Notes on Convoluted U.S. Food Safety Policies
In their 2008 Heritage Backgrounder, “A Safe and Bountiful Harvest: How to Ensure America’s Food Safety,” Daniella Markheim and Caroline Walsh note:
Americans are shopping the world’s grocers like never before, importing almost $75 billion of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other food products for direct consumption or further processing in 2006. Imports accounted for 80 percent of seafood and nearly 50 percent of all non-citrus fruits consumed domestically. International trade allows families to sample tastes from around the world while keeping food prices down through competition.
Government food safety policies, the authors argue, are unfortunately “An Ad Hoc System:”:
The federal food safety system has evolved on an ad hoc basis, typically in response to particular health threats. This has resulted in a fragmented and complex regulatory environment. Fifteen agencies implementing more than 30 laws and interagency directives collectively share the responsibility of keeping America’s food safe. The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the Department of Health and Human Services dominate the system. The FSIS manages the food safety system for all meat, poultry, and egg products, while the FDA is responsible for virtually all other food products.
The authors also report that Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection (CBP) regulates food imports through “326 official ports of entry” and operates an Automated Targeting System (ATS) to “filter cargo information” from exporters in other counties. However the CBP’s ATS computers can’t communicate with the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS):
The ATS has become the heart of the risk-assessment component of the food safety system. Regrettably, while FDA computers can communicate with the ATS, FSIS computers remain out of the loop. Without real communication among authorized agencies, opportunities to leverage shared data and promote a more effective and efficient food safety process are lost.
July 2013 food safety story in USA Today: “FDA issues new safety rules for imported food” begins:
Although one-sixth of America’s food is imported, including 50% of the fresh fruit and 20% of the fresh vegetables, the Food and Drug Administration inspects only 2% of imports. That began to change Friday when the agency issued long-awaited rules that require imported food to meet the same safety standards as food produced in the United States.
And January 2016 CNN Money story “Why your food might not be as safe as you think” by Jordan Malter, reports:
Officials say they are but critics contend an enormous amount of U.S. foods are being imported from other countries, raising all kinds of health and safety concerns.
Food imports have exploded in recent years, totaling $119 billion in 2014, according to the USDA. That’s nearly triple the value of imports from 15 years earlier.
The problem is that food safety regulations in other countries might not be as tight as those in the United States. And U.S. regulators are challenged to keep up with the massive number of producers and shipments.
Is it true that a lack of “tight” food safety regulations is “the problem?” Food safety systems should be effective, but “tightening” them can add costs and complexity without improving safety. In addition to confused and contradictory food safety responsibilities and regulations at the federal level, each state has it’s own food safety systems, inspectors, and regulations. Plus an array of non-government organizations provide food safety inspections and risk management services for private industry (discussed in earlier post: “Food Safety: Certification or Regulation“).
Here is a February, 2016 overview of U.S. food safety policies from the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture that outlines the “Roles and Responsibilities” of local, state, and federal agencies. The report notes:
Ideally (conceptually at least), state and local governments should be the primary deliverers of domestic food safety regulatory services, so the federal government could devote more resources to imported foods. This funding must be: adequate, ongoing, allocated based on risk, used flexibly by states to minimize food safety risk, and contingent on federally evaluated attainment of agreed upon food safety outcomes (e.g., program performance standards).
The report makes this reform recommendation:
The food safety bills being proposed by Congress today fail to take into consideration food safety networks already exist within each state – but they need bolstering and support. There is no need to re-create existing infrastructure at the federal level. Utilizing a cooperative agreement model such as EPA uses in pesticide enforcement and USDA/FSIS uses for state meat inspection programs, FDA should provide funding to existing state programs and obtain the following “seamless food safety system” benefits… [see section 4.3 in report for list and discussion]
The National Agricultural Law Center’s page Food Safety – An Overview, offers an overview of US food delivery and safety issues and regulations, and note new authority provided by the 2010 Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA):
FSMA dramatically increased FDA’s legislative mandate over food safety, primarily by shifting from reactionary food safety to more preventative methods. The law required food production facilities to develop a preventative controls plan, developed science-based safety standards for fruits and vegetables, increased the inspection frequency for all facilities through greater state and local agency partnerships, and improved traceability for domestic and imported food products to more effectively respond to a foodborne illness outbreak. Additional regulations were also placed on food importers, requiring verification that their international suppliers are complying with domestic food safety laws and providing FDA with the authority to deny entry for products arriving from facilities or countries that have denied FDA access.
We certainly have a food safety problem. Thousands of people get sick every year, and some of them don’t ever get better. Remember the melon scare from last summer? We have the safest food supply in the world, but there is always room for improvement.
That being said, I’m still against these arbitrary regulations. So, how can we improve the food safety in this country without imposing impossible-to-follow regulations? I have three alternatives that have been successful in the agricultural community already. I am confident these suggestions would actually do something to increase food safety, wouldn’t increase costs on nutritious food, and would all be completely voluntary.