Editorial Board

Sushi Poisoning Reminder That Food System Needs Overhaul

Eating a spicy tuna roll shouldn’t make you sick. Nor should eating cantaloupe, cold cuts, peanut butter or onions, all of which were linked to food poisoning that sickened and killed people in the U.S. within the past five years.

Reports last week of a salmonella outbreak, possibly related to sushi, serve as a timely reminder of why the Obama administration must expedite a plan to modernize the country’s food-safety regulations, which haven’t been updated since the Great Depression.

So far, more than 100 people in 19 states have been stricken, all by an unusual strain of the bacteria known as salmonella Barielly. No deaths have been reported. Many of those who fell ill told health officials they had eaten sushi in recent days, though tracing the source of food poisoning is often difficult.

There’s a chance that if sushi were the culprit, the Food Safety Modernization Act would have prevented it. Passed two years ago with wide bipartisan support, the law is designed to stop food contamination at the source, not simply react to incidences of food-borne illness. The deadline for issuing the rules to implement the law was Jan. 4, pending a review of the regulations by the Office of Management and Budget.

Overseas Suppliers

The law would focus on four broad areas, one of which is the establishment of a more efficient system for testing, monitoring and verifying imported foods. U.S. inspectors also would collaborate with foreign suppliers. Much of the food now shipped to the U.S. enters the supply chain untested, and sometimes from unknown sources. About 80 percent of the sushi sold in the U.S. comes from overseas suppliers.

Other parts of the law are intended to enhance the safety of processed foods, animal food and fresh produce.

There are about 48 million cases of food poisoning in the U.S. each year and as many as 3,000 deaths. Although the incidence of food poisoning hasn’t increased much, the virulence of individual episodes is on the rise, particularly from fresh produce, according to the National Academy of Sciences. Last year, cantaloupe tainted by Listeria was responsible for 30 deaths, the most lethal case of food poisoning in U.S. history.

Because the country’s food supply is increasingly concentrated among a handful of large producers and distributors, the potential for mass poisonings is growing. Some of the 50,000 food-processing plants in the U.S. go as long as a decade without being inspected.

The Obama administration was a strong supporter of more stringent regulation following the outbreak of salmonella from tainted peanut butter in 2009, so the delay in putting the law in place is troubling. Perhaps the bureaucratic wheels are turning slower than usual; perhaps the White House doesn’t want to be accused of adding “job-killing regulations” in an election year.

The OMB is confronting a math problem: Carrying out the law would require additional funding for the Food and Drug Administration, the agency that drafted the rules and would be charged with overseeing and enforcing the law. With little support in Washington for increasing spending, the OMB is searching for ways to offset the agency’s need for more money.

As an alternative to paying for the FDA’s increased workload through the federal budget, the Obama administration proposed imposing so-called user fees of $220 million on an industry with more than $1 trillion in sales. Those fees would require Congressional approval. Though the amount seems comparatively trivial, the food industry opposes them and they stand little chance of passage.

Contamination Costs

Food-borne illness costs the U.S. as much as $77 billion a year in medical treatment, lost productivity and reduced sales of products implicated in contamination episodes, according to an analysis by a former FDA economist. The expense of the tainted peanut butter recall and subsequent decline in demand alone cost the industry an estimated $1 billion.

The food industry would prefer that the costs of more vigilant regulation fall to the American taxpayer. But in light of the harm that food poisoning causes to victims, the economy and the industry itself, the Obama administration should press forward with building support for user fees. The food industry should relent and back them. After all, many manufacturers supported the legislation before anyone thought of asking them to pay for making it work.

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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