The Politics Of Safe Food

By Sara Rubin

Who wants safe food? Everyone does, if a food safety panel moderated by Marc Ambinder at The Atlantic's Food Summit this morning is an indication.  Voices from industry, the FDA, and public health advocates all converged to "violently agree" that ensuring safety is essential for America's food supply.  Food safety is an area that, despite the abundance of pathogens, evokes warm fuzzy non-partisan unanimity. Nobody dissents when you argue that safer food is better food, and that all players in the food chain, from producers to consumers, share some accountability for improving the $152 billion a year problem of food-borne illness, which sickens 76 million and kills 5200 Americans annually.

The FDA is woefully underfunded and lacks even basic food safety powers--like ordering mandatory recalls--that could improve the system--this conclusion was reached by reps for big companies and the government.  Senior execs from McCormick & Company and General Mills agreed that increasing the FDA's authority will only help make our food safer. Yet the Senate has been sitting on a broadly supported bill that would make some basic, long-needed changes to the 1938 Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, like improved traceability--keeping tabs on ever-smaller packets of food stuffs--and more frequent inspections (only 1 percent of imports, which account for 15 percent of our food supply, are FDA inspected today. There's an algorithm that helps...but still). Sen. Tom Harkin has said he hopes to move the bill by the beginning of the next recess. It boggles the mind that the FDA lacks full recall authority, for example--most consumers think it does. It doesn't.

The food safety problem is costly, but so is fixing it. But industry agrees that prevention is a smart investment that protects market share. Recalls are expensive, and they can damage, even destroy, a brand. (Chi-Chi's?) Industry leaders regularly, and voluntarily, recall potentially contaminated food. So what would expanded FDA authority and funding actually change for a self-policing industry?

For big players like McCormick and General Mills, probably not much, which makes it easy for them to support tighter legislation. It's the small mom-and-pops that haven't kept up with technology and innovation, the type of suppliers and food processors that Stephen Sundlof described as "fringe" companies, which would likely find the cost of tighter food safety plans, inspections, and mandatory recalls too onerous for doing business. Elizabeth Westerling, VP of Quality and Regulatory Operations at General Mills, said that "food safety is the price of admission" to the food business. It's those producers who can't afford to pay the price of admission who will either pass the costs on to consumers, thereby putting themselves at a market disadvantage, or simply close up shop. 

Even down to the farm level, food safety might threaten the type of farmers and handlers that the organic, sustainable, artisanal food movement has embraced and popularized. Large produce growers have angled to reduce the risk of contamination by implementing a "scorched earth" policy that senior FDA official Stephen Sundlof said is based on a gross misinterpretation of voluntary marketing agreements (most famously the Leafy Greens Agreement, which growers have responded to with fenced off fields and buffer strips--forget biodiversity). 

Safety and sustainability aren't incompatible, Sundlof said. But it is worth noting that government isn't writing the rules. They've largely been written by industry in what looks like a classic case of regulatory capture. Government has a ways to go in terms of catching up before it can take on a leadership role in any practical terms. The panelists are confident that the Food Safety Modernization Act will make it to the Senate floor before Easter recess, but Rep. John Dingell, who introduced the bill, said that "Food safety is just one of 286 bills passed by the House now tied up in the Senate," in a statement e-mailed by his office last week.

Consumers rightfully expect that their food is grown, handled, and distributed with safety top of mind.  As FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg pointed out at the summit this morning, every player in the food chain is motivated to produce uncontaminated food. But finding the people to pay for it and close the accountability gaps won't be easy, even with greater FDA authority, and even when every stakeholder's interests are aligned.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2010/03/the-politics-of-safe-food/37064/