The salmonella-contaminated peanut products that have killed eight people, sickened at least 575 more and triggered one of the largest food recalls in American history is the latest scandal to highlight a recurring problem - the inability of the Food and Drug Administration to properly safeguard 80 percent of the food Americans eat.
Under the current law, the Peanut Corp. of America, the source of the bad products, will face no civil penalties for its exposure of millions of Americans to the tainted food. At most, the law, written in the 1930s, could expose company officials to a $1,000 fine per criminal violation and less than one year in jail. With eight dead from peanut butter, that's hardly a fair punishment.
As the food regulatory law is written, the FDA couldn't even order a recall of the contaminated peanut products without the manufacturer's permission. It's time to overhaul this antiquated law that also provides little incentive for the industry to improve food safety practices. Congress has before it legislation that would give the agency recall power and provide an array of regulatory reforms aimed at stiffening food oversight.
There are many reasons why it's needed: Food-borne illnesses sicken as many as 76 million Americans and kill an estimated 5,000 a year.
The FDA has been severely weakened by cutbacks in staffing and funding in recent years and is poorly equipped to deal with the food industry's mass production and distribution systems and global sourcing of ingredients. In 2007, fewer domestic food companies were inspected than in 2001, even though the FDA had more firms under its watch (65,000, up from 51,000), according to the Government Accountability Office.
The bills before Congress would increase FDA inspections of food production plants to a minimum of once a year, with the necessary staff increases funded by fees charged to food producers. There should also be significantly increased inspection of imported food, both at foreign plants and at ports of entry.
But needed reforms go beyond the FDA. Thirteen other government agencies, including the Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also oversee aspects of food safety. A single authoritative voice is needed to inform the public on food-related infectious disease outbreaks and food safety standards.
Growers, food retailers and distributors could also help protect the food supply with periodic independent testing, inspections of food sources and voluntary recalls of tainted food.
President Barack Obama has promised a top-to-bottom review of FDA operations. The bills pending in Congress should provide a partial road map to needed reforms.