Can the FDA be Trusted with Our Food Safety?

By all accounts, the FDA is a miserable failure for food safety.

System Failure

Many of us remember the national food safety nightmare – a listeria outbreak in cantaloupes from around Rocky Ford, CO – in the summer of 2011. All in all, there were 147 illnesses and 33 deaths, making this incident the most deadly outbreak of food-borne illness in our country since 1924. The farms owners declared bankruptcy later that fall. All of this occurred because of jerry-rigged potato cleaning equipment had been adapted to wash melons in conditions that heavily favored bacterial growth. There were no anti-microbial solutions – such as chlorine – used to kill the bacteria, only water.

As bad as this sounds, it is only the tip of the iceberg. The real tragedy, or crime, depending on how you view it is that not once in its 20-year history had the farm been inspected by the the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), tasked with the oversight of the safety of our food supply. A third-party inspection company was used by the farm, and accepted by the FDA as certifying the safety of the equipment and processes used in its handling systems. In fact, the company had one of its auditors at the farm at the time the first people were being sickened, and gave the processing facility a “superior” rating of 96 percent after a four hour visit.

This, sadly, is not an isolated major food safety incident. There are about 48 million cases of food poisoning each year, according to the Center for Disease Control. These result in more than 3,000 deaths. Affected foods include fresh vegetables and fruits, eggs, meat and cheeses – just about everything we eat! The rate of outbreaks and food recalls has been steadily rising since 2007. In a nutshell, our national food safety record sucks.

Why have these outbreaks increased in numbers and severity? What can be done about it? Let’s address the first question, then we will look at the second one. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found that the FDA is riddled with shortcomings, both in the administration and regulation areas. The process it uses for product recalls is ineffective and confusing, it has waffled with the blatent overuse of antibiotics in animal feeding operations, and lacks the manpower to perform the scientific studies required to do its basic job of food and drug safety. When enforcement is attempted it only occurs about half the time and is half-hearted, with fines rarely imposed. It also accepts third-party inspections, which often have serious conflict-of-interest issues alongside questions of the quality of inspections, as shown by the cantaloupe fiasco. Another example is the Iowa based salmonella based recall of over 550 million eggs that led to the first (and only) inspection performed by the FDA, followed by a warning letter threatening “regulatory action”. A month later the company was allowed to resume selling eggs, with no corrective action being confirmed or other inspections performed. Yet another example was the salmonella outbreak in peanut butter in 2007. A plant was missed after an “intensive round of inspections” that was the cause of a second, more deadly salmonella outbreak. When that plant was finally inspected, it was found to have mold on the walls and slime covering the processing equipment.

One of the main reasons for the increased number of outbreaks is the amount of control the food industry has over the FDA. When an industry has enough political power, it uses that power to determine what the FDA will do in response to an issue. Unfortunately, that response is all too often to “do nothing” unless there are enough deaths to attract enough public attention to the issue. In addition to political pull, there is a “revolving door” policy where top industry people go to work at the FDA, sometimes while still drawing a paycheck from their “former” employers. Conflict of interest, anyone? One of the prime examples of this is Michael Taylor, a Monsanto attorney who prepared research on the constitutionality of states determining labeling laws for Monsanto’s bovine growth hormone rBGH. Then, once he had become the FDA’s deputy commissioner for policy, he wrote the guidelines for rBGH labeling policy for the FDA. Not surprisingly, they were in agreement with the research memo he worked on while at Monsanto. This is not an isolated case, either. There are many former and current employees of Federal regulatory agencies who are or were industry executives and vice versa.

Now to address the question of what can be done? Surprisingly, there are several possible movements afoot that might have a positive impact on the state of food safety. The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011, a very controversial plan that was opposed by many smaller producers and supported by larger ones, may have some keys to this puzzle. It has been delayed with budget issues and has not gone into effect, but grants the FDA the power to prevent repeat offender from continuing to sell their product by revoking their registration. Another proposal by a Connecticut congresswoman would sever the ties of the food industry to inspection agencies. Third-party inspections can be effective if the inspector is not bing paid directly by the company they are inspecting. Some inspection companies have board members who are executives in client companies they monitor. Again, what conflict of interest?

These are all well and good, but can the average person trust them to be effective? Will they measurably improve the quality of the safety of our food? That remains to be seen. In the meantime you can do what has been proven to be extremely effective so many times before. If you are concerned with the safety of your food, do something about it. Take a personal interest and responsibility for what you eat. This means doing some reading and research, asking questions and listening to the answers. You will establish your own “approved list” of food suppliers that you trust and those to stay away from. This will take some work, but probably much less than you think and for a shorter time period than you would initially expect. Once you establish a safe list, you won’t have to research each and every food item you buy, just the new ones that you aren’t familiar with.

