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
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
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.
* * *
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
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. …