Food Poisoning Is Costly, Deadly and Too Common

Yummy, but safe?

Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

It's a mistake to make a federal case out of a single outbreak of food poisoning. It's worth pointing out, however, the utter failure of Congress to do more to prevent foodborne illness, which costs Americans some $15 billion in treatment and lost work days every year.

The latest scare comes from Oregon and Washington state, where Chipotle closed 43 restaurants after more than 35 people fell ill with E. coli. Other outbreaks in recent years involved cantaloupes, peanuts and cookie dough. Some 3,000 Americans die every year from food poisoning, and 128,000 are hospitalized.

It's not as if Congress has done nothing. In 2011 it passed the Food Safety Modernization Act, the biggest change in industry monitoring since the 1930s. The law had broad support from both parties as well as consumer groups and Big Agriculture.

The act makes a number of improvements to the food-safety system. The Food and Drug Administration is empowered to order recalls of contaminated food products -- previously, it could only request them -- and put in place tougher rules on processing fruits and vegetables. Companies are required to create written safety plans and keep records of safety issues, which the agency has the right to see. The FDA will also do more frequent inspections -- once every three years instead of every decade for high-risk facilities -- and has greater authority over imported food, which is required to meet many of the same safety standards as domestic food.

The law falls short in some places: Most important, it does too little to address a lax program of domestic self-regulation, especially when it comes to outside safety inspectors, whose independence has been questioned. The agency has proposed a set of rules for improving matters, including a set of model accreditation standards for safety auditors, but they would simply be guidelines.

Yet any discussion of benefits and drawbacks would be premature, since few of the law's core provisions have taken effect. The FDA only last month finalized its preventive-control rules, and Congress has doled out less than half the $580 million that the Congressional Budget Office says has been needed to implement the law. It is unlikely to open its wallet wider. The process has become bogged down by industry objections to compliance costs and a proposed $225 million in other fees.

Congress, agricultural producers and food retailers need to find a compromise out of the fiscal logjam. One potentially helpful suggestion came from President Barack Obama earlier this year, when he proposed placing all food-safety responsibilities in one agency inside the Department of Health and Human Services, combining the efforts of the FDA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (which oversees meat and poultry) and a handful of other government offices. This could well increase efficiency and cut down on regulatory overlap, meaning lower costs to industry.

At any rate, the costs should be balanced against the benefit to public health and the damage to industry -- economic and reputational -- such outbreaks cause. Foodborne illness will never be eradicated, but a modern nation such as the U.S. can and should do much more to prevent it.

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