When Bad Peanut Butter Does Some Good

All the alarming news about bad peanut butter, tainted baby formula and other food scares may have some benefit.

All the alarming news about bad peanut butter, tainted baby formula and other food scares may have some benefit. Washington is likely to significantly toughen the food safety system. Unfortunately, it's unlikely policymakers will go as far as they should.

While considerable credit for a somewhat improved system will go to the thousands of Americans sickened by needlessly contaminated products, another major pressure point is that a thousand-plus companies who used salmonella-laced peanut butter from a single Peanut Corp. of America plant in Georgia had to recall their products. This Typhoid Mary of the food chain highlighted an unsettling truth: The country really has no comprehensive food safety strategy and inspection system that requires food companies to ensure proper handling of their products and can reliably catch them in the act when they fall down on the job.

Today's food industry and the regulators who are supposed to police it need a system geared to prevention rather than reaction -- applied at food sources to avoid problems rather than concentrating on tracking down bad products that have already made their way onto grocery shelves, restaurants and school cafeterias.

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Unfortunately, the U.S. has 15 agencies chasing after some part of food safety, and consumers won't see the restructured, unified system that most experts have agreed for years must happen to achieve an effective program. Sadly, Congress has run from responsibility on food safety for decades, unable to overcome intramural struggles by various committees that have jurisdiction over various parts of the system. A Food Safety Council set up by President Bill Clinton described a flawed and fragmented food safety program a decade ago. It asked Congress to legislate a cohesive, unified food safety system that is science based, geared more to prevention and focused on the worst hazards to health. No surprise, another task force in the just-ended Bush administration made similar pleas. Congress' own investigators -- the Government Accountability Office -- echoed those recommendations. The GAO also went abroad and reported back to Congress how other countries can and do have effective food safety programs.

The result? Congress has done virtually nothing for decades to revise the disjointed food safety system, although it has allowed agencies to proceed with some improvements, especially for the Agriculture Department's meat and poultry program. As recently as a year ago, the GAO warned that the Food and Drug Administration, responsible for the safety of 80% of our foods, "does not have the capacity to ensure the safety of the nation's food supply."

If you listen to the snarling outrage and gnashing of teeth spewing from lawmakers while they are on camera, you'd think Congress was on the verge of acting seriously. Take this comment on the recent peanut scandal from Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa): "To say that food safety in this country is a patchwork system is giving it too much credit. Food safety in America has too often become a hit-or-miss gamble, and that is truly frightening."

But Congress won't order a structural overhaul of the system anytime soon, unless -- against long odds -- President Obama wages a huge battle with Congress and shames it into action.

That said, there should be some significant progress.

First, lawmakers who've tried for years to modernize the system will finally break through. They'll give FDA and USDA clear authority to order recalls of bad products, give it more tools and money to do more inspections in plants and give the agency power to require food companies to conduct top-to-bottom inspections of their facilities and thorough monitoring of their products.

Second, look for the Obama administration to set up an oversight panel that'll get the USDA and FDA to work more closely together and adopt a more preventive structure that demands food companies to assume responsibility for food safety -- much as USDA has done with meat and poultry plants for the past decade. FDA or USDA inspectors may soon be made to cover for each other when visiting some 1,500 plants that have products subject to food safety regulation of both agencies.

Third, the food industry is increasingly turning to technology for avoiding and spotting contamination and for tracing products in the pipeline -- often leaving existing government regulations in the dust. Supermarket packages of fresh produce, for example, are already commonly labeled so they're traceable all the way back to the farm.

Ed Maixner
Editor, The Kiplinger Agriculture Letter
Maixner was a student of news writing, agriculture and public policy before starting as editor of The Kiplinger Agriculture Letter in 2003. Raised on a ranch in western North Dakota, he kept a foot in the family farm and the farm news beat through 20 years with North Dakota newspapers – interrupted to study economics and finance while finishing an MA degree in journalism as a Kiplinger fellow at Ohio State University. Ed worked on legislation in agriculture, natural resources and international trade as an aide in the U.S. House and Senate, then ran a Washington, D.C., agricultural news bureau before joining Kiplinger. He was president of the North American Agricultural Journalists in 2011-12.