Amid a tainted-food scare FDA will do less?

Published 7:17 pm Friday, August 17, 2007

By Staff
Editor’s note: This editorial was published in the News &Record of Greensboro on Aug. 10
An anti-regulatory bias in Washington that has for years starved FDA for funds now threatens to place unhealthful meals onto Americans’ tables. The Bush administration cut food inspection money by 5 percent in its 2006 budget, for instance. Since then, there have been cases of E. coli in spinach, salmonella in peanut butter, botulism in chili. In response, the administration proposed a 5 percent increase for FDA in its 2008 budget, but costs, population and imports have all increased. The net effect is a further erosion of the ability to police our food supply.
The latest flap involves 1 million pounds of farmed Chinese seafood suspected of contamination with banned drugs and chemicals. Normally FDA inspects only 1 percent of arriving food cargos, but last summer it had evidence that up to 15 percent of Chinese seafood might be tainted, triggering an import alert that is supposed to mean sampling of all shipments. Since then, however, 25 percent of shipments have not been tested. Most entered through Florida and Georgia ports and may have ended up on North Carolina plates.
A former FDA manager admits ‘‘the system is outdated and doesn’t work very well.’’ How could it? The agency has 450 inspectors assigned to 20 million food shipments annually. You do the math.
Now FDA’s food safety director says it will ‘‘rely more on state regulatory agencies and other food safety partners to ensure basic public health protections are continued.’’ Why? Because FDA’s limited resources make it incapable of doing the job alone.
It makes sense to coordinate federal and state safety efforts and promote best practices, but this smacks of passing the buck to the states. It’s one more variant on the unfunded mandate scam whereby administrations averse to spending tax dollars on needed services devise rules at the federal level that states have to observe — and pay for. In this case, it’s even worse. The standards will be voluntary. This can only lead to crazy-quilt enforcement with some states doing rigorous inspection and others letting it slide.
Americans shouldn’t have to play Russian roulette with their health every time they cross a state line. FDA was created in the wake of tainted-food scandals to guarantee a uniform national level of food safety. Now, in the wake of tainted-food scandals, the response is to devolve responsibility to voluntary efforts by 50 states.
This isn’t progress. It’s an abdication of responsibility. The Bush administration may have a knee-jerk antipathy to almost all government regulation, but Congress has a responsibility to insist that FDA do the job for which it was created and to provide funding adequate to get that job done.