Most Americans only worried about becoming sick from eating contaminated food when they traveled to distant lands. After all, it was almost indisputable that the U.S. food supply was the safest in the world. But a chain of recent events has raised doubts in the minds of many.
These days, it seems that all food is suspect. Ground meat may be contaminated with dangerous new strains of Escherichia coli and poultry is rife with another recently publicized bacterium called campylobacter. That faithful staple, the egg, is a carrier of salmonella; the vegetable bin and fruit bowl may harbor protozoans with names like toxoplasma and cryptosporidium. Outbreaks of hepatitis A have been traced to strawberries. It may seem like a good idea to post a table of food-borne pathogens on the refrigerator door.
The threat, however, is frighteningly real. The Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, a private nonprofit organization, estimated in 1994 that as many as 9,000 deaths and 6.5 to 33 million illnesses in the United States each year are food-related. The Department of Agriculture estimates that medical costs and productivity losses for seven specific pathogens in food range between $6.5 billion and $34.9 billion annually.
And, if the growing list of food recalls is any indication, the situation seems to be getting worse. The current message from the Food and Drug Administration: "Treat all foods as if they are potentially contaminated," says Joe Madden, strategic manager for microbiology at the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
Faced with a public outcry, the Clinton Administration has attempted to take an active role in protecting food and restoring public confidence--all the while insisting that U.S. food is "the safest in the world." In January 1997, President Clinton announced a $43 million Food Safety Initiative. Specific recommendations for the plan were outlined in a 50-page report, Food Safety from Farm to Table released in May. The document was a collaboration by the government agencies with regulatory oversight on the food supply: Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Environmental Protection Agency.
The plan calls for beefing up food safety inspection and monitoring efforts, funding new research to develop methods to control and detect food-borne pathogens, and speeding response to food-borne outbreaks. It also calls for expanded education efforts aimed at consumers, food service workers, and other segments of the "food chain."
Key to Clinton's scheme is shoring up the FDA's vastly overextended inspection system for food production facilities. Although the Food Safety Initiative would add 80 new investigators, fewer than 700 investigators and lab personnel now oversee 53,000 U.S. plants and imported foods. At present, FDA-regulated plants are inspected only once every 10 years.
Instead of hiring an army of inspectors, the plan sets out as its centerpiece a concept called HACCP, for Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point. The idea behind this "science-based approach" is to pinpoint places in the food production process where contamination can occur and monitor them closely.
The job of finding these "critical control points" is left to industry, then codified as HACCP regulations by the regulatory agencies. FDA's seafood HACCP regulations go into effect in December 1997; the Agriculture Department is developing rules for meat and poultry. FDA will create the HACCP for fruit and vegetable juices. Rules for eggs and egg products will be a joint effort of FDA and the Agriculture Dept.
While the HACCP idea may seem to be giving industry more power to police itself, at the same time the Administration is asking Congress for more enforcement power, but over U.S. producers and the increasing amounts of imported food. On October 2, Clinton announced a bill that would give the FDA the power to ban importation of fruits and vegetables from countries whose safety precautions do not meet American standards. The goal, said Clinton, is to "make sure that no fruits and vegetables cross our borders, enter our ports, or reach our dinner tables without meeting the same strict standards as those grown here in America."