If you have a few minutes this morning, there’s a more extensive piece on food safety in the U.S. and around the world in the Christian Science Monitor.  The article begins by reflecting on the drastic move our food supply has made from local to global over the last 70 years.  Without coming to a conclusion as to whether this change is ultimately for the better, it is clear that addressing the problems in food safety has become more complex.

The list of high-profile foodborne illness outbreaks from which to conclusions is long and ever growing:  ground beef, spinach, peanut butter, eggs.

This year’s massive Salmonella outbreak linked to Wright County Egg is used to illustrate some of the major problems in food safety regulation in the U.S.   F.D.A. inspectors found numerous shockingly unsanitary conditions in the expansive facility – but not until after a half billion eggs had been recalled and 1,800 were confirmed ill.   Throughout the entire time the implicated eggs were being produced however, there were government officials on-hand – just not from the F.D.A.

Unfortunately, the FDA inspection came after the outbreak was already under way. Although egg graders from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) had repeatedly noted subpar conditions in the company’s egg-grading operation, those concerns never reached the FDA. 

The egg recall illustrates the patchwork, inefficient nature of America’s food-safety system. Fifteen federal agencies – and many state agencies – are responsible for food safety. The two primary watchdogs – the FDA and the USDA – have overlapping responsibilities. While the USDA grades the eggs, making sure each carton has the same size egg, the FDA is responsible for keeping them from being contaminated.

There is a stark difference in the way to the two agencies approach food safety, and a resulting tug-of-war for funding:

…the two agencies have radically different approaches to securing the food supply. The USDA is inspection-focused. US law requires it to inspect every carcass of meat and poultry that it’s responsible for, even though numerous scientific reports have questioned the effectiveness of those rapid conveyor-belt inspections.

"There is an awful lot of money being spent on guys standing around watching the chickens fly by," says Glenn Morris, director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida, Gainesville, and a former official at the Food Safety and Inspection Service at the USDA. "It’s hard to tell what you are getting for your money."

The USDA’s costly carcass-by-carcass inspection soaks up about 60 percent of US food-safety funding, even though it covers only about 20 percent of the food Americans eat (mostly meat). That leaves the FDA with only around 40 percent of the funding, even though it’s responsible for ensuring the safety of 80 percent of the food supply. With less funding, it’s difficult for the FDA to inspect food facilities on a regular basis.

If that’s not frightening enough, bear in mind, this is only domestic food.   U.S. agencies have no direct control over food production in other countries.   The inspection rates over food coming in from other countries may be lower still than domestic food:

Neither the FDA nor its Mexican counterpart requires fresh produce growers to be certified before they send food into the US.

The FDA does screen products at the border, targeting those products and producers that have posed problems in the past. But a 2008 Government Accountability Office report showed that the FDA examined less than 1 percent of the fresh produce coming through its borders between 2000 and 2007. So almost all the food that reaches the US passes through without being physically examined at all.

And of course, no review of food safety is complete without reviewing the inexplicable failure of Congress to pass pending food safety legislation.  (Thanks, Senator Coburn).  New food safety legislation was spurred by the PCA Salmonella outbreak in 2009.  Poor corporate behavior, a lack of government oversight, apparently usless third-party audits.  Yet, in 2010, Congressional hearings on Wright County Egg revealed more of the same, while the legislation languished.