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If I Had a Magic Wand for Food Safety

Editor’s note: If you had a magic wand, how would you conjure up ways to make the food supply safe?  We asked several people to consider the possibilities. Here is another response, from author and professor Marion Nestle, who writes about food issues on her blog Food Politics.

Bill Marler, the food safety lawyer in Seattle, is asking for responses to the question, “if you had a magic wand, how would you fix the food safety system?” 

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I’ve been mulling over his question in light of the recent enactment of the food safety bill, as yet unfunded.  Magic wand in hand, here’s what I’d do:

Create a single food safety agency: the new law is designed to fix the FDA.  It does nothing to fix the USDA’s food safety functions.  These remain divided between the two agencies, with USDA responsible for the safety of meat and poultry, and FDA responsible for everything else.  This division pretends that animal wastes have nothing to do with the safety of fruits and vegetables which, alas, they do. 

Require safety control systems for all foods.  Everyone who produces food should do it safely using proven methods for identifying where hazards can occur, taking steps to prevent those hazards, monitoring to make sure the steps were taken, and–when appropriate– testing to make sure the system is working. 

Apply safety controls from farm to table.  The new law does this for FDA-regulated foods.  But USDA safety regulations begin at the slaughterhouse after animals have already been contaminated in feedlots or in transport.  Everyone involved in food production, even farmers large and small, should be actively engaged in food safety efforts.

Fund food safety through congressional health committees.  For irrational reasons of history, the FDA gets its funding through agricultural committees, not health–even though FDA is an agency of the Public Health Service within the Department of Health and Human Services.   As a consequence, the FDA is at the mercy of appropriations committees whose mandate is to protect agricultural interests.  This anomaly explains why 80 percent of food safety funding goes to USDA, and only 20 percent to FDA.  The new chair of the House agricultural appropriations committee has made it clear that he does not believe FDA needs any more funding.   Health appropriations committees might view FDA’s role in food safety in a more favorable light.

Fund food safety adequately.  To protect the domestic food supply–and to ensure the safety of imported foods–more money is needed to pay for inspection, testing, and research. 

Give the food agency cabinet-level status.  Everyone eats.  Food safety affects everyone.  Food has critically important economic and food security dimensions, domestically and internationally.   

Require election campaigns to be publicly funded, with no loopholes. This is the only way we will be able to remove corruption from our political system and elect officials who care more about public health than corporate health.

Require Wall Street to rate corporations on long-term sustainability.  Wall Street pressures on corporations to report growth every quarter are at the root of corner-cutting on food safety.  Food corporations should be valued for excellent food safety records and for maintaining high ethical standards in every aspect of their business.

Even a magic wand may not be enough to do this.  It will take more than a magic wand to do this, I fear.  Hey, I can dream.

© Food Safety News
  • Doc Mudd

    “…rate corporations on long-term sustainability…Food corporations should be valued for excellent food safety records and for maintaining high ethical standards in every aspect of their business.”
    Yet another definition of “sustainable”: food safety and ethical standards.
    ‘Sustainability’ has become one of the most bastardized and meaningless buzzwords of our generation.
    It is now a true synonym for supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!
    [soo-per-kal-uh-fraj-uh-lis-tik-ek-spee-al-i-doh-shuhs]
    –adjective
    (used as a nonsense word by children to express approval.)
    [sus-tane-a-bull]
    -adjective
    (used as a nonsense word by child-like dreamers to express approval. Also employed as a weapon by activist zealots to attack anything they disapprove of.)
    Thank you, Mary Poppins and Marion Nestle

  • If I had a magic wand for food safety, we wouldn’t need a regulatory agency at all. That is as unrealistic as having zero risk of foodborne illness.
    Rather than a wand, I see an executive committee screen saver on their cell phones and computers. Here they are greeted each day with a reminder of their personal commitment to the well being of their consumer.”It’s job one” and it’s not magic, just common sense.
    This screen saver then morphs to serve up a P&L for the day. Here is the magic – it has a safety standard in the form of a Go-No-Go gauge for each of the day’s executive decisions.
    This eliminates the dangers of gradualism where well intentioned employees are rewarded for ideas to save and grow at the expense of a poorly written, poorly understood and never enforced standard.

  • If I had a magic wand for food safety, we wouldn’t need a regulatory agency at all. That is as unrealistic as having zero risk of foodborne illness.
    Rather than a wand, I see an executive committee screen saver on their cell phones and computers. Here they are greeted each day with a reminder of their personal commitment to the well being of their consumer.”It’s job one” and it’s not magic, just common sense.
    This screen saver then morphs to serve up a P&L for the day. Here is the magic – it has a safety standard in the form of a Go-No-Go gauge for each of the day’s executive decisions.
    This eliminates the dangers of gradualism where well intentioned employees are rewarded for ideas to save and grow at the expense of a poorly written, poorly understood and never enforced standard.

  • Lou Alfano

    A few quick observations:
    Were a new “Food Agency” to be created, what would happen to safety problems associated with drugs and with medical devices?
    WHICH agency would be responsible for regulating so-called “dietary supplements” – the stuff that looks and is packaged like medicines, makes vague “not quite medicinal” claims, and is marketed in a manner more associated with drugs than with foods?
    When will Congress awaken to the stupidity of allowing prescription drugs to be advertised to the public in the mass media? Doctors are placed in an untenable position when a patient demands a prescription for “X,” when “X” is totally unsuitable for the patient. I see no harm in advertising prescription drugs in professional medical journals, this at least keeps physicians somewhat up-to-date on what may be available, but the general public is too ignorant to decide that “X” is better than “Y” for a particular condition.
    It’ll take LOTS more than a “Magic Wand.”

  • Mark

    If I had a magic wand I would do a lot more than just fix the food safety. I would take the advice of Shakespeare; “First we kill all the lawyers!”

  • Michael Bulger

    “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”. – (Henry VI. Act IV, Scene II). Spoken by the character Dick the Butcher.
    A killer and a vulgar villain, Dick the Butcher was a follower of Jack Cade. As to Jack Cade, the real-life Jack Cade led a short rebellion that featured the looting of London and the decapitation of several men.
    Shakespeare was apparently not a fan of Cade. To say Shakespeare was a fan of all lawyers would almost certainly be too bold. Still, these are the words of a character in a play. Shakespeare should be allotted some poetic license, or else how might we thank him for the conflicts he left us on the page?

  • Lou Alfano

    Steven –
    Have you any idea of the massive bureaucracy that your proposal would require? If such a series of agencies were to be attempted at the federal level, there would be all kinds of constitutional problems. The question of the Federal government REQUIRING such a rigorous series of tests to be made at all levels would raise a great hue and cry as to COST – testing is NOT cheap at any level, and repeated duplicative tests would do much less for food safety than they would to increase the costs of all foods.
    Your proposals would die a million deaths in litigation, at phenominally great expense.