Why Isn’t Food Safety Part of the Stimulus Bill?

By Nikhil Swaminathan, 11 February, 2009, No Comment

The New York Times reported on the conditions of the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) plant in Blakely, GA, on Monday. A couple of things are clear from its piece: PCA was not invested enough to make sure they were shipping a safe product, and, perhaps more damning, the state of Georgia was not equipped with the proper personnel to maintain the integrity of its food supply.

“[I]nspection reports on the Peanut Corporation of America plant over the last three years show that state inspectors — Georgia has only 60 agents to monitor 16,000 food-handling businesses — missed major problems that workers say were chronic. … Georgia officials said budget constraints and other outbreaks of food-borne illnesses diminished their abilities to inspect the peanut plants. … Inspecting the plant was the responsibility of Georgia, which like 42 other states is under contract with the Food and Drug Administration to monitor food plants. The agency’s Science Board concluded in 2007 that the agency did not have the capacity to ensure a safe food supply, with domestic businesses under its purview having risen to 65,500 from 51,000 in 2001.”

There is a first step solution to this problem: Hire and train more inspectors and keep them as a continuous presence in a plant.

According to former USDA Undersecretary Richard Raymond (whom I interviewed last year for a Scientific American story that never ran), that agency—which monitors meat and poultry products–has inspectors in slaughterhouses on a daily and continuous basis. The number of inspectors at each plant is proportional to the amount of product made there. Even with this sort of strict oversight, problems—such as the huge ground beef recall of 2007 due to E. coli 0157:H7—still occur. Finding out that the FDA (and its subcontractors) aren’t even getting near this level of oversight is extremely distressing.

Last year, while campaigning, President Obama was one of the legislators calling for reform of our food safety system. “When I am president, it will not be business as usual when it comes to food safety,” he said, according to a recent Times piece. “I will provide additional resources to hire more federal food inspectors.”

Democrats proposed a bill in late January to get food and drug-makers to pay fees to FDA, so that the agency can increase the frequency of inspections. I can just see corporate America loving that.

My solution: Fold money for inspectors on both state and federal levels into the so-called “bloated” stimulus bill being rammed through Congress. Would Republicans have mocked provisions for ensuring the safety of the food supply the way they did condom distribution programs? Probably not. And the inspections wouldn’t cost corporate America a dime—well, except in taxes.

The point of the stimulus bill after all is to create jobs, correct? So, why not kill two birds with one stone? Add provisions to the bill that call for more FDA or state inspectors at everything from facilities that produce dog food to plants that make peanut products. It would create thousands of jobs in mostly rural areas all over the country. And these people will need better training. Who is going to train them? How about a whole new fleet of outreach, education and training workers?

It seems to me that as important as dreaming up the new smart grid, retrofitting buildings and building new roads and bridges is protecting what we eat every day just to live. New legislation regarding how best to deploy these people—by creating a single food safety-devoted agency (rather than the 12 we have now)—is important and certainly necessary. The FDA’s failure in protecting our food supply, however, needs swift correction now. Under its watch, in just the last three years, we’ve seen contamination to spinach, pet food, tomatoes, jalapeñoes, milk products and now peanuts.

The immediate solution to this problem is people–more manpower, more watchful eyes. People cost money. And government seems more than prepared to spend it. So why not on this?

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