Unsafe food can lead to illness and death, and disproportionately harms the most vulnerable members of society. While Americans are fortunate to enjoy a food supply among the safest in the world, there is significant room for improvement. Barely a month goes by without a recall of tainted food.
To evaluate how well the government uses science to protect the food supply, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), working with researchers at Iowa State University, sent a 44-question survey to nearly 8,000 food safety employees at the FDA and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which together oversee our food system. More than 1,700 employees responded.
The results reveal a food safety system where special interests and public officials all too often inhibit the ability of government scientists and inspectors to protect the food supply.
The August 2010 recall of shell eggs due to Salmonella contamination, as well as the 2006 outbreak of illness due to Escherichia coli in spinach, has brought the topic of food safety into the public spotlight. Roughly 76 million Americans still suffer from foodborne illnesses each year.
While many of these illnesses are mild, they result in more than 300,000 hospitalizations and some 5,000 deaths annually (Mead et al. 1999). A recent study by a former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) economist puts the total pricetag of foodborne illness related to produce in the United States at $152 billion annually (Scharf 2010).
Because of globalization and the complexity of our food supply chain, foodborne disease outbreaks today are more widespread and difficult to isolate than in the past. Food policy experts agree that the market cannot regulate itself. Some food producers prioritize profits over public health, and consumers typically do not have the ability to identify contaminated food by sight or smell.
Reforms aimed at restoring scientific integrity are needed to combat the political and corporate interference at the FDA and USDA. The laws governing the system badly need to be updated to meet twenty-first-century challenges.
Congress should give the FDA and USDA the authority to mandate food recalls, establish a science-based system for detecting harmful pathogens in the food supply, require food manufacturers to disclose more information to the government, and increase government surveillance of food imports. Congress also should provide adequate resources to more effectively police the food supply. Only then can the frequency and scale of disease outbreaks decline.