Contaminated food sickens 48 million Americans, resulting in more than 3,000 deaths and more than 100,000 hospitalizations each year. That’s right: 3,000 deaths.
Hard as this is to believe, it’s easy to see how we got here. It starts with the neglect of the Food and Drug Administration, the agency created to ensure the quality of much of the U.S. food supply, which has been starved of funds for decades. Congress gives the FDA about $1 billion a year for overseeing the bulk of the $1.2 trillion food industry. That’s enough to pay for about 1,100 inspectors, who manage to check only 6 percent of domestic food producers and 0.4 percent of importers each year.
Inspection programs paid for by industry have filled the void. As Bloomberg Markets magazine reports in its November issue, however, industry-backed inspectors have given the all-clear to producers that should be shut down.
In August 2011, for instance, 33 people died from eating cantaloupe contaminated with listeria bacteria. The melons had been grown and processed at a Colorado farm that had passed an inspection by a private company with flying colors.
The inspector, a 26-year-old with little experience, raised no objections to the absence of an antimicrobial wash to clean the melons. Nor did the inspector bother to test for bacteria on equipment that handled the melons. He granted the farm a “superior” rating.
The cantaloupe poisonings came after nine people died in 2008 from eating peanut butter and peanut products tainted with salmonella at a processing plant in Georgia. That plant received high marks from an inspector working for a bakery industry trade association. The inspector wasn’t aware that peanut butter could be contaminated by salmonella.
These private inspectors, known as third-party auditors, operate with no government oversight or rules. Standards for the auditors are established by trade organizations financed by supermarket chains and food producers. Auditors are often paid by the companies whose plants they inspect and can be told what to look for, when and where. Board members of the companies that provide the audits sometimes also work for food producers. The potential for conflicts is obvious.
Most troubling is that audit reports by private inspectors are secret, denying the public the right to know how food is handled.
Actually, even more troubling is that a new law to improve U.S. food safety leaves the system of unregulated industry-sponsored auditors largely intact.
Yes, the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 does require inspectors of foreign food processors to be FDA certified. And yes, their audit reports must be turned over to the agency. But there’s a catch: Domestic auditors were exempted from these requirements after food manufacturers argued that certification programs would siphon off resources better used in other FDA efforts. In essence, the industry would keep an oversight network it pays for and controls.
So what can be done?
The FDA estimates it would need $3 billion a year to perform the necessary inspections of domestic and imported food. This seems a relatively small sum compared with the $75 billion to $150 billion that food-borne illnesses cost Americans each year for medical treatment and time lost from work.
The calculus of costs and benefits should persuade Congress to increase funding for FDA inspections, even if not by as much as the agency says it needs. Only the FDA has the power to quickly obtain the court injunction to shut down a processor when hazardous conditions are found. What’s more, because the FDA doesn’t provide advance notice of inspections, the element of surprise helps keep food producers honest.
The agency would also do well to draft accreditation standards and a code of industry best practices. This would establish guidelines for auditor independence, barring employees of food producers from serving as audit company directors. Food producers should be prohibited from selecting auditors, who could be assigned from a blind pool instead. The FDA also needs to establish a formal certification program for auditors and inspectors, and have the power to suspend or bar those who fall down on the job.
Finally, all inspection reports should be filed with the FDA and made public. Americans have a right to know not only where their food came from — but also who looked it over to make sure it won’t make them sick.