Sunday, May 20, 2007

Safe Food? What a Crazy Idea!

How ironic the Bush administration’s dual-sided approach to security is: you have a White house, on one hand, hell-bent on illegally wiretapping citizens' phone lines and throwing others into prison in the name of "national security," while, on the other hand, adopting an extremely lax approach to enforcing worker and food security standards.

This week another meat company is recalling 129,000 pounds of beef products in 15 states (including Missouri) because of yet another possible E. coli contamination. And U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) has introduced the Food Safety Act of 2007:

Spurred by deadly outbreaks of E. coli and other food-borne pathogens, a group of U.S. lawmakers is pushing to put all food safety oversight under a single federal agency.


Currently, 12 federal agencies and 35 laws govern food safety, often with overlapping jurisdictions and different priorities.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration play the biggest roles in making sure the food Americans eat is safe. The USDA oversees meat and poultry, while the FDA is responsible for eggs and produce. (Interactive: How science can help keep our food safe )

The lines are not always clear-cut. For example, cheese pizzas fall under the FDA, while pepperoni pizzas fall under the Department of Agriculture.

In January, the Government Accountability Office added federal oversight of food safety to its list of "high risk" programs in need of "broad-based transformation." The GAO urged Congress to consider "a fundamental re-examination of the system ... before public health and safety is compromised."

Critics point to the FDA, in particular, as needing reform. The FDA oversees 80 percent of the food supply but receives only 20 percent of the funding.

"I call it 'Katrina on your plate.' You've got an agency, the FDA, that's understaffed, under-funded, without leadership, and it's not doing its job. And it's causing a real life suffering and death for people," said Andrew Kimbrell, director of the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit watchdog group in Washington.
Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY) have introduced a companion bill in the Senate. And it's about time.

Only one major safety rule has been enacted by OSHA since George W. Bush took office, and only after it was ordered by a federal court. The FDA has inspected only 20,662 food shipments out of the more than 8.9 million delivered to American ports. That's less than one percent inspected. Since 200 the number of food shipments has more than doubled.

This critical negligence is the result of the Bush administration's belief that new safety standards and regulations should be limited while old ones be rolled back to prevent the imposition of additional, cumbersome costs on businesses. Slash funds from essential oversight programs in order to pay for tax breaks for the rich.

While OSHA officials point to figures showing declines in both fatality and injury rates since 2001, critics dispute the numbers. Labor and health experts say those numbers severely undercount the actual numbers because the Bush administration has decreased the categories of recognized injuries, and because the majority of the most dangerous jobs are now done by undocumented immigrants.

Many have warned of the distinct possibility of terrorists successfully smuggling biological or chemical weapons in to the U.S. through the laxly inspected ports. But the increasing outbreaks of illnesses present a serious health crisis. And it is not beyond the realm of possibility that terrorists could take advantage of lax food inspection to attack the U.S.

"Security president?" Hardly.