food regulationThe Washington Post reports that it took a book called "The Jungle," a grim assessment of work inside slaughterhouses, plus a campaign by labor unions, medical professionals and consumer groups, to pressure Congress to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act on the same day in 1906.

The food industry was opposed to legislative and regulatory oversight then, as it is in many instances today. That is despite periodic instances of bad publicity, such as that accompanying the recent discovery of fresh spinach contaminated with E. coli bacteria. The increased complexity of agriculture and distribution systems, the influx of foods from all over the world and threats to the meat supply such as mad cow disease haven’t shaken the resistance of most producers and sellers to major modification of the U.S.’s food-safety system.

In particular, the industry and Congress have no stomach for giving federal regulators the power to order recalls, fine transgressors or unify the sprawling regulatory authority. That authority is now shared by the U.S. Department of Agriculture , which oversees meat, poultry and eggs, and the Food and Drug Administration , which is responsible for everything else, which amounts to about 80 percent of the food supply.

Without mandatory authority, the USDA and FDA rely on the states to notice a problem and then for food companies to voluntarily recall their product, as occurred in the spinach case. The agency then issues a press release informing the public. In the case of meat and poultry, federal inspectors can shut down a plant by withdrawing their required inspection services.

Dan Glickman, a longtime congressman from Kansas who was secretary of agriculture in the Clinton administration, recalls giving speeches in 1997 in support of legislation that would have given food-safety agencies stronger enforcement powers, including mandatory recall authority and the ability to impose civil penalties on violators of up to $100,000 a day.

The proposal didn’t pass.

The big food companies and meat processors have steadfastly opposed handing more authority to the two agencies.

"The members don’t believe the system is broken," said Craig Henry, chief science officer for the Food Products Association , a Washington-based group that represents the large producers. "There are very few countries, if any, that set a gold standard like the U.S."