Fixing Food Safety: What the Government Should Change


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Bill Marler, the food safety lawyer in Seattle, is asking for responses to the question, "If you had a magic wand, how would you fix the food safety system?"

I've been mulling over his question in light of the recent enactment of the food safety bill, as yet unfunded. Magic wand in hand, here's what I'd do:

Wall Street pressures on corporations to report growth every quarter are at the root of corner-cutting on food safety.

Create a single food safety agency: the new law is designed to fix the FDA. It does nothing to fix the USDA's food safety functions. These remain divided between the two agencies, with USDA responsible for the safety of meat and poultry, and FDA responsible for everything else. This division pretends that animal wastes have nothing to do with the safety of fruits and vegetables which, alas, they do.

Require safety control systems for all foods. Everyone who produces food should do it safely using proven methods for identifying where hazards can occur, taking steps to prevent those hazards, monitoring to make sure the steps were taken, and—when appropriate— testing to make sure the system is working.

Apply safety controls from farm to table. The new law does this for FDA-regulated foods. But USDA safety regulations begin at the slaughterhouse after animals have already been contaminated in feedlots or in transport. Everyone involved in food production, even farmers large and small, should be actively engaged in food safety efforts.

Fund food safety through congressional health committees. For irrational reasons of history, the FDA gets its funding through agricultural committees, not health—even though FDA is an agency of the Public Health Service within the Department of Health and Human Services. As a consequence, the FDA is at the mercy of appropriations committees whose mandate is to protect agricultural interests. This anomaly explains why 80 percent of food safety funding goes to USDA, and only 20 percent to FDA. The new chair of the House agricultural appropriations committee has made it clear that he does not believe FDA needs any more funding. Health appropriations committees might view FDA's role in food safety in a more favorable light.

Fund food safety adequately. To protect the domestic food supply—and to ensure the safety of imported foods—more money is needed to pay for inspection, testing, and research.

Give the food agency cabinet-level status. Everyone eats. Food safety affects everyone. Food has critically important economic and food security dimensions, domestically and internationally.

Require election campaigns to be publicly funded, with no loopholes. This is the only way we will be able to remove corruption from our political system and elect officials who care more about public health than corporate health.

Require Wall Street to rate corporations on long-term sustainability. Wall Street pressures on corporations to report growth every quarter are at the root of corner-cutting on food safety. Food corporations should be valued for excellent food safety records and for maintaining high ethical standards in every aspect of their business.

Even a magic wand may not be enough to do this. It will take more than a magic wand to do this, I fear. Hey, I can dream.

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Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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