tragedy did not ripple into our own country.
Those foods are all regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for the safety of 80 percent of our food supply. Yet, after each food-safety scare, consumers are stunned to find new gaps in FDA's programs. In fact, the agency acts more like a fire department that "calls out the trucks" whenever a food crisis emerges, than the regulatory body charged with preventing them.
Last summer, then-Sen. Barack Obama introduced the Improving Food-borne Illness Surveillance and Response Act. The bill sought to identify outbreaks faster by enhancing state and local health departments who are our first line of defense through early detection of outbreaks of food-borne illness.
Improving state and local surveillance is essential for quickly identifying when sporadic illness reports are part of a nationwide outbreak. Standardizing epidemiological tools and improving communication between states and federal agencies would accelerate outbreak investigations. Providing funding for laboratories and forming stronger partnerships between private and public laboratories would strengthen their ability to participate in new food-borne illness surveillance systems.
President Obama is now in charge of our nation's food supply and the agencies implementing the laws that form our highly fragmented national system. FDA's inability to handle its food-safety mission should be addressed early, perhaps by dividing the FDA into two independent units — one focusing on food safety and nutrition, the other addressing drugs and medical devices.
Congress should continue to increase the budget for food-safety programs to ensure manufacturing facilities are inspected frequently (peanut butter and other facilities are inspected an average of only once every five or 10 years!) and that the FDA has the scientific and legal tools to find problems before tainted food gets to grocery stores and consumers' homes.
Obama, in a statement last February, recognized what every American knows: "As the parent of two young daughters, there are few issues more important to me than ensuring the safety of the food that our children consume." When peanut butter becomes a killer, action can't be long delayed.
Caroline Smith DeWaal is director of food safety at the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, 1875 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 300, Washington, D.C. 20009; www.cspinet.org.
© Center for Science in the Public Interest; distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services