Food fight: Congress, others weigh in on self-regulation

| 5/4/2007

Editor’s note: This is the final in a three-part series on safely handling and delivering produce. You can read the first part here, and the second part here. Be sure and watch this Web site as OOIDA continues to shine the light on dark problems in the food supply chain.

Despite the increasing number of food-borne outbreaks tied to leafy greens and other produce, the produce industry stands behind its position that self-regulation is indeed the best answer.

Food recalls remain voluntarily controlled by the industry. But even Congress is questioning whether the U.S. Food and Drug Administration should have mandatory recall authority when an outbreak, such as the one tied to bagged spinach in September 2006, occurs.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell, D-MI, agrees there are many problems within our food supply chain that must be addressed.

“Every American has reason to worry about pathogens in our food supply that sicken 72 million and kill about 5,000 of us each year,” Dingell said. “It is important we learn how much of this death and illness could have been prevented by diligent and properly funded regulatory agencies, primarily the Food and Drug Administration.”

Natural Selections President Charles Sweat was called to testify last week on the company’s new testing procedures. Those procedures came after three people died and more than 200 were sickened as a result of a nationwide outbreak traced back to bagged spinach processed by Natural Selections Foods in the fall of 2006.

Prior to the E. coli outbreak, he said, the company did not test its produce for food-borne pathogens like E. coli and salmonella.

Rep. Bart Stupak, D-MI, is the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee’s Oversight and Investigations subcommittee. At the hearing, he said voluntary standards were appreciated, but pointed out that if companies did not comply, there was no penalty.

“It seems like we’re waiting for something to happen and then we try to react,” he said.

Lisa Shames, acting director of natural resources and environment at the GAO, testified at last week’s congressional hearing that one of the reasons the federal food oversight system is so “fragmented” is because more than 15 agencies administer at least 30 laws related to food safety, two agencies have primary responsibility – the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Our fragmented food safety system has resulted in inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination and inefficient use of resources,” Shames said. She noted that limitations in the federal government’s food recalls heightened the risk that unsafe food will remain in the food supply chain and ultimately be consumed.

In a recent interview on The News Hour with Jim Leher last week, Western Growers President Tom Nassif said he doesn’t believe there is a problem with voluntary food recall procedures in this country.

“Recall is not a problem in our industry,” Nassif said. “We automatically recall any product that FDA tells us to recall. And if we didn’t, the retailers and the food service industries would take it off the shelves and stop buying it. So recall is not the problem. That’s done.”

– By Clarissa Kell-Holland, staff writer