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Monday, 14 July 2008 07:21

What's it take to get safe food in this country?

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Salmonella and Mad Cow Disease may be the least of our worries.  It seems food safety takes second place behind our government's taste for bureaucracy.

A BUZZFLASH NEWS ALERT
by Meg White

For once, Elex Scheels was glad her 20-month-old boy, Michael, is a picky eater. It's only too bad the other two of her triplets didn't follow his cue in March 2007 when he refused gourmet yet Salmonella-laden snacks.

Sydney, the smallest of the triplets, had it worst. For 10 days, her fever refused to drop below 105 degrees, and she lost more than 10 percent of her tiny, 24-pound frame. While her brother Cole was also feverish and had blood in his stool, Sydney's diapers consistently contained nothing but blood.

Sydney and Cole Scheels of Voorheesville, NY, were two of 61 people in 19 states sickened by tainted batches of Veggie Booty, a popular health food snack made by Robert's American Gourmet Foods.

Scheels said the only reason the source was pinpointed was that the Salmonella strain, called Wandsworth, was so rare that the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention were able to find the common thread between the illnesses, prompting the company to issue a voluntary recall that June. Though the specific contaminant wasn't found, the company said it suspected a spice imported from China as the culprit.

Sydney was quarantined all summer, as she continued to test positive for Salmonella for more than three months. Her mother suspects Sydney's current gastro-intestinal problems might have their roots in last year's ordeal. Scheels said life will never be the same for her family.

"It's hugely changed," she said in a phone interview. "It's just maddening."

Scheels' experience prompted her to join Safe Tables Our Priority (STOP), a food poisoning victims' advocacy group based in Northbrook, IL. Now immersed in the world of food safety, she is considering testifying before Congress. One bill in particular has her support: The Food Safety Act.

Different versions of the bill have been introduced since the Clinton Administration. Most recently, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) has introduced his version twice, and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) has introduced an identical bill in the House. Among other reforms, it contains a proposal to consolidate the 15 agencies that currently regulate food safety under one roof. The bill has many proponents, but even the bills' sponsors' staffers are pessimistic about the chances it will become law.

"What we're doing right now is unlikely to go anywhere," said Max Gleischman, press secretary for Durbin. He cited several reasons, including opposition from governmental agencies and industry, as well as a distracted Congress.

"It's an end goal," said Adriana Surfas, press secretary for DeLauro. She said until that goal is reached, DeLauro will continue to press for better management and funding of food regulatory agencies and less reliance on industry to police itself.

Scheels said she understands there are many problems with food regulatory agencies in the U.S., but she would still like to see consolidation happen.

"The FDA has a huge umbrella they're working under. They have funding problems; yes. They have staffing shortages; I understand," Scheels said. "We do need a single food agency."

Leading members of STOP agree.

"It's just common sense to go to a single food safety administration," said Nancy Donley, who was recently named president of STOP. Donley lost her 6-year-old son, Alex, to E.coli poisoning in 1993.

It's not just legislators and citizens who are concerned. The Government Accounting Office (GAO) added food safety to its 2007 High Risk List. Of the two main food safety recommendations, one was consolidation of regulatory agencies.

"We think [food safety has] become more important, and that's why we put it on the High Risk List," said Lisa Shames, acting director of natural resources and environment for the GAO. She calls the current system a "piecemeal approach to food."

The GAO has previously studied consolidation in both the public and private sectors.  Last week, the GAO released a report that included an examination of results from other countries that have reorganized their food safety agencies.  While the evidence is mostly anecdotal, the report stated that feedback from consumers and industry in the examined countries was overwhelmingly positive regarding the effects of consolidation.

Shames cited several recent food safety scares and recalls, most notably the Hallmark/Westland beef recall this February. It was the largest recall of beef in the country's history. Hallmark/Westland was caught on tape illegally putting "downer" cows into the food system, but by the time a recall was issued, much of the beef had already been consumed by students in school lunches. Although no related illnesses have yet been reported, Mad Cow Disease, originating with downer cows about 80 percent of the time, has a 13- to 20-year incubation period in humans.

