In many ways, the American food supply is safe, and affords consumers many options, from junk food to uber-healthy ingredients. Food in the US is also very cheap when compared to the rest of the world. But with a cheap and plentiful food supply comes a cost. Name a food group and you can quickly rattle off a product that became tainted: spinach, ground beef, fruit juice, and of course, a half billion eggs are subject to a nationwide recall.
Food inspection should be an answer, but it is actually part of the problem. A joint study that the Union of Concerned Scientists and Iowa State University conducted reveals some disturbing trends. Of the 1700 employees at the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) who answered the 44-page survey, many state that public officials and business interests too often interfere with the food safety process.
Part of the problem is the political process. Although Republicans overall receive more contributions from agribusiness than Democrats, some Democratic politicians receive huge amounts. Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas outpaced everyone on Capitol Hill, netting almost $1.3 million dollars from agriculture interests in 2009-2010; Representative Collin Peterson of Minnesota received just over $400,000 during the same period. But of the top 20 politicians receiving agribusiness dollars during this very heated election cycle, there is almost a 2 to 1 split. And considering the Republican Party’s call for a reduction or elimination for just about any kind of regulation, the effects on food inspection definitely have a strong correlation.
And while American Sugar Crystal Co. may be the biggest political sugar daddy of them all, other companies and cooperatives that are subjected to regulation send checks to Washington, DC, as well, including those in dairy, meatpacking, and food processing.
The results? Some would say all this is analogous to the fiscal crisis of 2008, where financial institutions played with fire for years and left taxpayers to pay (some would say provide a huge loan) for the mess left behind. But one FDA economist has estimated that food-borne illnesses cost the US $152 billion annually. Obviously transparency and allowing food inspectors to do their jobs without having to deal with an irate congressman or Hill staffer is one solution.
Streamlining agencies’ responsibilities would be a start as well. Take eggs, for example. The FDA and USDA split the oversight of egg-laying operations (one does white, one brown eggs?) – the FDA is responsible for overseeing where hens lay eggs – then the USDA has oversight of eggs as they are packaged. Meanwhile, one of the farms behind the contamination had not been expected by the FDA. And as the law stands now, the FDA can request an egg recall, but not order one. So of course you have a turf war, and well, as a result, someone dropped the ball . . . or lay one big egg.
In the end consumers should have a choice; but they should know that their choices are safe. Unfortunately, too many politicians are more concerned that they are elected and re-elected . . . safely.