While food production is one of the nation's most vital industries, it is one of the most neglected when it comes to safety. For years now, food safety has been left to a hodgepodge system split between the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for meat, poultry and egg products, and the Food and Drug Administration, which is supposed to watch the other 80 percent of the food supply.
With 7,800 inspectors, the Department of Agriculture does a pretty good job of monitoring the nation's meat supply. The FDA, on the other hand, has only 1,307 inspectors who rarely get a firsthand look at the produce they are supposed to keep safe. This lack of oversight has been responsible for massive food-poisoning recalls. This is a problem that should be fixed immediately.
Here in Florida, the tomato industry was implicated in several salmonella outbreaks. California's lettuce and spinach industry was connected to often fatal E. coli bacteria. Such cases have scared consumers and have cost the food industry millions of dollars in losses. To reassure consumers and stop further losses, many food producers are setting their own regulations and are paying or asking government agencies to do the inspections.
Although this is a laudable move by the industry, safeguarding the nation's food supply should not be driven by the profit motive. But that is what is happening in many parts of the nation. Florida tomato growers persuaded the state to begin regulating safety practices on farms and at packinghouses. In California, some lettuce growers are paying state employees to inspect their fields and facilities. The producers of nuts, especially peanuts and pistachios, in several states have done the same.
Experts and food safety advocates are hoping the Obama administration will keep its promise to make food safety a priority by setting high standards and holding the industry accountable. The producers of the nation's food supply should not be left to regulate themselves. This is the government's responsibility.