Opinion Columns & Blogs

Ann Woolner: Food-safety politics could ruin your appetite

Maybe you weren't rattled by the egg-borne outbreak of salmonella last month, the death-inducing peanut butter last year or the spinach-linked E. coli in 2006.

But if you are reading this while eating, you might want to lay down the fork. A new study from the Union of Concerned Scientists and Iowa State University could ruin your appetite.

Hundreds of inspectors and scientists whose job it is to check the safety of food say that within the past year alone, political or corporate interests interfered with their work. Unpleasant findings are glossed over, edited out or changed to make food seem safer than it is, they say.

"Once a member of Congress gets involved, the agency does whatever it can to make the situation go away rather than address food-safety issues," an unnamed Agriculture Department employee said when answering the survey.

Of the 1,700 people at the department and the Food and Drug Administration who answered the survey, 507 said they had personally experienced political interference in their work.

Specifically, 266 said they had been involved in situations in which a member of Congress forced the agency to back off an action intended to protect the public. And 301 said they had witnessed corporate interests force such a change. (It isn't clear whether those two groups overlapped.)

Not only that, but 330 said they had seen businesses withhold food-safety information in situations that harmed the public health.

Still hungry?

You might think the new survey would inject a sense of urgency into the Senate, where a food-safety bill has stalled. Passed last year in the House with two-thirds in favor, the bill is treading water in the face of bipartisan support and backing by consumer and mainstream food-industry groups alike. A Senate committee gave it unanimous approval.

The legislation would require regular inspections of food-processing plants, give the FDA authority to order recalls, boost the number of inspectors, and require companies to scientifically analyze their products for safety and keep better records.

Not everyone wants this law. Smaller producers, who say their food is safer anyway, worry about being strangled by more regulation. Amendments are possible.

But the bigger industry players, as well as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have been pushing for passage. They like tighter regulation, in part because spinach growers learned that even when they keep their operations in top shape, they can be shut down while authorities hunt for the culprit, according to the New York Times.

The chief Senate critic, the man preventing a vote, is Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. He complains about the cost and the law's inability to correct long-running problems at the agencies, such as duplication of efforts.

In the 13 months since the House passed the FDA overhaul, there have been 85 food recalls involving products that have sickened at least 1,850 people, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

We are talking about salad dressings, soup mixes, alfalfa sprouts and lettuce, to name a few contaminated items.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 76 million people get sick from food-borne illnesses annually, 325,000 wind up hospitalized, and 5,000 die.

The pressure is on for senators to pass the law, and soon. If they miss the chance to do it before the October recess, there is always the lame-duck session. But that's pushing it.

And that's a long time to wait before picking up the fork.