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March 21, 2019

Swallow hard, and hope for safe food: The shutdown shines a light on inadequate inspections in America

January 11, 2019
We are what we eat. (zimmytws / Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The partial shutdown of the federal government forced the U.S. Food and Drug Administration this week to postpone some of its usual inspections of food products sold to American consumers. This is not an immediate food safety crisis; as FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb points out, the delayed inspections were of “low risk” products like cookies and crackers, which are rarely linked to food-borne illness.

But the inspection delays — and even the government’s reassurances to consumers — do give us some dismaying insight into the everyday inadequacy of the agency’s inspection network. If you wondered why a supposedly healthy food like romaine lettuce could arrive in grocery stores this fall carrying a risky strain of bacteria, eventually sickening people in 11 states, the state of our safety inspections will give you a hint.

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Estimates provided by the agency itself indicate that about 50 “high-risk” food facilities — those that handle things like fish and vegetables — are typically inspected any given week. But there are some 20,000 such facilities in the United States today. There are some 80,000 “low-risk” food processing facilities, about 160 or so of which are inspected weekly in regular times.

It’s worth noting that the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act, passed under President Obama, set a very minimum requirement of inspecting every high-risk facility at least once in the first five years. And even that has been stalled by the Trump administration.

“The FDA does not have enough money to get job done properly,” wrote David Acheson, president of a global food safety consulting group, in 2015. In Vox Thursday, high-profile food safety attorney Bill Marler repeated the point.

For further comparison, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency responsible for meat, poultry and egg inspections, gets a little over $1 billion a year for inspecting about 8,000 facilities. (This week USDA inspectors are doing that work without pay, thanks to the shutdown.) The FDA gets about the same amount of money to inspect some 100,000 facilities.

None of this is to say that the food supply is as risky now as it was in the pre-regulation days, when even such minimal inspections were not required. If we look back to the pre-FDA days of the 19th century, food safety abuses were rampant. Dairymen used formaldehyde as a preservative for rotting milk and were not prosecuted even when children died as result.

Candy was dyed with lead and arsenic; ground coffee contained everything from charred bone to sawdust; spices like cinnamon were thick with brick dust.

None of this changed until the 1906 Food and Drug Act and the 1906 Meat Inspection Act, the two laws that laid down the foundation for the safety oversight the government provides today.

The CDC estimates that today about 3,000 people die every year from food-borne illness, a tiny fraction of the 2.7 million who die annually in the United States. We should be glad of what that says about the relative safety of the food supply. But that’s still 3,000 too many, and that same estimate includes the fact that 148 million of us suffer and survive some symptoms of food-borne illness annually.

All of which should remind us that during the shutdown weeks, and every other week, we fail to do enough to ensure that food in this country is safe.

Blum is author of “The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.”

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