General Accountability Office Calls for Huge Reform of Food Safety System in the U.S.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently released a report based on an audit it conducted into the federal system of food safety regulation in the U.S. The report designates food safety as “high risk,” calls on legislators to enact massive reforms to the food safety system, and warns that the U.S. food chain is open to attack by terrorists. At present, primary responsibility for food safety in the U.S. is shared between FDA and the USDA—although as many as 15 different federal agencies can also play a role in food safety regulation. The USDA is responsible for the safety of meat, poultry and processed egg products, while FDA is responsible for nearly everything else. According to the report, the system of shared responsibility “has caused inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient use of resources.” For example, the frequency of inspections conducted by the two agencies varies greatly. While federal law requires that USDA maintain continuous inspection at slaughter facilities and examine each slaughtered meat and poultry carcass, federal law places no requirement on the frequency of inspections for foods that fall under FDA’s jurisdiction. Food facilities can go five years or more without being inspected by FDA. In addition, food products under FDA’s jurisdiction can be marketed without the agency’s prior approval. However, food products under the USDA’s jurisdiction must generally be inspected and approved before being sold to the public.

This can lead to differences in the treatment of nearly-identical food products. For example, a packaged ham-and-cheese sandwich is regulated by FDA if it contains two slices of bread (a closed-face sandwich), but is regulated by the USDA if it contains one slice of bread (an open-face sandwich). As the GAO report pointed out, “Although there are no differences in the risks posed by these products, USDA inspects wholesale manufacturers of open-face sandwiches sold in interstate commerce daily, while FDA inspects closed-face sandwiches an average of once every five years.” The report also expressed concern about the regulation of food recalls in the U.S. With the exception of infant formula, food recalls are strictly voluntary and neither FDA nor the USDA has the authority to require that a recall be carried out. The GAO expressed concern that the present system compromises the safety of the food chain by preventing rapid detection and response to a contamination of the food supply. The report proposes that legislators enact comprehensive, uniform, risk-based food safety legislation.

Study Finds That Last Year’s Recall of Spinach Due To E. coli Contamination Confused Public

Last year, researchers from Rutgers University’s Food Policy Institute conducted a telephone survey of a nationally representative sample of 1,200 Americans between November 8 and 29. The purpose of the survey was to determine the level of consumer awareness of the spinach recall in the U.S. in 2006. According to the study, although 87% of Americans heard the warning that bagged spinach should not be eaten, many were confused as to exactly which types of spinach the warning applied to. For example, only 68% of people knew that loose fresh spinach was also included in the recall and only 57% were aware that frozen spinach was not affected by the recall. People were also confused about the duration of the recall and did not know when it had ended.

The study also indicated that Americans lacked an understanding of food borne illness. Only 52% of those surveyed were aware that E. coli was the contaminant that triggered the recall. Additionally, Americans had trouble identifying the symptoms associated with E. coli infection. Around 75% of people incorrectly believed that fever is a symptom, and many incorrectly associated nausea and vomiting with E. coli infection.

Researchers hope that the data they collected will help improve the effectiveness of future food recalls as well as provide an indication of potential problems the US recall systems might face in the event of an intentional food contamination.

Opposition Grows Against FDA’s Announcement on How It Intends To Treat Food from Cloned Animals

In December 2006, FDA announced that eating milk or meat from cloned animals posed no significant health risks to humans. As a result, FDA said that cloned food will not have to be labeled as such.

The announcement has triggered strong opposition from the dairy industry, consumer protection organizations, and the Congress. These groups have pointed out that there have been no long-term studies on the safety of milk and meat from cloned animals and they argue that until these have been conducted it is not safe for FDA to attest to their safety. Opponents of FDA announcement are especially concerned because cloned animals often suffer from serious defects and health problems. According to the Center for Food Safety, over 90% of cloning attempts fail, while those that are successful produce animals with more health problems and higher mortality rates than sexually reproduced animals. The opposition groups believe that FDA is acting irresponsibly by assuming that cloned animal food products are safe to eat before researchers fully understand the abnormal health problems confronted by these animals.

