by Marion Nestle
Dec 29 2011

Food safety: it’s déjà vu all over again

In preparation for the holiday season, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack held a press conference  to promote the departments’ efforts on food safety.

They announced release of the administration’s progress report from its Food Safety Working Group.

They also highlighted additional places to get government information about food safety at home:

I didn’t pay much attention to these announcements until I read the slightly snarky account in Food Chemical News (December 22). 

The Obama administration patted itself on the back today with a new report that both lists the accomplishments over the past three years of its Food Safety Working Group (FSWG) and identifies the group’s top priorities for the coming year.

Released just minutes before a short media call that served as more of a pep rally, The Federal Food Safety Working Group Progress Report, a 31-page document, summarizes for stakeholders a host of activities that have taken place at government agencies over the past three years related to detecting foodborne pathogens, enhancing surveillance, responding to food safety problems, improving food safety at the retail level and educating consumers.

The list of the administration’s food safety accomplishments is long and detailed, and many are impressive.

But what the report does not say is telling.  Neither the USDA nor FDA have the resources or power to require the industries they supposedly regulate to produce safe food.

As Mark Bittman explains in his Opinionator column in the New York Times, politics defeats even the most rational and thoroughly science-based safety measures, leaving the FDA unable to do much more than politely request “voluntary guidance” of industry.

Bittman focuses on the political barriers to doing what the FDA has been asking for since 1977:  a ban on the use of antibiotics for non-therapeutic purposes, in this case to make food animals grow faster.   The result: “Bacteria 1, FDA 0.”

Here’s the nut: The F.D.A. has no money to spare, but the corporations that control the food industry have all they need, along with the political power it buys.

That’s why we can say this without equivocation: public health, the quality of our food, and animal welfare  are all sacrificed to the profits that can be made by raising animals in factories….Animals move from farm to refrigerator case in record time; banning prophylactic drugs would slow this process down, and with it the meat industry’s rate of profit.

Lawmakers beholden to corporate money are not about to let that happen, at least not without a fight.

For more than 20 years, the Government Accountability Office has called for creation of a single food safety agency that unites the safety oversight functions of the FDA and USDA and has the authority to require food to be produced safely.

In this Congress?  Hopeless.

But Congress can be changed—and that’s a worthy thought for the new year.



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  • Scott Smith

    Regulators only regulate the amount of damage that can be done by the corporations to whom they are beholden. We, the US population, are regarded in terms of how much “product” can be safely ingested at an arbitrarily defined acceptable level of risk defined in parts per million (PPM). A single PPM increment on the bad side is all the difference needed to change from acceptable to an “Unacceptable Level of Risk.” Safety is more appropriately defined in terms of “they don’t want us to die suddenly” but chronic sub-clinical ill-health is perfectly acceptable.

  • Margeretrc

    We can also vote with our pocketbooks. I am retired and on a fixed income, and not a great one at that. But I would rather pay more for and eat less of–as per Michael Pollan in “In Defense of Food”–safe, high quality pastured meat (particularly beef) and dairy than risk the numerous health consequences, both short and long term (all expensive!), from regularly eating food that has been raised on antibiotics and food the animal is not designed to eat. I also prefer not to support inhumane and unsafe treatment of the animals I eat. I can cut corners elsewhere, but never when it comes to food for me and my family–at least not any more. Do I wish the powers that be would ban the use of antibiotics and other inhumane and unsafe practices? Yes. Am I holding my breath waiting for that to happen? No. I can and do take matters into my own hands.

  • Anthro

    I take matters “into my own hands” as well, but this does little to help the millions of people who don’t even know much about the problem. They just go to the local supermarket and get what they can as the best price they can. They trust that it won’t kill them or make them horribly ill. The Congress is supposed to be informed (lobbyists don’t count) about the science of safe food and they have been being told since 1977 that antibiotics are harming animals and humans.

    So even though I don’t even eat meat regularly, I am concerned about the long term consequences to humans and animals of the over use of antibiotics and I will vote accordingly. I will give money in a targeted manner to candidates and groups who support public health. I vote with my purse as well by obtaining what little meat I consume in an environmentally responsible way

    I read Bittman’s column with dismay (I had no idea this tortured history went all the way back to 1977!) and regret. Perhaps his column will reach far enough to start something in Washington, but I won’t hold my breath either. Hopefully, enough of us, doing what we can, will begin to impact the bottom lines of the factory meat business–that is the only protest they hear.

  • iRememberWhen

    Gosh Madonna, are you gonna offer that snark to the families of the 68 kids who died of food poisoning in 2010? Real easy to make fun of that, huh?

  • It’s the most important thing – the quality of our food. But it’s still did not improve!

  • Linda Duffy

    They are out of money, yet can spend all kinds of cash stalking Amish farmers and harassing raw milk drinkers???

  • Anthro

    It’s always fun to see the trolls check in when their turf is being exposed! Assuming the names of celebs and presidents is so very clever!