Recently the Food and Drug Administration reported that 12 percent of all U.S. spice imports were contaminated with non-spice-like objects, including whole insects and rodent hairs.
As Americans, we are lucky to have FDA, which has been (for years) comprehensively studying the issue of spice safety and is moving toward the possibility of sharing its “concerns” about the issue with foreign officials.
This is what FDA does, and this is what it does well. The agency identifies threats to our nation’s food supply and works to protect the American public from these dangers.
The prohibitions against adulteration and misbranding in the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which have been in place since 1938, work to remove dangerous food from the marketplace. And the Food Safety Modernization Act, passed in 2011, reorients the agency from a reactive to a preventive stance on foodborne pathogens.
So what doesn’t FDA do well? Everything else other than regarding food.
But while the nation is suffering a food-related health crisis – obesity – FDA’s mandate has it focused on an extremely narrow conception of what food “safety” actually means.
At the same time the article on spice contamination ran, lead stories in the papers were about the troubled roll-out of the Affordable Care Act’s health insurance website and its potential political effects. The ACA is a massive legislative attempt to fix the broken healthcare system in our country by, among other things, significantly expanding access to health insurance to more Americans. To accomplish this goal, “Obamacare” must also succeed in lowering the cost of healthcare, which currently comprises almost 18 percent of the country’s economic activity.
Americans spend more on health care than on anything else and more on health care than any other country. Why do we pay so much for our health care? The reasons are myriad, but one significant factor is the rise in chronic disease related to the U.S. obesity epidemic.
Here is where we need to broaden our understanding of what food safety means.
What could be more unsafe than our food supply’s contribution to a disease that kills so many Americans? There has been no lack of attention to this issue, and, just as the causes of the rise in obesity are multiple, interconnected, and poorly understood, so are any solutions.
One thing is clear, though, and that is that any solution will be broad-based and interdisciplinary and will extend beyond what people eat, beyond nutrition policy, and beyond the treatment of disease. Just a small slice of the problems to be addressed include economic inequality, education disparity, shortsighted land use, inadequate public transportation, and wasteful food-distribution networks.
In short, a holistic food systems approach is needed to even begin to temper the obesity epidemic and thus begin to reach the associated high costs of health care.
So where does the contamination of imported spices come into all of this? It doesn’t. FDA is focused on the minimization of pathogens and consequent foodborne illness, which is important, but entails an extremely narrow conception of food “safety.”
To illustrate the disconnect between FDA’s focus and a food systems approach to food safety, we can look to the world of academia.
This past May, I participated in a vibrant and inspiring conference on FDA in the 21st century held by the Petrie-Flom Center at Harvard Law School. There, more than 30 scholars discussed the future of FDA and the agency’s most challenging and intricate problems. Striking, however, was the dearth of discussion about food. Out of nine panels, only one had a focus on food regulation, and this panel, with four presentations, also included dietary supplements and tobacco regulation.
In contrast, I attended another conference last week on food systems held by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, where the entire focus was food. Scholars of agriculture and the environment, as well as activists and organizers, discussed how our nation’s food is grown, how it is distributed, how we manage the land, and issues of food access and social justice. But issues of food safety, as regulated and managed by FDA, were largely absent.
FDA regulates 80 to 90 percent of our food supply. Its fiscal year 2014 budget request for its food program was more than $1.1 billion, almost a quarter of its total budget. It is a massive agency with enormous resources and a vast expertise in food. Congress must rethink FDA’s mandate when it comes to what we eat, broaden its definition of food safety, and allow the agency to adapt to the problems of the 21st century.© Food Safety News