Outbreaks Expose Collapsing Food Oversight

This fall, we have seen a staggering number of recalls and food-borne illness outbreaks involving bagged spinach, lettuce, bottled carrot juice, egg salad, ground beef products, turkey, and most recently, Taco Bell. All of these cases demonstrate what many of us in Congress have been warning about for years – that our food safety process is collapsing, and Congress needs to examine whether there are adequate resources and inspectors in place to prevent or minimize food-borne illnesses.

As these incidents kept mounting, it was disappointing that Bush Administration officials refused to acknowledge that a problem existed, believing that the current safeguards were adequate. Clearly, the system is broken and Congress needs to act to protect the public health.

Our nation’s antiquated food safety oversight laws are putting lives at risk, and an overhaul of this fragmented system is needed. It is imperative that Congress examine the current regulatory structure and identify solutions that take full advantage of the great work being done by the scientists at the CDC, FDA, USDA and the state laboratories. Each year, 76 million Americans become ill because of something they ate. 325,000 people are hospitalized annually because of food-borne illnesses and 5,000 die.

The House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee has only held just one oversight hearing in the last six years – a trend that cannot continue. Because of the long list of food safety problems within the past several months, the first hearing of this subcommittee I intend to convene in the new Congress will examine the current food safety system and identify how it could be strengthened. I would be particularly interested in determining whether a streamlined federal regulatory structure focused exclusively on food safety would be better suited to respond to these food-borne illness outbreaks.