From this year's flurry of news reports regarding E. coli outbreaks, contaminated seafood imports and product recalls of various persuasions, a couple of disturbing statistics have begun to emerge. Notably, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspects less than 1% of all food imported into the country, according to Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine. Also, the FDA has fewer than 650 food inspectors monitoring approximately 80% of the entire U.S. food supply, and stretched as thin as they are, these inspectors are often unable to visit the fields and food production facilities that the agency is responsible for more often than once every three to five years.
Of course, the vast majority of food consumed in the United States is as safe as always. But consumer advocacy groups have rightly recognized that without a stronger FDA, all of the current calls for more effective safety regulations and oversight — calls that are coming from industry groups as well as from legislators and consumers — could end up being toothless.
SN spoke with Chris Waldrop, Director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America, about the need to strengthen the FDA, and about how his group has worked with food industry trade groups on such programs as the Partnership for Food Safety Education. The following are excerpts from that interview.
SN: What do you think is going through the average consumer's mind right now regarding all of these recent food recalls, import scares and foodborne illness outbreaks?
Chris Waldrop: I think because we've seen so many of these incidents happen — one after another — consumers are becoming increasingly concerned about the safety of our food supply. If you have one major incident per year, it gets attention, but the fact that we're seeing these things over and over again, in the media every month, it creates a sense of unease. [Consumers] are starting to think that their food supply really isn't as safe as it needs to be, and it isn't being protected like it should be by the government.
SN: Where should concerned consumers point the blame?
CW: There's a number of different areas. One is funding for food safety; that's a big concern. The FDA, which is responsible for 80% of the U.S. food supply, has been drastically underfunded for the past five to seven years, and that is really impacting their ability to protect consumers. They've lost resources, they've lost personnel, they've lost inspectors. They've essentially been starved over the past several years, and it's made them much less effective in being able to prevent foodborne illness or a contamination event. At this point, they can't really act proactively, they pretty much just have to follow up after these events and find out what happened.
SN: The USDA has several thousand inspectors watching U.S. meat, poultry and egg production facilities, yet the FDA has fewer than 650 food inspectors who are responsible for pretty much everything else in the U.S. food supply, as well as the majority of the country's food imports. It looks like there's a huge disparity in how these different agencies approach food safety. What is going on here?
CW: Part of the difference is the way the laws are written for the USDA and the FDA. The USDA is required to provide continuous inspection of every single slaughterhouse in the country, all day long. For processing, an inspector has to visit the facilities at least once per day. As a result, there's a statutory mandate that these inspectors must be employed and in the plants on a regular basis. The FDA doesn't have that same mandate. They do inspections, but they only get to some food processing facilities once every five years or so.
SN: Obviously, 650 inspectors is not enough to ensure the safety of 80% of the U.S. food supply. What would be a more realistic number of inspectors to protect the domestic food supply, ensure import safety and speed up the recall process?
CW: I can't offer an exact number, but clearly it has to be significantly increased from where it is now. The other problem, though, is that they're dealing with 80% of the food supply. Logistically and financially for the government, it would be impossible to have an FDA inspector present in every food processing facility and on every farm in the country. But they do need to have at least enough inspectors to visit these facilities and farms on a more regular basis — once every five years is simply inadequate. They will still have to target their resources. Given limitations of funding, and the amount of food they have to cover, they'll still have to target their resources to the riskiest foods, the riskiest plants and, if you're looking at imports, the riskiest countries. But with the number of inspectors they have now, they can't even begin to do that.
SN: What do you think about the self-policing efforts made by industry groups such as the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, which was developed after last year's spinach-borne E. coli outbreak?
CW: The leafy greens industry has also called for mandatory regulation. We've supported that for a long time as well, and we were pleased to see that they were recognizing the need for that. Self-policing isn't going to gain back consumer confidence, and it's not going to ensure the safety of the food supply. Voluntary efforts are important, but at CFA, we still think there needs to be stronger regulation and an agency that's overseeing activities at farms and at processing plants to ensure that the companies are doing everything they possibly can.
SN: Several industry groups have been lobbying for more oversight and regulation, which, historically speaking, is an unusual stance for businesses to take with the government. What's going on? Are food businesses hoping that regulations they lobby for will be less stringent than something a legislator might propose on their own?
CW: That may be a calculation for some [businesses], but I think the produce industry certainly recognized that there was a need for more oversight and regulation, because they were hit so hard with that E. coli outbreak in spinach. The industry has come around to the idea that mandatory regulations aren't always a taboo. Also, it makes sense. If they can be involved in the regulation-making process, they might be able to help push it into a direction that they feel most comfortable with. It's always a process. They're recognizing that if they're out in front asking for it, they might have more of a say in what the regulations ultimately turn out to be.
SN: Similarly, before all of the import scares made Country of Origin Labeling requirements an inevitability, many industry groups were very opposed to the laws. One of the best arguments against COOL was that it was essentially a marketing program that the private sector shouldn't be forced to subsidize. Is that accurate, or will COOL help make food safer?
CW: We've supported mandatory COOL for a long time, and we agree that it's not a food safety program. But even though safety isn't its primary purpose, it does have food safety implications. Because of these concerns about overseas imports, consumers are looking for ways to identify where their food came from. In that sense, when you have foodborne illness outbreaks, or safety concerns raised by overseas imports, COOL is a way for consumers in the marketplace to purchase foods from places they feel most comfortable with. Places where they believe have acceptable safety standards.
SN: What are some of the things that CFA does to raise the consumer's voice on these issues?
CW: Our three areas of focus are consumer education, policy research and advocacy. We go to Congress, we go to federal agencies, and we advocate for the solution that would most benefit consumers. For whatever issue is there, we want to provide consumers with the best possible outcome.
SN: Does that ever involve working with food industry groups?
CW: It certainly does. For example, we helped found the Partnership for Food Safety Education (fightbac.org ). It's a partnership between consumer groups, the food industry, the federal government and trade groups [including the Produce Marketing Association, the United Fresh Produce Association, the International Dairy, Deli, Bakery Association and the Food Marketing Institute], and the main purpose is to educate consumers on four very simple messages about safely handling food, so that they can avoid foodborne illness when preparing food at home. We've worked very closely with industry groups trying to get that message out. And we also are working with industry groups in a coalition called the Coalition for a Stronger FDA. The purpose of that is solely to increase federal funding for the FDA across the board. That group includes representatives not only from the food industry, but also from the pharmaceutical industry, the medical device industry, patient groups and other consumer groups. All of those groups are realizing that a weak FDA is not helping anybody. It's hurting consumers, and it's causing confidence to be lost in all of these industries. We're always willing to work with groups on any issue where we have a common outcome that we're trying to achieve.