Redesigning Food Safety

Article excerpt

Better deployment of the government's food safety resources is essential to minimizing the growing risks from foodborne illness.

Controversy over genetically modified foods has helped put food safety in the headlines, but that issue, like others we read about--mad cow disease, Listeria and Salmonella outbreaks, chemical contamination--needs to be understood and addressed in the broader context of how we protect consumers from all foodborne hazards. This broader perspective is obscured, however, by the fragmented and in many ways outdated legal and organizational framework for food safety in the United States. Food safety law is a patchwork of many enactments that, all told, lack a coherent, science-based mandate for regulators and that split food jurisdiction among a dozen or more agencies, most prominently the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The potential impact of this framework on the safety of biotech foods is important, but there is a broader and more fundamental public health question about the effectiveness of the current system in protecting consumers from foodborne illness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently issued new, more reliable estimates of the persistently high incidence of foodborne illness in the United States: an estimated 5,000 deaths, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 76,000,000 illnesses annually, most of which are preventable.

In 1998, an Institute of Medicine/National Research Council (IOM/NRC) committee studied the current framework and called for a comprehensive statutory and organizational redesign of the federal food safety system. In its report, Ensuring Safe Food from Production to Consumption, the committee documented how the century-old accumulation of food safety laws and fragmented agency structure are impeding the efforts of regulators to reduce the risk of foodborne illness. The committee recommended a science-based, integrated food safety regulatory system under unified and accountable leadership; a system that would be better able to deploy resources in the manner most likely to reduce risk.

The IOM/NRC recommendations make common sense, but this does not mean that they will be readily adopted. The statutory and organizational status quo in Washington is politically difficult to change, which is why most major reforms in public health and environmental laws have occurred in response to some galvanizing event or crisis. Fortunately for current health, if not policy for the future, the U.S. food safety system is not in crisis. It remains, in many respects, the strongest in the world, and it has made important strides in recent years toward more effective regulatory policies that properly emphasize preventive process control to reduce significant hazards.

The food safety system is, however, under serious stress, largely because of rapid change in the food system. Many of the cases of foodborne illness reported by the CDC are linked to new and emerging microbial pathogens, changing U.S. eating habits, and an aging population. The system is also challenged by new agricultural and food technologies, such as genetically engineered food crops; by an increasingly globalized food supply, which makes European and Latin American food safety problems potential problems for the United States; and by intense public and media scrutiny of issues such as mad cow disease and biotech foods. Regrettably, chronically strained food safety budgets have seriously eroded the government's scientific staffing and inspection resources even as the food safety job has become more difficult.

In response to these stresses, and with an eye on lessons learned in Europe concerning the fragility of public confidence in food safety, U.S. lawmakers and nongovernmental organizations are showing growing interest in modernizing our food safety laws and structures along the lines contemplated by the IOM/NRC committee. …