Salmonella is banned in walnuts and tomatoes, but is still allowed in raw chicken. Could a new government agency bridge the divide in safety standards?
When Trader Joe’s learned in March that bags of its walnuts may have contained salmonella, the grocery chain immediately recalled the product out of what it called “an abundance of caution.” Same for a Florida food company in February that thought the foodborne pathogen may have contaminated boxes of fresh tomatoes.
But when consumers go to the store to buy raw chicken, there’s no ban on the same kinds of salmonella that prompted recalls at Trader Joe’s and the Florida producer, Big Red Tomato Packers — even though the salmonella in chicken can make you just as sick as what’s in walnuts or tomatoes.
The difference in how salmonella is treated stems in part from a long and deep split among regulators over how food safety should be managed in the United States. Foods like walnuts and tomatoes are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which bans the bacteria in products it considers “ready to-eat,” or foods you can consume without cooking. Chicken falls under the authority of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which allows some levels of salmonella in meat and poultry, on the assumption that people will cook the meat and kill the bugs before eating it. Yet salmonella can easily spread around the kitchen during the preparation process and make people sick.
With an estimated 48 million Americans sickened each year by foodborne illness — 1.2 million as a result of salmonella — new attention is being given to the question of how to narrow this governmental divide that plays out not just around salmonella, but other areas of food safety as well.
Among consumer advocates, one long sought-after proposal is the formation of a single government agency for food safety — an idea that has also gained traction at the White House. In its budget for fiscal year 2016, the Obama administration proposed bringing the nation’s scattered food safety oversight under one umbrella agency run by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Such a move, the administration argues, would provide “accountability that will enhance both prevention of and responses to outbreaks of foodborne illnesses.”
A fragmented approach to oversight
The U.S. food safety system has long come under criticism for its fragmented approach to oversight. That’s because responsibility for food safety is divided across 15 government agencies, resulting in sometimes puzzling divides within the system. FSIS, for example, oversees processed egg products, but FDA is in charge of shell eggs. The FDA controls cheese pizza, but both agencies are involved if you add pepperoni.
The lion’s share of food safety falls to the FDA, which primarily oversees vegetables, fruits and seafood, while FSIS is in charge of meat and poultry.
The two agencies have vastly different approaches. FSIS is required by law to inspect every carcass of meat and poultry sold to consumers. As a result, it has inspectors inside every processing plant in the country. FDA only inspects facilities every few years at best, but has some authority to require preventive testing and force a recall.
An estimated 48 million Americans are sickened each year by foodborne illness — 1.2 million as a result of salmonella.
Calls to streamline this system date back more than 20 years. The Government Accountability Office first recommended creating a single agency in 1994, following a deadly outbreak one year earlier linked to undercooked Jack-in-the-Box hamburgers. That outbreak was caused by a dangerous bacteria known as E. coli 0157, which sickened more than 700 people and killed four children.
Starting in 1998, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) began to routinely introduce legislation in Congress to create a single food safety agency.
“There is no one in charge of food safety,” said DeLauro in an interview with FRONTLINE. “Until we have a single food safety agency, we will continue to see outbreaks occur because all of the information, all of the science, all of the regulatory authority needs to be in one place.”
The search for support
But the idea of creating a single food safety agency has faced opposition in Congress and from industry. It’s even sparked disagreement among consumer advocates.
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack has publicly supported the idea of unifying food safety oversight as far back as 2009. The challenge is “convincing a majority of Congress that it’s a good idea,” he told FRONTLINE.
One issue: Congressional turf battles over which committee should oversee food safety. During discussions to pass the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011, for example, lawmakers and consumer advocates scrapped the idea because they couldn’t agree on this exact point.
Meanwhile, inside the food industry, the idea has been met by some resistance. The National Chicken Council, the main trade association for chicken producers, has said, “It would be more productive, effective, and efficient to facilitate improved coordination and communication between the existing agencies.”
But others in the industry have been more supportive.
“Most countries have a single food safety agency,” said Mike Robach, vice president of food safety for meat giant Cargill. “It would make a lot of sense.” But, he says, “It’s a very difficult thing to do.”
Consumer advocates haven’t always agreed on the details, either. Chris Waldrop, the director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America, supports the idea of a single agency, but he has criticized Obama’s proposal because, “HHS is a massive organization. A new food safety agency would be lost among the other priorities of the department.” Instead, the group would like to see an independent agency.
Still, advocates of a single food agency push on, arguing that streamlining oversight will create a more modern system that could stop or even prevent large foodborne outbreaks, such as the salmonella outbreak from Foster Farms chicken starting in 2013. It sickened 634 people in 29 states, but federal inspectors failed to find salmonella in tests for the three years prior to the outbreak at the Foster plants that processed the chicken.
To be sure, if a single agency is approved, it’s not immediately clear how the varying standards in place for salmonella contamination would change. But, supporters argue, if and when it does occur, it would likely reconcile the differences that exist between how products and pathogens are regulated.
“With that modern framework, I think that the tools would be there to address the Foster Farms outbreak,” Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. But such tools, she added, simply “aren’t there today.”