Rethinking Healthcare

How much safer should food get?

How much safer should food get?

Posting in Food

When Senators met this week they were expecting hosannas, following release of a study saying the Act could save 5,000 lives a year. Instead they got a stern lecture from FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, who called the proposal weak.

The answer is it should be perfectly safe. But how much effort should government expend to guarantee it, as opposed to the market or the plaintiff's bar?

That is the question Congress is considering with S. 510, the Food Safety Modernization Act. The debate comes a little over a century after the Food & Drug Administration's founding, and following a rash of recalls that shocked people almost as much as Progressive muckrakers did a century ago.

Consumer groups stand behind the proposed bill, saying it will increase inspections, create minimum standards, and impose the same requirements on imported food we have on domestic produce.

When Senators met this week they were expecting hosannas, following release of a study saying the Act could save 5,000 lives a year.

Instead they got a stern lecture from FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, (above) who called the proposal weak. (Conservatives were aghast at the appointment, as seen in this thread at Free Republic.)

Meet the new boss, quite different from the old boss.

"S. 510 does not provide FDA with explicit authority to access food records during routine inspections," she said. Hamburg called for more information sharing between agencies, for food that fails FDA tests to be clearly labeled "adulterated," for more enforcement and (most important) for more money.

"The current inspection mandate in the bill will far outstrip our current resources," she said sharply. The federal government should be giving states multi-year grants when their inspections meet FDA guidelines.

The riskiest foods to eat today are also among the healthiest -- leafy greens, eggs and tuna. There have been 363 disease outbreaks for lettuce alone, 352 covering eggs, and 268 on tuna. Current law does not require food safety plans or specific standards for even the largest growers. High-risk facilities should be visited at least once a year, and almost none are.

All this policing will take money. It would likely come from fees paid by processors for necessary inspections.

But you can also hear the cries from critics:

  • Higher taxes will make U.S. producers less competitive and raise prices for everyone.
  • Tighter regulations make it ever-less likely Americans will get to enjoy treats foreign eaters take for granted, like cheese from unpasteurized milk and Italian-made salami, which foodies love.

Better regulations do not insure better diets, the industry will say. Productive companies with decent safety records should not be burdened with new taxes and regulations. Small companies will suffer. Poor people will find good food unaffordable.

Are you with the critics or with the regulators?

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure