Senator Coburn’s Ensuring Greater Food Safety Act, introduced yesterday, asks the USDA and FDA to do a better job and communicate more. Laudable goals, but that’s about it for substance, excluding the requirement that the Government Accountability Office referee the hoped-for improved relationship between the two regulatory bodies.
Shouldn’t fiscal conservatism, and the fact that Senator Coburn is a doctor, cause him to look a little deeper at the big picture–i.e. that, under our current system, foodpoisoning costs this country $152 billion annually? Shouldn’t Dr. Coburn also take a look at the fact that, of the 150,000 food producers under FDA’s jurisdiction, the agency currently has the wherewithall to inspect a mere 18,000 annually? Inspection alone certainly won’t stop salmonella and E. coli, but having an actual, annual presence at many of the 150,000 producers would certainly go a long way in forcing regulatory compliance. Had the FDA been meaningfully present at Wright County Egg, and actually looked at the wealth of data indicating that there was a major food safety problem at the facilities, the 30 or 40 thousand illnesses that have occurred in this outbreak nationally since May likely wouldn’t have happened (CDC estimates 38.6 actual cases of Salmonella poisoning for every confirmed case in an outbreak).
Another point: the average salmonella illness costs about $9,146 (medical care and quality of life, productivity losses), according to a study by Robert Scharff released earlier this year. That’s a savings of $331,135,000 had the Wright County Egg outbreak not happened. A good start for purposes of funding the Food Safety Modernization Act.
A little more thought should go into Senator Coburn’s next move on food safety.