Thursday, February 05, 2009

Timing is Everything: Rep. Rosa DeLauro & The Food Safety Modernization Act

We've long been under the impression that the only time food and drugs should be in the same room are when people like Michael Phelps are enjoying an Olympic-size bag of organic corn chips and some nice, homegrown hydroponic herb. Thus, the Food and Drug Administration as a regulatory entity has never quite made sense to us, because food and drug regulation each cover far too much ground to be under the umbrella of a single agency.

Thus we're a little excited about Rep. Rosa DeLauro's (CT-3) proposed "Food Safety Modernization Act," (FSMA) which might soon be introduced into Congress. We say a little excited, because the heroic and tireless Rep. DeLauro has introduced similar versions of this Act before--and they've all died in committee, like unfortunate victims of food poisoning. The FSMA does have some Swell Ideas, though: It seeks to establish a Food Safety Administration within the US Department of Health and Human Services, outside the purview of FDA, in order to coordinate and modernize our food monitoring system. The ultimate goal is that the FDA itself will turn into two entities; one for food, the other for drugs. And there are some Swell Ideas in the FSMA:

1. Requiring food companies to implement preventive plans and meet performance standards for contaminants in food.
2. Creating a system for certifying the safety of imported foods.
3. Establishing a strong risk-based inspection regime for food companies.
4. Granting the government explicit authority over all food-production facilities.
5. Enabling enforcement tools: Mandatory recalls, civil penalties.

These Swell Ideas are swinging for the fences in their scope, and that's a good thing, because once industry lobbyists get their mitts on the Act, it'll be dismantled piece by piece; perhaps part of it will remain intact. But there are also a lot of problems with the FSMA, we're sorry to say.

Swell Idea #1 is already heading in to vagueness; the definition of contaminants is as wildly disputed among food regulatory agencies as were hanging chads. Swell Idea #2 is almost laughable; at the moment, less than one percent of imported food is inspected, and we import, dollar for dollar, more food annually than the entire EconomicStim package is going to cost. How on earth are we going to inspect all the food that routinely floods across our borders?

Swell Idea #3 makes perfect sense, but when is food not risk based? We're talking perishable commodities here. Thus everything gets inspected, which means food becomes wildly expensive, as inspection costs are passed along to consumers. Food prices have already skyrocketed, unemployment has skyrocketed...it's a Swell Idea, but um, yeah. How much is a gallon of milk, again?

Swell Idea #4 will never happen in the United States of America, because despite socializing our banking system in recent months, we still like to labor under the delusion that we're a free-market economy, and it'd be terrific to continue our fantasy that industry, in general, is capable of regulating itself. This has historically not been the case with the modern, mechanized version of food production, but there're plenty of people who'll argue this point to death before they bow to Government having "explicit control." And meantime, more people will die from eating poisoned food.

As for Swell Idea #5: Yes, you are reading correctly. There is currently no such thing in the US as a mandatory recall for contaminated food, as we've pointed out repeatedly here at ObFo . And criminal producers getting civil penalties for killing people with contaminated products are about as rare as Oprah fitting into a size 6--it happens about once a decade.

All of these Swell Ideas seem head-shakingly obvious to those who follow food safety, and to those who are worried about eating poisoned food, but there are more problems. To get all these Swell Ideas into place requires things that are currently in short supply. The first is agreement--despite our new Spirit of Bipartisanship on Capitol Hill...Dems and Reps have wildly different ideas about food safety. And we've already mentioned the another thing that's in short supply on Capitol Hill--cash. It'll take huge funding across the board, for hiring and training managers and inspectors, for updating technological capabilities, for creating an entirely new regulatory entity, for blah blah blah.

But perhaps the biggest problem with the FSMA is that food safety in America is in crisis mode. And we're not just talking about peanut butter. It's a grave situation across almost every kind of food industry, with 76 million people falling ill each year, and more than 5,500 dying. In fact, we can't even accurately calculate the number of people who actually get sick and die during outbreaks, because monitoring has been so poor. But we do know there are thousands more citizens who sufferg life-long effects from having lived through a food poisoning; these include but aren't limited to stroke and brain injury, renal failure, seizure disorders, paralysis. So while we'd be happy to personally take a couple of axes to the FDA offices when the time comes, now is not the right time. The FDA and Centers for Disease Control need to have leadership, as does the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. If we even fulfilled half of the current food safety mandates as they currently exist, and tweaked a couple others--particularly in meat inspections--the US food supply would be far, far safer in just a year's time. When the Titanic was sinking, there was no point in rearranging the deck chairs, was there? We're halfway into the water right now, in terms of food safety.

Lastly: Yesterday's Tom Daschle exuent, stage left! maneuver also makes getting the FSMA rapidly put in to place within the Department of Health and Human Services highly unlikely, as the department could be spinning in free fall for a good long while. And, too, Daschle's primary focus was on health care reform within the drug and medical industries; there's no good reason to believe that his replacement won't have a similar focus. Food will be sidelined, as many Senators warned before the Inauguration. Sadly, there'll be no dash to the finish line in food safety, a la Michael Phelps, because we're swimming through the wake of a monstrous, sinking ship.

So while we're really wishing Rep. DeLauro's FSMA was law yesterday, in truth it's a long way away from becoming reality. Meantime, you couldn't pay us to eat ground beef, or peanut butter, or cantaloupes, or pork, or chicken, or leafy greens from California, or anything from China, or...or you name it, and we're not eating it.

Currently we're dining out solely on hope, because that's about the only thing that's safe.

*Susan Heavey at Reuters analyzes how the Daschle exit will slow down the appointment of a new FDA head, here.