Our Opinion: Tighten rules for food supply
FASTER THAN you could say “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes,” restaurants and grocery stores began yanking Roma and red plum varieties off their tables and shelves amid a nationwide outbreak of salmonella. So far, more than 160 people in 17 states have been infected with a rare strain of the bacteria, thought to be linked to raw tomatoes.
Illinois is not immune. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says more than two dozen Illinoisans have been confirmed with the strain, putting this state’s sick tally behind only Texas and New Mexico.
Let’s not panic, but let’s also hope this stops. Salmonella causes serious digestive trouble and can be debilitating if it hits the bloodstream. We remember that health lesson after several Illinoisans (and 300 other Americans) got salmonella from tainted peanut butter in 2007. That was just a few months after E. coli bacteria traced to spinach sickened about 200 people in 18 states. In fact, it seems every few months there’s a major food recall. Pot pies. Ground beef. Scallions. Lettuce.
IS IT because we’re getting better at catching food-borne bugs or because something’s up with the food supply? Both. On the one hand, public health departments are doing yeoman’s work tracking outbreaks. They work with doctors and hospitals in testing for and isolating particular strains, grilling patients about where they’ve been and what they’ve eaten.
But yes, something’s awry with the way the U.S. safeguards its food supply. Several things, in fact.
On the government side, the Food and Drug Administration isn’t the only sheriff in town; the Department of Agriculture and about a dozen other agencies enforce food laws.
Take a chicken sandwich. A report last year by the U.S. Government Accountability Office explained how manufacturers of “close-faced” sandwiches (two slices of bread) fall under FDA oversight, while those who make open-faced sandwiches (one slice) are inspected by the USDA. The GAO says this has led to a fragmented and confused system. Ya think?
Meanwhile, there are fewer eyes on our food. Between 2003 and 2006, FDA inspections dropped nearly 50 percent, according to an Associated Press analysis. Critics point to fewer in-the-field inspectors and a lack of funding. The Bush administration has been reluctant to increase the FDA’s budget. Only this spring, after much congressional prodding, did it relent.
ON THE private side, food manufacturers are outsourcing — paying other companies to make some ingredients, then selling stuff under many brand names. Also, food industry groups have gotten better at fighting regulations. A perfect example is country-of-origin labeling (COOL) laws, the implementation of which grocery and food processing lobbyists stalled for six years.
Indeed, labeling laws for domestic fruits and veggies that passed in 2002 won’t take effect until this September, when consumers will finally know whether their store-bought tomatoes came from Mexico or Mississippi. But that’s only store-bought produce. The origin of tomatoes used in restaurant dishes and packaged food may remain a mystery, unless it’s voluntarily disclosed.
The U.S. may brag about the world’s safest food supply, but this loosey-goosey approach will come back to bite us, as public confidence dwindles and consumers turn to locally grown items. Suppose it could come full circle, with folks tilling up their back yards. Fresh salsa, anyone?
GateHouse News Service