The Food Safety Net

The E. coli-tainted spinach that killed three and sickened 200 people in 26 states and Canada has again focused attention on whether food safety oversight in the U.S. is too fractured. The National Academy of Sciences, the government’s General Accounting Agency, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest and other consumer groups have long called for one central agency to oversee food safety. So have at least a few members of Congress.

I think they have a point. If you and a bunch of other folks who ate burgers at the Grease Palace USA chain get sick, your doctors will report it to the Centers for Disease Control. The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates meat, so the burger patty falls under its jurisdiction. The Food and Drug Administration will get involved because it regulates the bun, lettuce, tomato and mayo. Your state health agency regulates restaurants. If toxic substances are involved somehow, the EPA will be called in.

The spinach case was actually a simple one, relatively speaking–the FDA regulates produce, packaged or otherwise.

To be fair, the regulators involved in food safety cooperate remarkably well considering they’re government agencies. Food safety experts tracked down the source of the E. coli contamination in the spinach to a certain area, and finally to cow manure from ranches in that area—an impressive feat. And the agencies involved point out that reported illnesses linked to E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria declined significantly from 1998 to 2005. (The CDC estimates foodborne illnesses sicken 76 million Americans every year, killing 5,000 of them and putting another 300,000 in the hospital.)

But in a world where the food you eat comes from everywhere and is combined in ways not even dreamed of 50 years ago (who could have predicted a burger on a doughnut?), the detective work needed to track down the source of an outbreak is difficult enough. It seems to me it would be easier if one agency was in charge.

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