What did you have for dinner last night? The meat was probably pretty safe, but the fish, maybe not so much. The pasta was probably harmless, but you can’t be sure about the sauce. The salad, the veggies, the dessert, even your bedtime snack could have endangered your health.
It’s not the nutrition we’re worried about – not the fats or the calories or the salt. But where the food came from, how it was processed, and how carefully it was stored. Outbreaks of listeria, salmonella, and E.coli kill several thousand of us each year and sicken about 48 million Americans. Sometimes you might feel “something just didn’t agree with you,” and you’d be right. But too often that “something” might kill you.
In 1906 Congress enacted the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act and gave the U.S. Department of Agriculture the responsibility to ensure our meat and poultry are safe. Then-President Teddy Roosevelt mandated no meat company could operate without a meat inspector right on the premises.
Years later the Food and Drug Administration was created and given the responsibility for all other edibles, but FDA never got the budget to handle the job. There are about 1,100 food inspectors for the entire nation, looking at food products manufactured or processed here and largely ignoring all foods produced in other countries and shipped to us.
Two decades ago there were about 200,000 imported foods a year coming into the United States, but in 2014, there were 12 million, about 15 percent of our food supply.
After widespread reports of people dying after eating products as diverse as caramel apples, peanut butter, cantaloupes, salad greens, tuna and ice cream, Congress decided it had to do something more. So in 2010 passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act was trumpeted as the solution to the problem. But now, five years later, not a single new rule has been implemented, and adequate funding for inspections has never been appropriated.
Nutrition policies, on the other hand, got a lot more attention. Soon you may know all about the ingredients in a food product and the calories it contains, but you’ll still have no assurance it’s safe to eat.
President George W. Bush mandated that all food facilities register with the federal government after 9/11, but there’s no coherent plan for working with them. For instance, the FDA oversees – more or less – the creation of cheese pizza, but if the pie has pepperoni, that’s up to Agriculture. The same divide prevents real oversight of such products as soups, sauces, stews and other items with multiple ingredients.
Overall funding for the FDA increased in recent years, but almost all the additional money is being spent to test drugs and medical devices. Recent new rules require the FDA to speed up approvals on medications and devices, so even more attention will be paid to those items and less to routine food supplies.
Here in New Jersey our system of health inspections ensures safety of products prepared and sold in all retail food establishments from upscale restaurants and fast-food joints to delis and Boardwalk snack stands. Frequent inspections generally keep such places clean and safe. It’s the products we buy in our local groceries that pose the biggest risk.
The new Food Safety Modernization Act mandates some pretty simple, common-sense things – no leaky roofs or rodents in food processing plants, for instance. Now all we need is some money and the strong will to enforce it.
By Joan Quigley
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