Food That Kills Doesn’t Have to Be on Your Plate: Ann Woolner

Maybe the egg-borne outbreak of salmonella last month didn’t rattle you, nor the death-inducing peanut butter last year or the spinach-linked E. coli sickness in 2006.

But if you are reading this while eating, you might want to lay down the fork. A new study from the Union of Concerned Scientists and Iowa State University could ruin your appetite.

Hundreds of U.S. inspectors and scientists whose job it is to check the safety of food say that, within the past year alone, political or corporate interests interfered with their work. Unpleasant findings are glossed over, edited out or changed to make food seem safer than it is, they say.

“Once a member of Congress gets involved the agency does whatever it can to make the situation go away rather than address food safety issues,” an unnamed U.S. Department of Agriculture employee said when answering the survey.

Of the 1,700 people at the department and the Food and Drug Administration who answered the survey, 507 said they had personally experienced political interference in their work.

Specifically, 266 said that they had been involved in situations in which a member of Congress forced the agency to back off an action intended to protect the public. And 301 said they had witnessed corporate interests force such a change. (It isn’t clear whether those two groups overlapped.)

Not only that, but 330 said they had seen businesses withhold food safety information in situations that harmed the public health.

Still hungry?

Sense of Urgency

You might think the new survey would inject a sense of urgency into the Senate, where a food safety bill has stalled. Passed last year in the House with two-thirds in favor, the bill is treading water in the face of bipartisan support and backing by consumer and mainstream food industry groups alike. A Senate committee gave it unanimous approval.

The legislation would require regular inspections of food processing plants, give the FDA authority to order recalls, boost the number of inspectors, require companies to scientifically analyze their products for safety and keep better records.

Not everyone wants this law. Smaller producers, who say their food is safer anyway, worry about being strangled by more regulation. Amendments are possible.

But the bigger industry players, as well as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have been pushing for passage. They like tighter regulation, in part because spinach growers learned that, even when they keep their operations in top shape, they can be shut down while authorities hunt for the culprit, according to the New York Times.

Blocked by Coburn

The chief Senate critic, the man preventing a vote, is Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma. He complains about the cost and the law’s inability to correct long-running problems at the agencies, such as duplication of efforts.

So he objected to Majority Leader Harry Reid’s attempt to put the bill up for a vote with limited debate on a crowded calendar before the October recess, an objection Reid calls “unconscionable.”

In the 13 months since the House passed the FDA overhaul, there have been 85 food recalls, involving products that have sickened at least 1,850 people, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

We are talking about salad dressings and soup mixes, alfalfa sprouts and lettuce, to name a few contaminated items.

Food Fatalities

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 76 million people get sick from food-borne illnesses annually, 325,000 of whom wind up hospitalized, and 5,000 die.

Under the best of circumstances, government inspectors can’t be everywhere all the time. That’s why the bill contains protections for company whistleblowers.

These are the insiders who take their responsibilities seriously. They refuse to give up when a boss tells them not to worry their pretty little heads if they find rat feces in a peanut processing plant, for example.

In food safety as in other areas, whistleblowers find themselves reassigned, punished and harassed. They risk their jobs and their emotional health when they refuse to go along with glossing over dangers lurking in the nation’s food supply.

The stalled safety law would shield from retaliation employees of food-related companies who report violations.

The pressure is on for the Senate to pass the law and soon. If they miss the chance to do it before the October recess, there is always the lame duck session. But that’s pushing it.

And that’s a long time to wait before picking up the fork.

(Ann Woolner is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Ann Woolner in Atlanta at awoolner@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this column: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

Bloomberg reserves the right to edit or remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.