Opinion

Food Safety News was the first to hire Helena Bottemiller Evich to cover food safety in Washington D.C., during the run up to the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act. She had energy and made contacts easily. Quickly, she was an expert in areas of the government, up on nuances most are clueless about. Politico correctly hired her away from us, but she’s continued to be a resource for us and anyone else concerned about food safety.

On April 9,  Politico posted “The FDA’s Food Failure,” a 36-page investigation (Pulitzer Prize eligible) by Helena that details the fact that food safety is not a high priority at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.  That sounds a little weird, but not for anyone who’s been following the music during the past 10 years or so.

Four takeaways from Helena’s story are:

  • The FDA’s food division has structural and leadership problems. The Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) “suffers from a deep-seated culture of avoiding hard decisions and near-paralyzing fear of picking serious fights with the food industry.”  Leadership is split and plagued by turf battles.
  • Congress ordered FDA to keep deadly pathogens out of the waters used for growing produce,  but after 11 years, it has not accomplished the task. Fresh fruits and vegetables frequently become contaminated by deadly pathogens transmitted by water.
  • Little progress has been made in keeping toxic elements out of baby food.  FDA is taking years to set standards for lead, cadmium, mercury, and arsenic in baby foods.
  • FDA has not managed to cut sodium consumption. Reduced sodium consumption, called for 2010, would prevent 100,000 deaths per year and save millions in health care expenses annually, according to public health officials.

Perhaps the most troubling part of the report is that CFSAN with its $1 billion budget remains in such turmoil between its director and the FDA’s deputy commissioner for food. The very thought that there are bureaucratic tugs-of-war over how to proceed on a foodborne illness investigation is mind-boggling.  FDA is supposed to be the quarterback for investigations involving multistate outbreaks.

Instead,  FDA is sounding like the fly in the ointment, which can only slow the necessary lab work from CDC and harm local surveillance.

Mike Taylor (the guy who killed E. coli O157:H7 in hamburger while at FSIS in the 1990’s), who was assistant commissioner for food until 2016 when the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) reported to him, has proposed a reform to fix things. He wants to combine all pieces of the FDA’s food operations into a separate organization with a full-time leader who reports directly to the HHS secretary, as the FDA commissioner does.

“This would require legislation by Congress and careful planning and implementation. Today, however, the commissioner and HHS secretary could and should, on their own authority, take the interim step of uniting the program under a single, full-time official with strong food safety credentials and fully empowered by the commissioner with the direct line authority needed to succeed,” Taylor wrote in response to the Politico report.

However, this might be the one time to do Mike Taylor one better. Rather than just spin off the food functions of the FDA into another HHS sub-agency, why not create a single, independent body that combines all the food safety functions of the FDA and USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Agency?

Such a “European model” would include an independent board with an executive officer appointed to a 10-year term. A single food safety agency that acts independently has often been proposed for the United States.

At present, FDA’s food regulations, as reported by Politico, are “broken” and a “joke,” while USDA’s Under Secretary for Food Safety is named but unable to serve for lack of Senate confirmation. Anyone trying to prove that food safety is a priority of the federal government would have a hard time.

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