Sunday, March 20, 2016

Who’s watching the chickens?

In 2010, two producers recalled more than half a billion eggs after regulators traced an outbreak of salmonella to unsanitary conditions at two Iowa farms. It was the largest egg recall in history, ultimately sickening nearly 2,000 people and garnering national headlines.

Investigators eventually reported a wide array of safety violations, from live rodents in the henhouses to manure oozing out of the buildings. In a congressional hearing about a month after the recall, lawmakers asked regulators why they hadn’t noticed the conditions earlier. One of the farms had a history of safety violations. How could they have missed it?

At first, this looked like an embarrassing lapse. A failure at this scale suggested that the federal food safety system — which officials often credit for the world’s safest food supply — had somehow missed problems even though millions of the eggs were packed in cartons stamped with a U.S. Department of Agriculture grade for quality.

But in fact, regulators hadn’t missed it. A 2012 report from the Department of Agriculture’s inspector general discovered that officials from the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) “were aware that the company’s egg-laying barns had tested positive for [salmonella] over 4 months before the recall was issued.” An inspector from another agency, the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), had visited the farm two weeks before the recall and “he observed some of the same sanitation issues (e.g., rodent activity and high bird manure levels) that FDA later reported [after the outbreak was discovered].”

The problem wasn’t that inspectors weren’t aware. The problem was that the agencies that discovered the health hazards weren’t responsible for overseeing that part of the food safety system. They simply had not passed on what they knew to the agencies that had the authority.

What emerges, if you get to the heart of the reports about the outbreak in Iowa, is a bewildering division of responsibilities within the federal government over the job of regulating eggs. The Food and Drug Administration, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, has jurisdiction over eggs in their shells, while the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), at USDA, is responsible for eggs processed into egg products. The Agricultural Marketing Service sets quality and grade standards of shell eggs, while APHIS helps ensure that laying hens do not have salmonella. The feed the hens eat? That’s the FDA again.

It’s not just eggs, of course. The modern U.S. food safety system is the responsibility of a patchwork of 15 federal agencies, plus many more at the state and local level. The FDA, for instance, is responsible for regulating cheese pizzas, but pepperoni pizzas fall under the purview of FSIS...

...THE MODERN U.S. food safety system dates back to a book that nauseated a nation. In 1905, Upton Sinclair published “The Jungle,” a scathing indictment of Chicago’s filthy meatpacking factories. The ensuing uproar over unsanitary food led President Theodore Roosevelt a year later to sign two bills, which for the first time provided a national policy toward regulating food in America.
The Federal Meat Inspection Act established sanitary standards at meat processing plants and mandated that officials at the Department of Agriculture inspect all carcasses at those plants — basically to look for dirt and other obvious contaminants. “We didn’t even know what bacteria was back then,” said Bill Marler, a Seattle-based food safety attorney. “We didn’t understand germ theory the way we do today.”

The Pure Food and Drug Act set standards for food and drug labels and led to the creation of the FDA. Both laws were limited to regulating foods moving in interstate commerce to ensure that the laws were constitutional.

 Those two laws from 1906 still shape how the nation’s food safety system works. The country’s main meat regulator, FSIS, was established in 1977 and requires that all meat- and poultry-processing facilities have an inspector on site at all times. The FDA, which took on its current name in 1930, is responsible for monitoring virtually all of the remaining 80 percent of the food

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