Making Our Food Less Safe

September 30th, 2011 | Simcha Weinstein | Comments Off on Making Our Food Less Safe

An outbreak of listeria, a disease tied to tainted cantaloupe, has sickened 72 people and killed at least 16 others, making it the country’s deadliest food outbreak in more than a decade. The disease has killed people in eight states from Maryland to New Mexico after the tainted melons were shipped from a farm in Colorado. As many as 25 states received the shipment of bad cantaloupes, which have now been recalled, according to the Associated Press.

This outbreak follows recalls of other tainted food products, including the third largest food recall in American history, when Cargill was forced to recall 36 million pounds of turkey due to a salmonella outbreak that killed one and sickened 80 others.

One in six Americans is sickened by food-borne illness each year, and more than 3,000 die. Last December, a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s food-safety system, approved by both chambers with large, bipartisan majorities, cleared Congress, and was quickly signed into law by President Obama. This law expands the FDA’s ability to recall tainted foods, increases inspections, demands accountability from food companies, and oversees farming — all in the hopes of cracking down on unsafe food before consumers get sick. This was the first time Congress has approved an overhaul of food-safety laws in more than 70 years – a long overdue piece of legislation. The bill was so non-controversial that it was approved by unanimous consent in the Senate.

But since January, the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives has been threatening to defund the new law through the appropriations process. Following through on that threat, House Republicans approved a bill in June that would cut $87 million from the Food and Drug Administration, as well as $35 million from the USDA’s food safety and inspection service.

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA) explained that the House GOP is okay cutting food safety funding because the food industry “self-polices”:

“Do we believe that McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken and Safeway and Kraft Food and any brand name that you think of, that these people aren’t concerned about food safety?” Kingston said on the House floor. “The food supply in America is very safe because the private sector self-polices, because they have the highest motivation. They don’t want to be sued, they don’t want to go broke. They want their customers to be healthy and happy.”

Yep, we’ve seen how well self-policing works – whether it’s the food industry or the more recent stellar performance from the banking industry. And while the GOP cites the cost of new regulations, the annual cost of food illnesses is $152 billion, according to Georgetown University’s Produce Safety Project, and the cost of not overhauling outdated food safety laws far exceeds the cost of implementing the new policies the GOP opposes. When we cut spending on food safety, we save a little money on inspection, but end up paying a lot of money on health care costs when consumers get sick. However, if House Republicans refuse to approve the funding necessary to put these policies in place, it all but ensures that deadly and costly food outbreaks will continue to occur all too frequently.

These recent outbreaks should be a wakeup call to Congress. Sadly, I’m not optimistic that it will.