I am going to cut to the chase for this one: Amid this climate of food safety recalls (I will refer to it as a climate, as it has become far too frequent and widespread to simply call it a season of recalls) it is essential that we all understand that the Food and Drug Administration, the government agency responsible for protecting and promoting public health through the regulation and supervision of food safety, has no authority or ability to order a recall of any food item. That authority resides squarely in the lap of the individual companies who sell the product(s) in question, and the recalls they issue are totally voluntary. This means that only after board meetings, lengthy cost-benefit analysis, and PR consultations are these recalls ever issued, and in many cases this comes weeks, if not months, after the product has made it to market (case in point: the massive beef recall earlier this year was issued on some products that had been sold up to a year prior and more than likely consumed).
This particular point, about who holds the reins when it comes to recalls, is obviously of great importance to anyone concerned with food safety, and stands to illustrate just how impotent and ineffective the FDA can be in these situations. Sure, the 20th century was a pivotal time for food safety, and the formation of the FDA in 1906 did much to curb abuses and improve quality and safety across the board (does anyone recall the horror of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle?), however the FDA has been looking for a renewed sense of relevance, as well as some new ideas, for the past few years (if not decades). With the flood of food recalls in the past decade, the urgency is palpable, and quite obvious. In the past year alone, there was red pepper recalled for Salmonella from Adams Extract & Spice on 8/7/2009, affecting three states; 6,712.5 lbs of roasted hazelnut kernels recalled for Salmonella from Evonuk Oregon Hazelnuts on 12/19/2009, affecting six states; and 1,105 cases of Chicken of the Sea white tuna in water recalled for tain bacteria from Tri-Union Seafoods on 6/30/2010, affecting ten states (recall information provided by the report, “Recipes for Disaster”).
This week, when the Senate returns from summer recess, is a pivotal time in food safety, as they are poised to pass a new bill – the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510). This bill was passed in the House of Representatives over a year ago (July 2009) and has been languishing in the margins for too long. If passed, it would greatly revamp a busted and obsolete food safety system that hasn’t been tended to in decades, and would significantly expand federal regulators’ (read: FDA) abilities to police food manufacturers. Besides having the authority to issue recalls, it would also grant the FDA authority to set mandatory inspection rates for food production facilities (this is not the standard now, as facilities sometimes go decades without FDA inspections), and give the FDA the right to enforce health and safety laws by suspending or shutting down offending plants or factories. Now these new rules will go into effect only if this long stalled bill gets the love it needs from the senate. While it seemingly has bipartisan support, as we know, anything can happen in an election year.
To be certain, new FDA rules, no matter how aggressive they might be, will not likely protect everyone from the hazards of the industrialized food system, when everything from organic spinach to eggs are in danger of harboring pathogens (550 million eggs have been recalled in the most recent salmonella outbreak). Food activists would probably argue that this is just simply a step in the right direction, and libertarians would likely see this as another alarming instance of giving the federal government a wider, and more problematic, authority over what we consume. While the rest of us sit and wonder, as we stare at our spinach and egg salad, how the hell we can eat with relative confidence? Can you get behind this new bill, or do you feel the system is so far gone that it is time for consumers to take the food system into our own hands (whatever that means)? Is control over food safety an elusive proposition, or can we look to our government (with some aggressive prodding) to do the right thing?