Archive for Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Many variables factor into food safety

November 6, 2007

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Quality control microbiologist Kim Egger inspects a bacteria culture taken from ground meat processed at the Excel slaughterhouse in Schuyler, Neb., in this June 2000 file photo. In the summer months, as many as one in every two cows processed at the Excel plant carry the deadly E. Coli 0157:H7 bacteria, but before the meat reaches consumers, it is put through a state-of-the-art system of scrubbing, washes, rinses and steam-pasteurization designed to remove most, if not all, of the bacteria.

Quality control microbiologist Kim Egger inspects a bacteria culture taken from ground meat processed at the Excel slaughterhouse in Schuyler, Neb., in this June 2000 file photo. In the summer months, as many as one in every two cows processed at the Excel plant carry the deadly E. Coli 0157:H7 bacteria, but before the meat reaches consumers, it is put through a state-of-the-art system of scrubbing, washes, rinses and steam-pasteurization designed to remove most, if not all, of the bacteria.

— Peanut butter is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. But chicken pot pies are the U.S. Department of Agriculture's responsibility. Frozen cheese pizzas - FDA. But if there's pepperoni on them, USDA has jurisdiction, too.

Critics of the nation's food safety system say that it is too fragmented and marked by overlapping authority, and they say that may help explain why dangerous foods keep slipping through and why contamination scares are handled in sometimes inconsistent ways.

"One of the underlying problems is the bifurcation of the regulatory system," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest's food safety division.

Critics also complain that the food safety system suffers from a shortage of money and inspectors and inadequate enforcement powers.

In the months ahead, Congress will consider several proposals to reform the system, including creation of a single food safety agency, an idea both the FDA and USDA oppose. A top FDA official said the agencies cooperate well now.

"We do not believe a single food safety agency would give us the efficiencies you can have from having two agencies responsible for 99 percent of the food that we eat in this country, both domestic and imported," said Richard Raymond, USDA undersecretary for food safety.

Century in the making

The government structure that protects the food supply took shape piecemeal over the past 101 years. The results could be seen in the way two recalls were handled over the past year.

When Peter Pan peanut butter was linked to a salmonella outbreak in February, ConAgra Foods Inc. recalled it as soon as federal health officials raised questions. But when ConAgra's Banquet-brand chicken and turkey pot pies were tied to a similar salmonella outbreak in October, the Omaha company waited two days to recall them, first issuing only a consumer health warning.

Peanut butter is regulated by the FDA, while pot pies are regulated by the USDA because USDA has long had authority over meat and poultry.

Ready-to-eat foods like peanut butter, which is eaten right out of the jar, receive closer scrutiny because there is greater danger if harmful bacteria are present in those foods. Products like pot pies must be cooked first, and proper cooking kills most bacteria.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the pot pies sickened more than 270 people, the peanut butter at least 625.

Neither the FDA nor the USDA had the authority to order ConAgra to recall the products. In fact, all food recalls, except for those involving infant formula, are voluntary. Often, the government gets a product recalled by warning the company it could face bad publicity if it does not withdraw the food.

Different sets of rules

At least a dozen federal agencies share responsibility for keeping America's food safe, with the FDA and the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service playing the biggest roles. But none of the agencies use the same rule book.

In the two ConAgra contamination cases, it turns out that an FDA inspector hadn't been to the company's peanut butter plant in Georgia for two years before the recall, while a USDA inspector visits the Missouri pot pie plant daily.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest's DeWaal said the FDA cannot ensure a safe food supply. "The FDA's current domestic inspection program is a joke," she said.

A recent report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, noted that about 61 percent of the $1.7 billion the federal government spends on food safety went to the Agriculture Department in 2003, which is responsible for regulating about 20 percent of the food supply.

The FDA, which is responsible for most of the remaining 80 percent, gets only about 29 percent of the total.

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