The Price of Food Safety and Regulation

In a not-too-surprising move two weeks ago, the government banned the sale of ground beef tainted with six toxic strains of E. coli bacteria that are increasingly showing up as the cause of severe foodborne illness.  Officials acted under increasing pressure from the public and food safety advocates to do more to keep the potentially deadly bacteria out of meat, but the beef industry has said the move was not needed and could force the price of ground beef to rise.  The Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimated that the rule would cost the industry up to $10 million a year for testing and holding meat back from the fresh ground beef market.

The relationship between federal regulations and food producers tries to balance aspects of public safety with free market principles.  Therein lies the conundrum.  At what point does food safety take precedence over cost?  And is the cost to be borne by consumers or the industry?  Some consumers would answer that food safety should always be first and foremost, but those same consumers would complain about rising food costs.   Conversely, while it is bad press for a food producer to be at the center of a foodborne illness outbreak, consumers’ memories do not last long enough to force the industry to adopt more stringent measures.  

The FDA regulates 80 percent of the U.S. food supply, including produce, while the USDA oversees the safety of meat, poultry and egg products.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been tracking E. coli since 1993, when the bacteria killed four children and sickened more than 700 people who had eaten undercooked hamburgers from the Jack in the Box fast-food chain.  A CDC report this year noted that there had been 234 beef recalls in the U.S. related to the pathogen in since it first started tracking.  

The FDA, as noted, announced that the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), a nonprofit scientific society consisting of professionals engaged in food science, food technology, and related professions, would carry out pilot projects at the direction of the agency.  The FDA also established an integrated approach to coordinate rapid responses to human and animal foodborne illness outbreaks — the FDA Coordinated Outbreak Response and Evaluation (CORE) Network. 

The agency, however, is limited by budgetary constraints.  Just this summer, charged with preventing E. coli outbreaks similar to the one that sickened thousands in Europe, the FDA tried to reclaim $1.4 billion for new food-safety measures into a budget that had already been cut for 2012.  A vote in the House had reduced the FDA’s fiscal 2012 food-safety budget by 10 percent to $752 million, and the agency felt it would slow the progress of implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act that was signed into law earlier this year — promising some of the most sweeping changes to food safety in 70 years by supplying funds to beef up FDA inspections and oversight.  Representative Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who oversees the budgets of the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said the increases were unneccessary because the food supply is “99.9 percent safe.” 

Yet, illness from contaminated food, ranging from minor inconveniences to life-threatening E. coli infections, are an increasing public-health threat that result in over 5,000 deaths and 325,000 hospitalizations each year in the U.S., according to the CDC.  The Pew Charitable Trust issued a study last year that estimated the cost in the U.S. associated with the consequences of foodborne illness — including doctor visits, medication, lost work days and pain and suffering — to be $152 billion annually.  As much as 20 percent of the food Americans eat comes from other countries, but the FDA only has enough money to inspect 2 percent of that imported food.

Whether this situation arose because of public sentiment inflamed by a 24/7 media cycle or political focus on deficit reduction at the expense of federal regulation, the realized and potential cuts are worrisome in an age where there is an increasingly complex global food-supply chain to track.  

During the same week the new beef regulations were introduced, the FDA and CDC investigated a multi-state outbreak of listeriosis, which is a rare and serious illness caused by eating food contaminated with bacteria called Listeria.  At least 15 people infected with the outbreak strain of Listeria monocytogenes were reported in Colorado, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas, resulting in an FDA warning to consumers not to eat cantaloupes shipped by a Colorado food producer.  Although the investigation is ongoing, no other cantaloupe producer has been found in common in the Colorado traceback.

Will food safety take a backseat to keeping food on the table?