HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas

A Five-Year Trek for Food Safety

Let’s celebrate the five-year trek from promise to reality: food safety rules. (“US Makes Final an Array of Rules on Food Safety,” Sabrina Tavernise, Sept. 10, 2015, New York Times)

Food fuels not just our bodies, but our psyches, giving us the pleasure of a hot fudge sundae on a hot summer afternoon. Yet that same human ambrosia can make us sick.

Regularly physicians record patients’ stomach aches, headaches, their lethargy – occasionally their deaths – and investigative scientists trace the culprit: contaminated food. Maybe ice cream. Maybe spinach. Maybe cucumbers. Maybe peanut butter. Maybe even ice cream.

Once researchers identify the culprit, the government’s food-police spring into action, much like a posse, with roundups of food, testing, more roundups, and, ultimately, recalls. Then of course the processor will improve processing to eliminate the salmonella, listeria, or whatever bacteria has infected eaters.

The inefficiency of the reactive posse has long alarmed consumers. Why wait until an outbreak of disease before investigating a plant? Why not insist on safe processing? Why not inspect farms? Why wait for the few literally bad apples in the nation’s food supply to make a statistically significant number of us sick?

Yet commonsense has not jibed with government’s eagerness to placate the food industry.

So today’s five-year trek merits praise. Five years ago, consumers cheered the Obama Administration’s promise to overhaul the pro-producer, anti-consumer modus operandi at the Food and Drug Administration. The statistics argued for an overhaul: each year the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 48 million Americans get sick from food, often food they think nutritious, like cucumbers and spinach; 3,000 of these people die. January 4, 2011, President Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act, the first “modernization” of regulations in 79 years. Hooray!

That promise took five years to take hold. At last the rules, passed late this summer, call for regular inspections of food-processing plants - often simple sanitation measures, the ones commonplace in restaurants. Farms will have to guard against contaminated water and intrusive pests. Inspectors who used to inspect high-risk plants every 10 years will inspect them every 3 years. Plants will need to turn over records to inspectors. The law exempts farms that produce vegetables that are consumed only after cooking or canning (like sweet potatoes and pumpkins), as well as plants that sell less than a million dollars worth of product.

Critics contend that the problem does not justify the oversight costs – estimated by the Congressional Budget Office at $1.4 billion over the first 5 years. Those critics (presumably people who have never suffered through a bout of salmonella) argue that, relatively speaking, only a small number of Americans get sick each year; and the media, coupled with cyberspace warnings, ensure that producers quickly correct whatever is awry. Indeed, the critics contend that the specter of media-exposure will drive producers to act responsibly: a producer publicly lambasted as the culprit in an outbreak of something will risk bankruptcy. (Late this August, Blue Bell resumed production of ice cream, after an outbreak of listeria that effectively shuttered its plants. The company ended up laying off one-third of its workforce.) Not surprisingly, Republicans in Congress have balked at increasing the funding of the FDA to support this Act. In fact, they have pledged to decrease overall funding. But Republicans have balked at most increases in government funding.

This Act, though, transforms government from reactor to protector. As I munch on an apple, or slather peanut butter on toast, I praise the bureaucrats who persevered, over five years, to make the rules happen.

Joan Retsinas is a sociologist who writes about health care in Providence, R.I. Email

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2015

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