Not surprisingly, you will quickly find that the majority of food producers you come to trust are the ones you can get to know. They will be local or regional, with small to medium sized operations. They will answer your questions and your phone calls, not minding that you need some answers. They will offer farm or facility tours, which you should accept. There are already several organizations that help with finding just these sort of companies. We’ve written about several of these, one is FarmPlate, another is Horsepower and yet another is Local Harvest. All of these are online tools to help you do what I just described, find quality and trustworthy sources of good, clean and fair food.

By taking responsibility for your food, you ensure that what you eat is to your standards. You also take that decision process out of the hands and control of a corporation and put it firmly in your grasp. You might be surprised at how the quality and safety of your food improves with much less cost than you expected.

The FDA Is Out to Lunch

Third Party Inspections of Food Firms Fail

The Amazing Revolving Door – Monsanto, FDA & EPA

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8 Responses to Can the FDA be Trusted with Our Food Safety?

  1. Margaret Claire Decker January 9, 2013 at 6:44 am #

    Yep – it seems we have a choice between massive goverment policing irresponsible
    producers VS customers supporting responsible producers while discarding the
    rest. If only- we-the-people would do our part. Many thanks to you for doing your
    part!!!

    • Stephen January 9, 2013 at 11:24 am #

      Thanks Margaret! It is highly encouraging to see so many individuals who are making these choices, and encouraging and educating others to do the same. Most of what we see is not fear-mongering, but a sober and long considered realization that only we have the ability or responsibility for our lives and health, including food.

  2. Larry Stewart January 9, 2013 at 12:59 pm #

    If indeed the FDA can not be trusted with our food safety, and there is ample evidence to indicate this is the case, this should be a red flag to all of the people who believe more government is the answer to our problems. It does not work that well.

    Also, how many of the food contamination problems on produce have been on organic production-i.e. using manure as a fertilizer instead of mineral or chemical fertilizers?

    As to the “revolving door” between food/chemical companies and FDA who is better qualified to determine policy- someone who knows what they are talking about or someone whose “heart is pure” and has little or no knowledge experience on the subject?

    • Stephen January 9, 2013 at 2:39 pm #

      Larry, you are right on target with your first comment! As to your second one, the real danger is from the petro-chemical fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides and no one wants to talk about it or recognize it’s impact and effects. You raise a great question in your third comment, but I think that most people want someone with some education and knowledge but without industry experience and ties. As for myself, I will take responsibility for my own food safety by growing as much as I can and personally knowing who I buy from as much as is humanly possible. At the current time the problem is so complex and intertwined that there is no real workable fix, except the personal responsibility route – which more and more people are taking everyday, to the consternation of the industry.

  3. Olympia January 10, 2013 at 2:07 pm #

    The spinach food poisoning outbreak is a good example of what happens when entire areas are contaminated by “conventional” growing. (When, by the way, did the term “conventional” get highjacked? What is “conventional” about chemicals–aren’t they relatively new? I consider what y’all do conventional! and refer everyone I talk to about gardening to your website).
    I always thought the spinach fiasco was caused by contamination from upriver CAFO (confined animals–poor things) that are fed GMOs (God move over, or genetically modified organisms), andoverdosed on antibiotics to overcome the crowded in their own feces, disease-ridden, inhumane conditions they are mass produced in. The FDA is a corrupt joke, and not just for the reasons you discussed. I am so angry about what they do to natural supplements as well, while rushing untested and unproven vaccines and drugs to market. I don’t think the FDA can be trusted, period.

    • Stephen January 16, 2013 at 9:30 am #

      Thanks for the kind comments, Olympia, we really appreciate them! The incident you mention is a good example of large-scale agriculture gone bad, with unintended consequences creating great harm along the way. When farming is controlled by corporations that are treating the growing of our food as just another method of cash flow and creating returns for the stockholders, bad things happen. Large-scale farms that are family owned and operated have shown to be healthy and safe producers of great food, time and time again.

    • Beth February 26, 2013 at 9:12 pm #

      You are so right, my dear! I have become a vegan for the reasons you have outlined. And I try to grow asmuch as I can, and supplementing with organic food, when I can find it. It is exhausting to grocery shop, bec ause I have to check everything for GMO’s and other poisons they are allowed to put in our food supply. Thanks be to seed companies like Terroir, and Seed Savers Exchange.

      • Stephen February 26, 2013 at 10:09 pm #

        Thanks for the kind words Beth!

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