Data from other government agencies support the growing concern about food safety. A study released in April by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports food-borne illnesses were on the rise in 2007, as compared to data collected between 2004 and 2006.

Critics of consolidation often cite the 2002 creation of the Department of Homeland Security as an example of how consolidation efforts can go haywire.

"We have talked about a single food entity, but that was before we saw what happened to the Department of Homeland Security," Shames said from her GAO office. Besides "cultural" misunderstandings between merged agencies, some remaining agencies were left understaffed.

Tony Corbo, a legislative representative for Food & Water Watch, a consumer rights organization in Washington, D.C., cited the Department of Homeland Security's effect on inspections as an example of the unintended consequences of consolidation.

"They wound up moving agriculture inspectors over to Homeland Security. So, ag inspections have dropped precipitously because they're using the ag inspectors for other purposes," he said.

DeLauro's press secretary said the Homeland Security consolidation is not comparable to the proposed food safety reorganization.

"The interesting thing about the creation of the Department of Homeland Security is that it pulled together 20 very different cabinet-level agencies," Surfas said. "The different agencies that would get pulled into the Food Safety Administration have similar missions. Their focus is health and safety."

Surfas said critics should look no further than continually successful consolidation efforts from the Department of Defense in 1947 to the most recent consolidation of the Education Department in 1979.

Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America, a D.C.-based research center and watchdog group, said he doesn't see the Department of Homeland Security as comparable to the proposed Food Safety Administration. Though necessary, he admits it will be a lot of work.

"It is worth the effort to protect the consumer," he said.

Kelli Ludlum, director of congressional relations for the U.S. Farm Bureau, said a one-size-fits-all approach to food safety is what concerns her agency regarding consolidation.

"What works well for [Food Safety Inspection Services] may not work for the FDA," she said.

As a food safety advocate, Donley was not surprised by the opposition to consolidation.

"It is something that the agencies oppose. They're all protecting their own turf," she said.

Gleischman said Durbin's office expected opposition to the Safe Food Act. He said though the bill is not yet specific enough to generate an exact number, he confirmed some people will lose their jobs.

"It's a big task we're talking about, shutting down 15 government organizations," he said. "Other people may have other ideas, and we are happy to discuss them as long as the endgame is a consolidated food safety system."

Critics of consolidation seem to be open to negotiation as well.

"If they did it right, at some point we could support it," said Corbo. Food & Water Watch advocates more changes in funding and staffing at the FDA as well as an overhaul of the statutes under which the FDA operates before consolidation takes place.

Scott Openshaw, communications director for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, an organization serving the food and beverage industry, also cautiously opposes consolidation efforts.

"In general terms we're not necessarily closed off to [consolidation]," he said. "We don't view it as necessarily the answer to shoring up food safety."

But, if that is the method that Congress chooses in fixing the food problem, he said his organization would cooperate, though they'd rather see funding increases for existing food regulatory agencies.

Both House and Senate versions of the bill have been stuck in agricultural committees since early 2007. Gleischman was pragmatic about the possibility of the bill becoming law this session.

"The Senate Ag Committee spent most of last year trying to pass the Farm Bill," he said. "Their attention is elsewhere."

Press secretaries for both Durbin and DeLauro indicated the lawmakers will continue to fight for consolidation while they look at other ways to fix gaps in food safety.

The USDA's plan for implementing its mission statement includes commitments to both food safety and expanding agricultural markets. While she sees the need for increased funding and other reforms, Donley said the "conflicts of interest" inherent in the fact that the USDA both promotes and polices food can only be solved by reorganization.

"What we want is a freestanding, independent food safety agency," she said. "How can you be a regulator and be marketing at the same time?"

As president of a victim's advocacy organization and a mother who lost her son to food poisoning, she believes the illness and death her organization confronts could be mitigated under a single entity.

"If there was a single food safety administration, there could have been a single person responsible."

Now that Elex Scheels works with Donley and STOP, she said she realizes how lucky she is to have escaped with merely a frightening warning about food safety.

"I don't know what I'd do if I had to sit and watch my kids' organs melt away," she said. "It opens your eyes to the fact that you're this small, little person. There's nothing you can really do."

A BUZZFLASH NEWS ALERT