Albion Monitor /News

Kill the FDA, Consumer Groups Tell Clinton

Want independent federal food agency
WASHINGTON, DC--Consumer organizations have called on President Clinton to form a new independent food agency to address existing and emerging hazards in the food supply. Citing recent examples of deadly bacteria in unexpected foods, such as lettuce and unpasteurized juice, the groups warned of more "bumper crops of illnesses."

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and Safe Tables Our Priority (S.T.O.P.) urged President Clinton to form an independent federal food agency to assure American consumers that existing and emerging food hazards will be fully addressed.

"Bacteria in hamburger killed my son. Now it's showing up in more foods, like lettuce and unpasteurized juice," said Nancy Donley, president of S.T.O.P. "We have one food supply. We need one food agency."

A food safety program that is little more than a recall agency for contaminated foods
In 1996, the groups noted that there were numerous food safety problems with FDA-regulated food products, including:

  • A parasite, Cyclospora, on raspberries from Guatemala caused over 1000 consumer illnesses all over the country and in Canada.

  • E. coli poisoning outbreaks traced to lettuce caused at least 100 consumer illnesses in three states.

  • E. coli and Cryptosporidium poisoning from unpasteurized juice products, including Odwalla juice, caused over 100 consumer illnesses and one death in at least 5 states.

  • 23 deaths were traced to one bacteria, Vibrio vulnificus, in raw shellfish.

  • Over 70 consumer illnesses from shellfish were traced to raw oysters from Louisiana. In January 1997, in another major outbreak, over 400 consumers became ill from oysters.
  • Many of those examples represent emerging food safety problems. The groups noted, however, that the agency in charge of those serious hazards, the Food and Drug Administration, is poorly-funded and inadequately staffed.

    "Last year, there was a bumper crop of foodborne illnesses from FDA-regulated foods," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the CSPI. "Years of inadequate funding have left FDA with a food safety program that is little more than a recall agency for contaminated foods."

    "FDA hasn't controlled food hazards that already exist, like deadly bacteria in oysters." said Vicki Peal, a Florida schoolteacher who lost her father to deadly oysters. "I fear the consequences of having this agency oversee new food safety threats."

    The organizations praised the Clinton Administration for taking positive steps to improve food safety by adopting mandatory systems for preventing contamination in meat, poultry and seafood plants. However, in a memo to the President, they warned that piecemeal reform was not enough.

    "The bottom line is that consumers are paying a terrible price for the inefficiencies and ineffectiveness of the existing system of foodborne illness prevention," the groups advised the President. "It is time to reinvent and rationalize the system."

    The groups said that "piecemeal reforms" are not enough. "We need fundamental reform," they advised the President, "if we are to benefit from a more effective food safety system. We need a single federal food agency to address the unacceptably high rate of foodborne illness and inconsistent food safety policies across the federal government.

    "We need the government to adopt food safety assurance systems that are proactive in identifying and preventing contamination rather than waiting until large food poisoning outbreaks and public outcry make action a political necessity."

    Effective government action could have prevented many [Salmonella] illnesses and deaths
    CSPI, a nonprofit health-advocacy organization that focuses on nutrition and food safety, has released a report examining a particularly widespread example. "Scrambled Eggs: How a broken food safety system let contaminated eggs become a national food poisoning epidemic" is available on the Internet.

    "Effective government action could have prevented many illnesses and deaths over the past twenty years and could prevent countless future unnecessary tragedies," the report states.

    "The history of the federal government's failure to curb the [Salmonella] epidemic illustrates the ineffectiveness of having multiple government agencies responsible for regulating the same food. The agencies were further hamstrung by a Congress that cut funding for a pilot control program just as it was beginning to show results and an industry that, except for producers in Pennsylvania, resisted attempts to prevent egg contamination on the farm."

    Also signing onto the memorandum to the President are Consumer Federation of America, Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, Government Accountability Project, and United States Humane Society.

    [Editor's note: In an article apparing in the March issue of "Food and Drug Law Journal," Michael Taylor advanced many of these same ideas. "There really are two food safety systems in the U.S.," wrote Taylor. "One for meat and poultry, administered by USDA, and one for seafood and all other components of the food supply, administered primarily by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Certainly, the current system is not the one anyone would design if starting with a clean state."

    Taylor, who was USDA Acting Under Secretary for Food Safety from 1994-1996 and for three years before that, deputy commissioner for policy at FDA, also wrote that twelve Federal agencies working under thirty-five statutes hinders the best use of resources; complicates adoption of consistent food safety strategies; and is at odds with the clear assignment of responsibility and accountability for food safety. Further, food safety research is conducted by 21 Federal agencies. Although more than $200 million is spent annually on research activities, Taylor notes that there is no formal coordinating mechanism and government-wide food safety research strategy.

    But critics also note that Taylor's proposed solution of "performance-based standards" weakens regulation and government oversight, giving industry considerable leeway to set its own controls. Also, as noted in a Monitor April commentary, the USDA and FDA were harshly criticized for being too cozy with regulated industries under Taylor's management.]

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    Albion Monitor June 5, 1997 (

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