Food safety budget leaves a bad taste

A Times Editorial
Published March 2, 2007

In just the first two months of 2007, more than two dozen food safety alerts have been issued by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. One of those warnings, about peanut butter contaminated with salmonella that has sickened more than 300 people, got wide media attention. Others slipped by with little publicity, including: California cantaloupes (salmonella); processed green bean casserole (Listeria); egg-free pasta (containing eggs, a problem if you're allergic); Little Debbie Nutty Bars (metal particles); imported herring (uneviscerated, posing botulism risk). Or this one, Earth's Best Organic 2 Apple Peach Barley Wholesome Breakfast Baby Food. Neither wholesome nor fit for babies, it could cause botulism, the FDA warned.

While that partial list is admittedly unappetizing (details and other warnings available at www.fda.gov), it illustrates a growing problem with the safety of our food. And here's a key point: In every case, the product was already in the food supply before an agency of government discovered the threat.

So what is the Bush administration doing about it? Believe it or not, the administration is cutting back on the FDA's food inspection program.

The number of FDA food safety inspections has dropped by 47 percent over the past three years, according to an analysis by the Associated Press. There are 12 percent fewer FDA employees in the field focusing on food issues. Safety testing has declined by nearly 75 percent.

"The Bush food safety budget defies logic," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a respected watchdog group. Yet FDA officials defend their priorities. "We're applying resources to targeted areas," said FDA commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach.

If so, the agency's aim is off-target. For example, the salmonella-tainted peanut butter came from a ConAgra plant that had passed its last inspection ... two years ago. Maybe if inspectors had visited more often, they would have spotted unsanitary conditions that caused the latest food scare.

The cutbacks make little sense financially, either. The outbreak of illnesses (and at least three deaths) linked to E. coli-tainted spinach last year cost an estimated $100-million in damages. More prevention could save dollars and lives.