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GAO is like broken record on food safety

The General Accounting Office (GAO) has released yet another report on the U.S. food safety system.

The General Accounting Office (GAO) has released yet another report on the U.S. food safety system. The latest is dated January 2017 and was addressed to Congressional Requesters on the Food Safety Inspection system of the Federal Government. It is titled: FOOD SAFETY; A National Strategy is needed to Address Fragmentation in Federal Oversight. It can be seen in its entirety at http://www.gao.gov/assets/690/682095.pdf

As always, it calls for a single food safety agency, and, as always, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says that the Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS), the Food & Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) are cooperating more and more every year, doing as much as allowed by existing statutes while GAO says they could do more within the laws of the land if they just tried.

The report also, as always, laments the fact that 30 laws exist, governing who does what in regards to food safety, and that these laws are implemented by 16 separate agencies.

But of course those numbers are very misleading to the average reader of the report, as I assume was the intention of the writers.

The great majority of food we consume is regulated by FDA’s Center for Food Safety & Nutrition (CFSAN) and USDA’s FSIS.

The CDC plays a key role in investigating foodborne illness outbreaks and identifying links to sources through its Pulse Field Gel Electrophoresis (PFGE) but has have no active role in regulating food safety.

So they are asking Congress and the Office of Management & Budget (O&B) to fix the fragmentation, even though it is Congress and the past Presidents who signed bills into laws that fragmented food safety roles in the first place.

I had a reporter ask me just the other day how this could have happened. I will explain in the paragraphs that follow.

In 1906 Congress passed, and President Teddy Roosevelt signed into law, the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA). The Act was a response to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, a mandatory read for many college lit students.

Sinclair tried to display how the evil meat packers and processors were taking advantage of Eastern European workers who had migrated to the U.S. hoping for a better life.

But in the book he also described some very disgusting examples of contaminants getting into the meat mixers, sick and diseased animals, contagious workers, etc.

Some say the FMIA was written to protect the public’s health, but the cynics say it was to keep meat export numbers intact. (Kind of like the Interim Rule when we discovered our first BSE cow in 2003.)

The FMIA was very specific when it named the five animal species subject to daily, continuous inspection. All four-leggers, they were sheep, goats, horses, cows and pig but no Bison or poultry.

In 1957 a similar bill was signed into law by President “Ike” Eisenhower called the Poultry Products Inspection Act. This bill was stimulated by large chicken companies taking pride in their product and methods who wanted to put those cutting corners for profit either out of business or brought into the flock.

Congress was a bit smarter on this attempt and listed every fowl known to mankind that had ever been consumed.

If it has two legs and feathers, it would now get daily, continuous inspection.

A similar dispute in 1970 between those taking the high road and those cutting corners in the egg products industry hatched an idea called the Egg Products Inspection Act, giving USDA responsibility for egg products, and egg products getting daily, continuous inspection.

Yet, shell eggs remain outside any written law, thus by default remaining at FDA for whatever inspection or audits they may deem necessary when funding will allow for that activity.

Ah, but it got even more scrambled than an omelet in 2008. That is when the U.S. Congress, the same men and women that the GAO wants to act to form a “National Strategy _____ to Address Fragmentation in Federal Oversight,” passed the Farm Bill that gave the whiskered catfish to FSIS for, you guessed it, daily, continuous inspection.

You can fill in the blank with your own thoughts, but mine, if trying to guess what the GAO really wanted to be the title of the document would say “National Strategy to Create a Single Food Safety Agency to Address Fragmentation in Federal Oversight”.

So imported catfish now also receive inspection at ports of entry, and testing for residues like antibiotics, and they can only enter this country where there is a port of entry with an FSIS inspection work force.

Tilapia, sea bass, salmon and all other species with gills and fins, but not legs or feathers, can be flown, trucked or shipped to any airport, dock or warehouse with no inspection. The other fish and seafood fall under FDA.

I doubt that eating catfish from Vietnam is any more dangerous to my health than shrimp from Thailand, and the 2008 Farm Bill that rewrote a portion of the FMIA left bison at FDA, where no inspection of slaughter plants is done.

The GAO had a panel that helped them formulate the report. Among others it included Mike Taylor and Bob Buchanan, two of the top food safety officials at FDA/CFSAN while I was Undersecretary for Food Safety at USDA/FSIS.

It also included three representatives, including a lobbyist, from three consumer advocacy groups that each has its own agenda.

It included a mom of a child who died from E. coli O157:H7 but it did not include any USDA/FSIS top officials from the Bush era when I was in D.C. or the years before.

Which agency has the most to lose with a single food safety agency? I say it is FSIS as it gets over $1 billion annually for food safety activities, including an inspection work force of around 7,500.

FDA gets peanuts for a very limited inspection/audit work force that was responsible for the oversight of the Peanut Corporation of America and its food safety fiasco. They would like some of that money and some of that work force.

I have never liked people who just criticize a plan without offering up a workable alternative, so I have written a blog in the past with my thoughts on changes that would help unscramble this mess we have; a solution that would be much easier to explain than having different four-legged species in two different agencies, and eggs and egg products also in two different agencies.

If there is interest, maybe I will resurrect that piece down the road.

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