Rosa DeLauro, a Democratic congresswoman from Connecticut, says she will introduce a bill as soon as January to create an agency with the sole mission of protecting food safety and she’ll press for more funding to prevent foodborne illnesses.
It’s unacceptable for Americans to rely on private inspectors who have ties to food companies and award positive ratings to producers whose farms and factories are tainted with bacteria, DeLauro says.
The food industry has taken over much of the monitoring role of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in the past two decades, Bloomberg Markets magazine reported in its November issue. Inspectors, paid by food companies, have awarded safety approval to food that’s sickened and killed thousands of people.
“We have to go after this third party inspection system,” says DeLauro, a member of the House Appropriations Committee which funds the FDA. “This is a real opening. This is a moment where you can have an impact.”
At the same time, the FDA -- which has the resources to inspect less than five percent of all food in the U.S. -- is launching an investigation of two farms in Mexico, says Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods. Bloomberg Markets found unsanitary conditions at those growers, including workers defecating in the field and wiping their hands on their pants.
The FDA will also step up inspections at the Mexican border to find potentially contaminated produce, Taylor says.
Overall, 48 million Americans fall ill each year from unsafe food; 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die. The FDA has no rules in place to regulate or stop the private inspections of food produced in the U.S. The nongovernment monitors aren’t required by law to meet any federal standards.
DeLauro says she’ll push the agency to fix what’s wrong with private inspection companies.
Few Americans had been aware of the flawed system of self- monitoring. The inspectors operate in secrecy; their findings aren’t public.
Bloomberg Markets obtained seven inspection reports that gave sterling marks to a cantaloupe farm, an egg producer, a peanut processor and a ground-turkey plant -- either before or right after they supplied toxic food that sickened 2,936 people and killed 43 in 50 states since 2006.
The unsanitary conditions Bloomberg Markets documented at Agricola Pauher SA in northern Mexico prompted a U.S. retail chain to drop the farm as a grape tomato supplier for its 308 stores. City of Commerce, California-based 99 Cents Only Stores doesn’t want to sell unsafe food, says spokeswoman Ana Gamez.
“Their product has not been in our stores for over four months and we don’t plan on buying from them again,” Gamez says.
DeLauro, who’s been in Congress since 1991, says her proposed legislation would create a federal agency exclusively focused on protecting the U.S. food supply. She introduced similar bills in 1999 and 2010. Neither measure made it out of committee.
The Bloomberg Markets story will give the bill a better chance when it is reintroduced in the new Congress and is too important for public safety to not try, despite the nation’s fiscal crisis, DeLauro says.
“Consolidating our overlapping food agencies is a tough battle, but one that is incredibly important to public health and welfare,” DeLauro says. “We should be making investments in the long-term future of America’s health and this is one of them.”
The congresswoman also says conflicts of interest with food inspection companies should be stopped. Some inspection companies have board members who are executives on client companies they monitor, Bloomberg Markets reported.
“The FDA ought to be screaming about conflicts of interests,” DeLauro says. “I’m not afraid of talking with the administration about putting up the money to do this. I will continue to fight this issue.”
She says the Bloomberg Markets story -- which documented tainted fish and shrimp farming in China and Vietnam -- will also be a part of her discussions on trade agreement talks as it relates to seafood from Asia.
Expanded trade with Vietnam and Malaysia could lead to an influx of contaminated food, DeLauro, Congressman Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican and Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana say in a Nov. 29 letter to Ron Kirk, the U.S. trade representative.
“In fiscal 2012, imported seafood products from Vietnam, the fifth largest exporter of shrimp to the United States, were refused entry to the United States 206 times because of concerns including filth, decomposition, drug residues, unapproved food additives and Salmonella,” the legislators wrote.
At least one top manager of a private food inspection company says the safety system has to be fixed for the good of the public.
“I have little confidence in the government’s ability to solve this problem,” says Mark Jarvis, chief executive officer of Charlotte, North Carolina-based food-safety auditing company Steritech Group Inc. The food industry and the inspection companies have to take actions to be more responsible, he says.
“This is a corporate governance issue,” Jarvis says. “It’s only a matter of time before the next major outbreak happens. And that isn’t very reassuring for consumers.”
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