A Times Editorial says the surprising part of Tommy Thompson’s recent warning on the vulnerability of our imported food supply isn’t that he waited to deliver it with his resignation, or that he failed to act on the knowledge while in office. What is baffling is that the Health and Human Services secretary didn’t recognize the government’s repeated failure to protect Americans from dangerous food grown and distributed right here at home.
“I, for the life of me, cannot understand why the terrorists have not . . . attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do,” Thompson said, adding that someone could tamper with imported products from the Middle East.
No doubt that is something security officials should be aware of, but forget terrorists for a moment. In October, the Government Accountability Office studied 10 food recalls each by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration over the last couple of years. Its conclusion: “Weaknesses in USDA’s and FDA’s food recall programs heighten the risk that unsafe food will remain in the food supply and ultimately be consumed.”
Much of the problem is with the law itself. Remarkably, the USDA does not have the legal authority to order a recall of bad meat. So, for example, if beef products are discovered to have been tainted by E. coli, Listeria or mad cow disease, all of which has happened in recent years, it is up to the producer to voluntarily recall the dangerous food.
That leads to an even more absurd rule: The USDA won’t identify retail stores where the infected products have been distributed. The agency won’t even give that information to state officials unless they sign a secrecy agreement not to release the locations to the public, according to a study by Consumers Union.
Florida is one of 38 states that has refused to sign. A secrecy agreement might violate the state’s public records law, said Liz Compton, spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Besides, she said, the department would want to use the information to warn consumers.
The USDA tries to retrieve all of the recalled products itself, but it is an unwieldy process that unnecessarily endangers consumers. The GAO found that recalls of perishable foods begin too late, after some of the products have already been consumed. Ground beef, for example, has a shelf life of nine days, but a ground beef recall studied by the GAO didn’t begin for 38 days.
Such incompetence is probably inevitable in an agency that serves two purposes – to promote agriculture and to inform consumers. We know who loses that political arm-wrestling match every time. There is also unnecessary duplication of efforts between the two agencies. For instance, the USDA is responsible for beef and poultry while, inexplicably, the FDA oversees milk and egg production.
Reforms clearly are needed. Food producers should be required by law to notify the government immediately of dangerous products, and face fines or criminal sanctions if they don’t. The government should have the authority to order food recalls and to make sure they are carried out. And the responsibility for policing food safety should be placed in a single, independent agency that isn’t in the pocket of the powerful food industry.
Most importantly, the federal government should quickly and willingly share any information it has on dangerous food products with consumers. Americans have enough things to worry about in this dangerous time, and the government acting contrary to the public good should not be one of them.