Keeping food safe Increased funding: Administration boosts inspectors' ability to fight contamination.

January 02, 1998

FOR MOST of the past century, Americans have rarely had to worry about the safety of their food. With reasonable precautions -- proper refrigeration, taking care to wash and cook food properly, and the like -- Americans have been largely justified in -- viewing food as a source of sustenance, not a cause of sickness. Health threats from food have come more from overindulging or from poor choices, such as too many high-fat dishes.

But in recent years, amid other pressures, the federal government has become complacent about its duty to protect the food supply. One example can be seen in staffing levels for the Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service, which in 1978 had some 12,000 inspectors. By the beginning of 1997, that number had fallen to 7,500. Food imports, including fruits and vegetables, offer another troubling scenario. While imports have doubled in the past decade, inspections of imported food by the Food and Drug Administration have decreased by more than half.

Clearly, the federal government has some catching up to do in order to fulfill its obligation to insure a reasonable measure of food safety. Since taking office, the Clinton administration has // tried to increase the number of inspectors and to put in place new rules that would replace 19th-century methods with more effective ways of testing foods. In recent days, the administration has let it be known that it intends to fund a $71 million increase for food inspection and safety programs next year -- a 9 percent increase in a budget that, overall, represents only a 1 percent increase in federal spending.

The Clinton administration's emphasis on shoring up these programs comes none too soon, as stories of contaminated food are becoming more common. In 1993, four children died after eating hamburgers contaminated by E coli bacteria. Earlier this year, a large meat processor recalled 25 million pounds of ground beef after 17 people contracted food poisoning from a batch of contaminated meat.

A safe food supply is more than a convenience; it is a major public health concern. In recent decades, the federal government has paid too little attention to this essential task. The Clinton administration is right to put more emphasis -- and spend more funds -- on the safety of the food supply.

Pub Date: 1/02/98

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