Government Vacuum in Food Safety Forces Growers to get Creative


Food recalls, like those of pistachios and peanuts recently, have reportedly cost the food industry hundreds of millions of dollars. When the trust consumers have in food safety is dashed, you can bet it’s going to affect the industry in more than just a moral place. Leave it to economics to force the hand of food growers to draw a line in the sand with the Food and Drug Administration.

Food-borne pathogens have sickened and killed many people over the last year and, because of the FDA’s seeming inability to do anything about separating the guilty from the innocent in a massive industry, food growers have turned to other places like the Department of Agriculture to get things done. Many growers in the “leafy greens” industry of California have come together to pay inspectors who would otherwise be looking at meat, poultry, and egg products to come out and inspect the fields where most of the nation’s lettuce and spinach come from. This started in 2006 after an outbreak of E. coli kept consumers from buying spinach and cost the industry $100 million.

Getting federal inspectors out in the fields can fix problems. If there is a grower who has some kind of sanitation problem or animals have been tromping through their fields, recommendations are made; if those aren’t solved, fines are levied, and maybe a food recall is announced. This is usually done by the FDA, which is responsible for monitoring 80 percent of the food consumed in the US. However, there are barely 2000 inspectors in the FDA to monitor everything. As a result, food safety seems to be in peril. California’s solution was to form something called the Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement, which makes use of the Department of Agriculture’s 7800 inspectors. If a member of this group doesn’t fix their problems, they are booted. This is bad publicity, and bad publicity costs money.

This fairly new arrangement has been called a DIY response that may help in the short term, but there is concern that since the industry is footing its bill, other problems may be introduced. After all, this is an industry that has fought the FDA on further oversight in the past (which may partially explain its sorry state today). However, because foods once thought safe are now turning up with food-borne pathogens, they realized it was time to do something. Still, this is industry self-regulation, according to the Consumer Federation of America. A safety advocate with the group told the New York Times that, “We want every inspector to be paid by and owe their loyalty to the people who eat, not to the owner of an unsanitary produce packing operation.”

Regardless of who pays whom, and who has oversight, if it keeps consumers from falling ill due to produce or meat that carries a pathogen, then most people will be for it. The industry can ill-afford another recall when the mood of the population is already sour over what lobbyists, various industries, and the government have already done.