Within a decade of the Jack in the Box ordeal, recalls of tainted beef dwindled. But the troubles were not over. Outbreaks affecting other foods kept coming: spinach, lettuce, cantaloupes, unpasteurized apple juice. Nor was domestically raised produce the only concern. Imports account for an estimated 15 percent of the food that Americans consume, yet federal officials have often been unable to vouch for the safety practices of overseas growers and processors.
E. coli is not the lone villain. Salmonella bacteria sicken a million Americans a year and take 370 or more lives, according to C.D.C. estimates. Salmonella is, in fact, the country’s No. 1 food-borne killer. Chickens and eggs are particularly vulnerable; an outbreak in 2010 led to the recall of 500 million eggs. Unlike E. coli, salmonella is not classified as an adulterant by the Agriculture Department, though the F.D.A. sets its own rules and can order recalls of salmonella-tainted food. Whether normal cooking destroys every one of the pathogens that may linger is an open question.
As some food safety specialists see it, the oversight system is a study in dysfunction. “It’s slow to react to science — it’s slow to react to change,” Dr. David Acheson told Retro Report. Dr. Acheson, now an adviser to food companies, used to be the chief medical officer at the Food Safety and Inspection Service and at the F.D.A. A certain amount of political buck-passing may also be at work, as shown in an installment of “Frontline” that is scheduled to be broadcast on Tuesday on PBS. In that segment, which explores safety in the poultry business, the Agriculture Department and Congress essentially blame each other for the lack of action to label salmonella as an adulterant.
Part of the problem, some believe, is the balkanized nature of safety inspections. Most responsibilities fall to the F.D.A. and to the safety inspection service. But 13 federal agencies play lesser roles as well. Forming this bureaucratic alphabet soup are the C.D.C.; the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service; the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyard Administration; the Agricultural Marketing Service; the Agricultural Research Service; the Economic Research Service; the National Agricultural Statistics Service; the National Institute of Food and Agriculture; the National Marine Fisheries Service; the Environmental Protection Agency; the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau; United States Customs and Border Protection and — are you still with us? — the Federal Trade Commission.
The fragmentation is enough to arch eyebrows. The safety inspection service has jurisdiction over meat, poultry and processed eggs. The F.D.A. is responsible for nearly everything else — in all, roughly 80 percent of the nation’s food supply. How does this work out? Not always smoothly.
A frozen cheese and tomato pizza is the province of F.D.A. inspectors. But scatter slices of pepperoni across that pie, and the safety inspection service takes over. Eggs still in their shell? They are the F.D.A.’s concern. But if the eggs are cracked and whipped into some other product, the inspection service has the ball. Then there is the Agricultural Marketing Service setting quality standards for eggs — Grade AA, Grade A and so forth — but not checking at the same time for bacteria. That safety control is the F.D.A.’s job.
In February, the Obama administration sought to impose a measure of order by proposing that all these agencies be combined into a single entity: the Food Safety Administration, which would become part of the Department of Health and Human Services. Whether anything will actually change is uncertain. Congress must give its consent. Turf struggles among the agencies are unlikely to vanish overnight. And some consumer groups and food safety experts are not convinced that creating a giant bureaucracy is the magic wand that will make the system’s shortcomings suddenly disappear. There is a sobering lesson in the Food Safety Modernization Act, the law that bolstered the F.D.A. Four years later, that agency still struggles to get the money it needs to do the job right.
Over the past four years, Congress gave the F.D.A. less than half of the $580 million that it should have had, the Congressional Budget Office said last month.
Which brings us back to Mr. Romer and crises. Dr. Acheson, for one, says that nothing short of a catastrophe may be necessary to rattle officialdom sufficiently to redesign the safety system. Rather grimly, he told Retro Report, “We need — I hate to say it, but — bodies in the street before we get it.”
CLYDE HABERMAN, a regular contributor to Retro Report, has been a reporter, columnist and editorial writer for The New York Times, where he spent nearly 13 years based in Tokyo, Rome and Jerusalem. Subscribe to our newsletter here and follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.
This article first appeared in The New York Times.