In 2003, FDA asked the industry to voluntarily withhold the sale of milk and meat from cloned animals until it could make a final decision on their safety. Opposition groups are now concerned that FDA may lift that moratorium sometime this year. The Center for Food Safety, an industry watchdog organization, filed a petition with FDA last October urging it to institute a mandatory ban on the use of cloned animals for food production until all of the food safety issues have been resolved.

Moreover, the groups take issue with FDA’s announcement that cloned food will not need to be labeled as such. They argue that consumers will have no way to avoid these controversial foods if they so choose. In an apparent response to FDA’s announcement, a new bill has been proposed in the U.S. Senate that would require all foods from cloned animals be labeled with the following notice: “THIS PRODUCT IS FROM A CLONED ANIMAL OR ITS PROGENY.” The Cloned Food Labeling Act, as the bill is named, was referred to Senate Committee on January 26, 2007. In the meantime, some states have decided to take action on their own. For example, both California and Massachusetts are considering legislation that would require food from cloned animals to be labeled as such.

A few years ago, there was debate concerning whether genetically modified (GMO) foods should be required to declare that information on the product label. FDA took the position that there were no significant health risks to humans eating these products and announced that GMO food did not have to be labeled as such. It is interesting that FDA is being consistent with that decision in its treatment of cloned food.

Proposed Legislation Would Prevent Cloned Food from Being Labeled As Organic

Most people believe that the USDA’s National Organic Program regulations clearly prohibit cloned food from being labeled as organic. On January 31, the National Organic Program announced that cloned animals are incompatible with the Organic Foods Production Act and that cloning as a livestock production practice is prohibited under the regulations. However, some in the biotechnology industry have recently argued that the federal regulations allow them to label food from the offspring of cloned animals as organic as long as those animals were raised organically. Recent statements from the USDA indicate that the agency may agree with the biotechnology industry in that the regulations do not address the issue of offspring of cloned animals. In its January 31 announcement, the National Organic Program stated that it intends to work with the National Organic Standards Board to develop a rulemaking to determine the organic status of the progeny of clones. Both parties have stated that they intend to discuss the matter at a March meeting.

In an apparent response to these statements, a bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate on February 8 that would specify that food from the offspring of cloned animals may not be labeled as organic under the National Organic Program. The two Senators introducing the bill explained that the bill would close any possible loophole in the regulations and would “protect the integrity of organic standards.” The bill would codify the prohibition of milk, meat, and other food products from clones and their offspring from the National Organic Program. The bill was referred to the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry on February 8, 2007. AR2007012800862.html

Salmonella Outbreak Linked to Peanut Butter

Peter Pan brand peanut butter and certain lots of Great Value brand peanut butter have been identified as the source of an outbreak of Salmonella Tennessee in the U.S. that began in August 2006. As of February 23, there have been 329 reported cases of foodborne illness caused by consuming the contaminated peanut butter, and 51 of those persons were hospitalized. The Peter Pan peanut butter was distributed nationwide and to more than 60 countries. The Great Value brand peanut butter was distributed nationally through Wal-Mart, and it is unknown whether any of the Great Value brand was distributed internationally.

All of the contaminated peanut butter was manufactured in ConAgra’s Sylvester, Georgia plant. Great Value peanut butter made by other manufacturers was not affected. ConAgra has recalled the products from stores and ceased production in their Sylvester, Georgia processing plant until the exact cause of contamination can be identified and eliminated. The FDA is working closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and with state and local officials to identify how the contamination occurred in order to prevent similar foodborne illness outbreaks. The FDA has advised retailers and institutions possessing products that were purchased since May 2006 not to serve or sell them and has advised consumers possessing products that were purchased since May 2006 to discard them.

Symptoms of salmonellosis include diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps and typically emerge 12 to 72 hours after infection. The illness usually lasts four to seven days, and most persons recover without treatment. The elderly, infants, and those with impaired immune systems are more likely to require hospitalization. In persons with poor underlying health or weakened immune systems, salmonella can invade the bloodstream and cause life-threatening infections.