Regulatory rages

The national food system, struggling as usual

December 13, 2012

Here’s the latest roundup of news about our nation’s food-regulatory system kicking into action — or not.

First up: the processing plant responsible for this year’s massive recall of salmonella-contaminated peanut butter has been shut down by the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA took this step — a first for the agency — under the aegis of the new Food Safety Modernization Act. Sunland, Inc. has been “prohibited from shipping product pending a series of corrective measures.”

Critics applauded the FDA flexing its regulatory muscle, but food-politics journalist Barry Estabrook wasn’t having it. In a feature for OnEarth magazine, Estabrook took the FDA to task, giving a quick-but-detailed recap of both the history of the FDA and our growing troubles with food safety. At heart is an assessment of the ways in which the feds and corporations are awkwardly intertwined:

“Corporations can have too much to say about how the FDA operates,” [said former U.S. Public Health Service officer Renee Dufault]. “If an industry group has enough clout, the FDA is going to be deferential — and when I was investigating mercury in high-fructose corn syrup, those people did have clout. From a political standpoint, sometimes no action is the safest action — unless there are enough deaths to warrant it.”

Estabrook also noted that American fish farmers, who are not allowed to use certain chemicals, are struggling to compete with imports from Asian fish farmers, who can and do use chemicals. As Jill Richardson recently reported on AlterNet, the Asian fish-farming industry introduces contaminants in various ways, ranging from antibiotics fed to the fish to keep them from getting sick to pesticides and fungicides to the raw manure from farm animals and humans that either leaches into the fish ponds or is fed directly to the fish and shellfish:

What happens when a shipment of filthy or toxic seafood shows up in a U.S. port? Most likely, nothing. It enters the U.S. and unwitting Americans eat it. The Food and Drug Administration has an inspection program that is notoriously limited, underfunded and not at all transparent — particularly when compared to its counterparts in Japan, Canada and the EU.

Finally, just to underscore the oddity of our food-regulatory system, the FDA recently raised the allowable limits on irradiating fresh and frozen meat and poultry. Why odd? Because normally the U.S. Department of Agriculture has jurisdiction over meat and poultry. But the FDA is in charge of regulating food additives, and irradiation is considered an additive.

No wonder, then, that — as Tom Philpott wrote on Mother Jones — the feds have become the target of numerous consumer-advocacy lawsuits questioning the slack nature of food regulation:

So the FDA ends 2012 with its reputation in tatters, its failures documented by Estabrook’s piece, its regulatory power steamrolled by Big Meat, and its timidity exposed by a federal court. Only one person can save it, and that’s President Obama. He can either stand aside as the FDA slinks deeper into its role as industry lapdog — or revive it as a force for the public good.
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