Recent food safety struggles suggest the limits of regulation
It’s been a bad week for food safety. First it was the peanut butter, then it was the high fructose corn syrup, and now it’s deadly antibiotic-resistant staph bacteria (MRSA) in CAFO pigs (and their minders). And of course, as Bill Marler — litigious scourge of the food industry — reminds us, we’re continuing to lose the fight against E. coli.
Much has been written about the efforts to track down the sources of contamination. And invariably the companies involved quickly close the their doors (which is how we lost one of the largest ground beef distributors in the country virtually overnight and why the Peanut Corporation of America is no more). But what’s truly worrisome is that in each case, the USDA and the FDA (who have joint responsibility for food safety) had information at hand about all of these problems.
In the case of the peanut butter outbreak, the plant in question had a long-documented history of health violations — discovered, not by the FDA, but by local Georgia authorities to whom the FDA had contracted out inspection services. In essence, short of allowing self-regulation, the FDA managed to find an entity that enjoys even cozier relationships with industry than the FDA itself has. In theory, the Georgia Agriculture Department should have forwarded on reports of violations to federal officials. There’s no word yet on where in the lines of communication the breakdown occurred.
Meanwhile, the HFCS situation would be comical if not for the fact that mercury is, like, a poison. And, according to a report in Environmental Health [PDF, abstract], it might be in that Coke you’re drinking right now. As Tom Philpott dryly points out, despite the fact that HFCS processing requires a
witch’s chemist’s brew of industrial solvents and genetically engineered enzymes, the FDA still considers it a “natural” ingredient. As for the source of the mercury, two of the chemicals used in HFCS manufacturing, caustic soda (aka lye) and hydrochloric acid, are still commonly harvested as byproducts from the industrial chlorine manufacturing process. That process involves forcing mercury through seawater — and now it appears some of the mercury is passed on all the way through to HFCS. The research exposing all this states unequivocally that this discovery represents a “significant additional source of mercury” exposure. But, hey, mercury is natural, too!
And who was the brave investigator toiling in obscurity who uncovered all this? None other than a former FDA scientist who performed the mercury tests way back in 2005 while she was working at the FDA. Oddly, the FDA showed no interest in investigating at the time and it was only after she left the agency that she was able to finalize the research and conclusively demonstrate that mercury contamination in HFCS is a real threat. Another case of food contamination, another potential cover-up.
Finally, we get to the pork problem. This one goes back at least to last spring when a researcher released preliminary results suggesting pigs in CAFOs were contaminated with MRSA. At the time, the FDA issued assurances that there was no evidence that pork sold for retail from any source was infected with MRSA. They could say this with great confidence and no cover-up potential whatsoever. Because, of course, the FDA has never tested for it. And surely, now that the study has been released, they’ll start testing? Sadly, no.
If this research is borne out, it represents a significant threat to public health and safety. MRSA is one of those superbugs that the folks at the CDC lose sleep over. If CAFOs harbor MRSA in any significant numbers, the whole industry, which relies on routine doses of antibiotics to keep animals healthy, faces a serious crisis (which some of us think is a good thing). The FDA, naturally, has repeatedly ruled the practice safe, despite objections from public health officials.
It’s understandable then, that USDA chief Tom Vilsack is less concerned with creating whole new regulatory structures for food safety and more concerned with making the ones that we have actually work. But continuing to mix boosterism and regulation — as many of our federal agencies including the FDA and the USDA do — will inevitably lead to these kind of breakdowns. And though you can come up with laundry list after laundry list of changes to penalties, enforcement, inspections, and agencies that would improve matters, the frequency and seriousness of each outbreak suggests well-intentioned reform may not be enough.
That the output of one contaminated peanut processing plant could require the recall of hundreds of varied and unrelated products and could kill eight people and sicken over 400 in more than 40 states across the country suggests we may have reached the limits of consolidation in the food industry. You’d think that such centralization of food production would make regulation easier. Indeed, the ease of regulation, along with low cost, was one of the prime alleged advantages of consolidation. But we’re seeing not just production failures, but the wholesale failure of the regulatory structures themselves. Well, food is cheap anyway.
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