Food Labeling: Lessons Learned

By Earley, Jane | European Affairs, Summer-Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Food Labeling: Lessons Learned


Earley, Jane, European Affairs


Now that the United States has begun to experience the kinds of food scares that rocked Europe several years ago, more American consumers are starting to worry about the efficacy of the food-safety system that is supposed to protect them. Some people fear negligent or criminal adulteration of imported food products such as pet food from China; others worry about problems at home, citing the example of an American company that recently had to recall batches of its brand of peanut butter after they were tied to salmonella outbreaks that sickened more than 400 people in 44 U.S. states. Fears and doubts are even growing among some regulators.

In these circumstances, could Europe's food-safety solutions offer some useful approaches for the United States?

Certainly, the U.S. system seems to need fixing. Former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Associate Commissioner William Hubbard was quoted in a recent New York Times article saying that "the public thinks the food supply is much more protected than it is," former Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tommy Thompson's concerns about threats to the food supply are something that he says he worries about "every single night." A food marketing-institute survey recently reported survey results showing that the number of consumers "completely" or "somewhat confident" in the safety of supermarket food declined from 82 percent in 2006 to--in a single year--66 percent, the lowest point since 1989. That was the year when the issues of pesticides in apples and contaminated grapes were widely reported. Aggravating the uncertainties is the fact, tucked into the trade-deficit figures since 2005, that the United States has become a net food-importer for the first time in its history.

The problems are both with private providers and public regulators. In the wake of last year's U.S. scare about E. coli-contaminated spinach from California and now in the context of the Chinese episodes (involving pet food, melamine, monkfish and toxic toothpaste), FDA's performance and resources have been widely criticized. More funding for food-safety inspection programs by FDA has been requested in legislative proposals that have wide political support. Some food-producers, particularly those involved with fresh-cut produce, have requested mandatory federal regulations. Amidst these criticisms, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has added food safety to its "high risk" program areas. The Government Accountability Office defines these as activities that need increased visibility, urgent attention and transformation to serve the needs of the public.

Genetically-modified foods are not at the moment in the spotlight, although the U.S. export system is leaky, and there are widespread feelings that U.S. shipments with genetic modifications continue to evade the scrutiny of regulators and arrive unapproved in destination countries.

One proposal to improve the U.S. approach to food safety is to give the FDA authority for mandatory product recalls--a longstanding issue in Congress. Another effective reform would be to consolidate the food-safety oversight into one agency (rather than the current twelve). A further reform would require companies exporting to the United States to obtain certification demonstrating that their products meet standards for food safety and consumer protection. This would presumably be additional to the registration now required of importers for reasons of food security.

FDA has responded to some of these developments. An Assistant FDA Commissioner for Food Protection has been appointed to develop a comprehensive strategy for protecting the safety of both domestically-produced and imported food, and to enhance FDA's authority to intervene effectively and respond to food adulteration instances. FDA has also committed to implement a pilot data-mining program to identify and inspect up to 10 importers who bring in large quantities of high-risk foods into the U.

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