If the current administration has its way, government bureaucracy will be getting a little bit bigger. In his weekly address on March 14, President Barack Obama announced the formation of a Food Safety Group that together with cabinet secretaries and senior officials, will advise him on how food safety laws can be upgraded and improved. “There are certain things only a government can do. And one of those things is ensuring that the foods we eat, and the medicines we take, are safe and don’t cause us harm,”the President stated.
Coming on the heels of this address was the release of a 34-page report by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The report recommends extreme changes within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in the interest of protecting our country’s food supply. Keeping America’s Food Safe: A Blueprint for Fixing the Food Safety System at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends sweeping changes, including putting a high level Food and Drug Administration (FDA) official in charge of food safety. Incredibly, the report states, there “is no single official at the FDA whose full-time job is food safety and who has line authority over all elements of FDA’s food-safety program.”
The Trust also echoes the chorus of people calling for the split of the FDA into two distinct entities ” one that oversees the regulation of food safety, and one that regulates drugs. Proponents of the split feel a division is in the best interest of the American public. There are already bills in Congress that include splitting the FDA into two agencies ” one for food and the other for drugs and medical devices.
The call for this change in the FDA comes in the wake of several salmonella outbreaks attributed to tainted peanuts, although in recent years there have been other food safety issues, including e-coli problems, unsafe spinach, and trouble with tomatoes, peppers and scallions. According to published research, one in four Americans ” roughly 76 million people ” are sickened by foodborne disease each year. Approximately 325,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 will die. “It costs us around $44 billion annually in medical care and lost productivity, so the stakes are really high,” said Michelle Larkin of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “The cost of doubling funding for the proposed FDA’s food program ” to a little over $1 billion annually ” pales in comparison”
“To say that food safety in this country is a patchwork system is giving it too much credit,”says Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) and chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. “Food safety in America has become a hit-or-miss gamble, and that is truly frightening”
“Americans must be able to trust that the food sold in their grocery stores and restaurants is safe,”said Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) and ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee. “It is critical to ensure that the Food and Drug Administration has the tools it needs to properly monitor and inspect the food that is consumed in this country”
Democrats and Republicans agreed to work together to pass a broad array of changes in the nation’s food safety system although there was disagreement on crucial details, including whether or not the FDA should be split into two entities.
Pharmaceutical industry executives, however, have lauded the idea, saying it would streamline the approval process for new drugs, devices and treatments. Currently, it can take years for possible curative drugs to be approved for use within the general population. A separation of the FDA is viewed as a solution to maintaining optimum safety while still providing a speedy path for getting goods to market.
The transition to a new structure for food safety will require an investment of time and effort, not to mention an exorbitant budget and an aggregation of talented individuals from all sectors of the agricultural and food industries. However, the cost of not acting may be greater, as less and less resources are available for the policing of existing regulations and inspections of food related processing and distribution plants (existing laws, by the way, date back to 1906 and 1938). As the report states in its conclusion, “A fragmented, disempowered food safety program makes poor use of taxpayer dollars, and it imposes substantial economic and personal costs on people who experience preventable foodborne illness”
Supporters are hoping for a swift effort by the Obama administration to consolidate leadership within the FDA, followed by Congressional action to create a separate Food Safety Administration. We’ll keep you updated.
QUESTION: Research says one in four Americans is stricken by foodborne illnesses each year. Have you been affected by tainted food? Tell us how.