US: When food goes wrong
Posted: September 30th, 2009 - 7:50am
Source: Washington Post
In late 2008 and early 2009, the Peanut Corporation of America shipped peanuts tainted with the Salmonella typhimurium bacteria. That's not a good thing, of course, but it shouldn't have been too big a deal. Pull some peanuts off the shelves and go on about your day.
If only. The recall involved 3,913 products from 361 companies. Nine people died and about 700 got sick. And that's probably wildly understated: The Centers for Disease Control estimates that only one in 38 cases of salmonella is reported.
This is the modern face of tainted food: not a bad egg or a piece of rotted meat, but contamination at a production plant that serves hundreds of companies making thousands of foods. We have a system that does a much better job of making sure most food is safe but is much more vulnerable when something does go wrong. Outbreaks are hard to contain because they're hard to trace.
The House has passed, and the Senate is considering, an overhaul of the nation's food safety laws. The approach mirrors the ongoing efforts to regulate "too-big-to-fail" corporations in the financial arena. The intent is not to turn back the clock to the days of small producers and corner stores but to be more aware of the unique dangers posed by size and more vigilant against them. The bills make inspections more frequent, with the House bill demanding them at least yearly, and more often for facilities that pose a high risk to the system. The bills subject imported food to quality controls and give the FDA the mandatory recall authority it has lacked for so long. They try to make the food distribution system more traceable and the FDA more capable. They try, in other words, to bring the regulations up to date.
It's about time. An appropriate regulatory state was important in previous decades. But it is, if anything, more critical now. The food production system is too big, and too interconnected, to fail. A serious lapse will not sicken a single diner or the patrons of a couple of stores, but much of the country. It will require enormous amounts of effort to track, trace and recall countless tons of food because a microscopic binding agent carries an awful passenger.