Thursday, April 28, 2011

#ahcj11 Report: Food Safety, or Lack Thereof?

I was reminded last week of the Tom Lehrer admonition, “just don’t drink the water and don’t breathe the air.” That lead to the other Lehrer song, “Who’s next?”

In this week’s episode, the doom and gloom comes from food safety, brought to you by #ahcj11. The first panelist, Michael Taylor, deputy commissioner for food, Food and Drug Administration, set the stage, explaining the magnitude of the problem. The U.S. has 12 million shipments imported from150 countries. He explained that the FDA's role is to set standards to ensure accountability for both domestic and international products, but he placed the primary responsibility for ensuring safety squarely on industry. Unfortunately, the FDA’s efforts to improve safety standards are being stymied by budget cuts, as well as politics and the bizarre fragmentation of responsibilities.

Scott Faber, J.D., vice president, federal affairs, Grocery Manufacturers Association, countered that the new Food Safety bill provides some increased protection for consumers—for example, by giving the FDA access to industry records as well as the authority to require 3rd party auditors. The bill also gives the FDA the power to issue mandatory recalls.

Erik D. Olson, director, Food and Consumer Product Safety Programs, The Pew Charitable Trusts, stole the show, however, with his clear outline of the problems and the mixed improvements coming via Food Safety Bill:

  1. Inspections now only occur ~every 10 years. The frequency is to increase to every 3 years. (This seems unlikely to occur, given the budget cuts, and still leaves huge gaps).
  2. Appallingly, the FDA has not previously had the authority to issue mandatory recalls.
  3. 80% of our seafood is imported. While the FDA was only checking 1% of imports, they only now are being given authority to block imports at the border.
  4. There is no requirement that industry test their products for contaminants; this is still a gap despite the new bill.
  5. Historically, the FDA has been almost entirely reactive. Under the Food Safety Bill, the focus will be prevention based.
  6. U.S. food legislation has changed little since 1906, when it was revised after Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” exposed the unsanitary meat packing industry; there was a small update—most recently—in 1938.
  7. Why change? There are ~48 million foodborne illnesses in U.S. per year—about 1 per 6 people, with 127,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.
  8. FDA previously was not able to see any internal industry records; now they can.
  9. There have been no rules regarding produce safety—e.g., water quality or contamination by manure. Proposals to address this will now be required in 2012 (but who knows how long industry will have to implement changes after that).
  10. The FDA will still not have any enforcement of penalties without going to court. (and look at BP’s penalties—tax breaks and bonuses to execs).

Similarly, schools have somehow seemed oblivious to many recalls, and not complied, per GAO reports.

Taylor, the FDA deputy commissioner for food, spoke positively of Administration support for food safety in the budget; unfortunately, some in Congress—you can guess who—want to unimplement the Food Safety bill.

There are still many logistical hurdles to be overcome including better ability (let alone, authority) to conduct tracebacks. They are cumbersome and time-consuming, but have worked for items with one ingredient, like produce or meat. But there is no good system for tracking products with multiple ingredients. This is giving more impetus for food manufacturers to work with the FDA more cooperatively, a risk sharing arrangement.

One of the most shocking things I learned—there is huge hole in the system—meat and poultry are regulated by the USDA, not the FDA, and therefore are not included in improvements in the Food Safety bill. How irrational is that?

And 60% of produce and 80% of seafood is imported, with little oversight.

I’ve always enjoyed the CDC outbreak investigation reports and marveled at the ability to do tracebacks. Given the magnitude of the problem, their success is even more amazing.

I’ve reassured myself somewhat about food safety from the early polio studies, that showed that children from more affluent families were disproportionately affected.

Unlike many other illnesses, David M. Oshinsky notes “in the past, polio had been a disease of cleanliness.” Poor kids, from less sanitary environments, actually fared better, presumably from having built up some immunity.

(Photo by Judy Stone; Luang Prabang, Laos--suggest you enlarge)

So, while the Food Safety bill offers some hope, there are still huge gaps, especially with such a fragmented system. What’s a mother to do? I guess I’ve gotten much more fatalistic. Try to eat organically, at least where the most pesticide-laden crops are concerned. If you can, support local farmers who don’t use antibiotics or hormones, and who support free-range animals. Otherwise, if you think it will help, pray or lobby, whichever suits your beliefs, or assume an ostrich-like stance.