In 2009, during yet another foodborne illness outbreak, which had killed nine people and sickened more than 700 with Salmonella, our new president stated:
At a bare minimum, we should be able to count on our government keeping our kids safe when they eat peanut butter…. That’s what Sasha eats for lunch…. probably three times a week. I don’t want to worry about whether she’s going to get sick as a consequence of eating her lunch.
In addition to the sick and dead, and the worry of the most powerful dad in the world, this needless outbreak caused 4,000 products to be recalled and acres of unwanted peanuts to be plowed under. Besides the illnesses and deaths, estimates on the loss to the economy was more than half a billion dollars. That outbreak and scores of others involving spinach, lettuce, cheese, cookie dough, sprouts, and pot pies – common items in the shopping aisles – prompted Republicans and Democrats to reach across the political aisle and pass the House version of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) in the summer of 2009. The Senate passed its version – barely – just before Christmas 2010. The president quietly signed it into law. All agreed that it was the largest, and most comprehensive, safe food overhaul in political history. For the past five years, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has worked to implement FSMA with a limited budget and with very little White House or Congressional support. Although new regulations have been slowly forthcoming, only minor increases in FDA inspections of domestically and imported food products have occurred, and the outbreaks and recalls – costing our economy billions of dollars – have continued. Even our exports have suffered. Southeast Asia recently banned U.S. apples after a caramel apple-linked Listeria outbreak in the U.S. killed at least three people and sickened 30. Could we also make a food safety system more rational than one where the FDA regulates cheese pizza, but FSIS does if pepperoni is added, or where FDA inspects fish, but FSIS regulates catfish? Could we actually make our food supply safer and more efficient by consolidating more than a dozen agencies with some food oversight into one where the goal becomes the reality of the safest food supply in the world? What could a president and a Congress, unable to agree even on table setting, let alone how to make the food they and our families eat safer, do? In the past month, there have been some promising appetizers served up. First, Senator Durban and Congresswoman DeLauro proposed consolidating the food side of FDA and USDA (and a baker’s dozen of other agencies) into one. Then, just a few weeks ago, the president put a whole meal on the Congressional table by inserting into the White House’s budget the Durban/DeLauro single food safety agency, along with moving the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) foodborne illness outbreak surveillance and investigation arm into a more unified food safety system. Of course, the attacks have come from all quarters. Some in industry – despite the benefits of real regulatory successes – complain about more unified regulation. Some in consumer groups simply argue that the perfect should always be the enemy of the good. And, finally, many in Congress simply will disagree just to be disagreeable. We should do better and do something. The recent proposals by members of Congress and the president have merit, and we all deserve that they have a reasoned, vigorous, and open discussion. Yes, the president and Congress have a lot on their plates for the next 22 months, and perhaps safe food is not the main course, but it certainly can be a meal that is shared regardless of your political point of view. Remember this: There is only one person who benefits from doing nothing, and that person is me.