Food Safety: How to Keep Our Global Menu off the Recall List

Article excerpt

As the food recall list grows and food imports flood into the US, it may be time to revamp America's 70-year-old laws on food safety.

It used to be that filling America's dinner plate was largely a domestic affair. Eggs came from nearby farms. The peanuts in the peanut butter on your sandwich were from Georgia. Apples hailed from Washington State.

Today, changing eating habits and food production mean that eggs are produced on American megafarms, sometimes 1,000 miles away, and served with salsa made from Mexican tomatoes and onions. Peanut butter could come from Canada. And while Mom's apple pie is still firmly domestic, most of the apple juice she serves is Chinese.

Although this globalized bounty remains among the safest food in the world, it is testing the limits of a creaky US food-safety system built on 70-year-old laws written before genetic engineering was invented, frozen foods had gone mainstream, or Interstate highways enabled a head of lettuce to make it - still crisp - from California to New York in the dead of winter.

In Pictures: The foreign and domestic food chain

Problems at single megafarms have sparked huge, multistate recalls. Imports flow over the US border in such volume that government inspectors are capable of inspecting only a tiny portion of it.

While other nations modernize their food-safety systems - at least for their exports - attempts to do the same in the United States have lagged. Legislation that would strengthen the agency responsible for the safety of most of the nation's food supply has languished in the Senate for more than a year. Meanwhile, high- profile recalls of spinach, lettuce, and eggs remind consumers that gaps in food safety remain.

"The US is truly at risk if Congress continues to let our food- safety system languish," says Caroline Smith DeWaal, food-safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit in Washington.

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An Iowa egg farm in August is nobody's tourist stop. The sweltering heat makes the manure extra pungent. Flies can be a problem. Even by those standards, however, the poor conditions in House 17 of the Layer 3 facility at Wright County Egg were noteworthy.

Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspectors who went to the facility in Clarion, Iowa, found gaps in the doors, through which wildlife could get in, possibly contaminating the feed. The live and dead flies inside the egg-laying house were too numerous to count, the inspectors reported. The manure pile under the house was so big - at least four feet high - that it had pushed out the doors to the manure pit, giving open access to rodents. The inspectors wrote: "Dark liquid which appeared to be manure was observed seeping through the concrete foundation."

Wright County Egg was hardly a fly-by-night operation. A major egg producer, it was forced to initiate a massive recall in August in 22 states after inspectors linked its feed operations to a salmonella outbreak that sickened 1,600 people, estimates the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Unfortunately, the FDA inspection came after the outbreak was already under way. Although egg graders from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) had repeatedly noted subpar conditions in the company's egg-grading operation, those concerns never reached the FDA.

The egg recall illustrates the patchwork, inefficient nature of America's food-safety system. Fifteen federal agencies - and many state agencies - are responsible for food safety. The two primary watchdogs - the FDA and the USDA - have overlapping responsibilities. While the USDA grades the eggs, making sure each carton has the same size egg, the FDA is responsible for keeping them from being contaminated.

Moreover, the two agencies have radically different approaches to securing the food supply. The USDA is inspection-focused. …