Food safety is a matter of national security

When President Obama addresses the nation on Tuesday night, he will undoubtedly talk about the pressing national security issues facing our country. 

But there is one area of vulnerability that is often overlooked, yet touches each and every one of us every single day—food safety.  We think it is something that needs to be a part of our national security conversation.  

ADVERTISEMENT
For more than a decade, our fragmented federal food safety system has been in need of dramatic reform as repeatedly detailed  by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has unacceptable vulnerabilities in our food safety system. This leaves millions of Americans vulnerable to foodborne illness and contamination, whether intentional or unintentional. 

Fortunately, there are straightforward actions that Congress can take right now to increase security and make us safer as a nation. First and foremost, Congress should create a single food agency to ensure the safety of everything we eat. 

To understand the potential scale of the problem, consider this: 48 million people —1 in 6 Americans—will likely get sick from food borne disease this year. Roughly 128,000 of those will be so sick they will need hospitalization. Three thousand will die.

The way we eat today is changing.  Our food is traveling farther to get from the farm to our dinner tables.  Large amounts are even being imported from overseas.  More of the food we consume is processed or prepared outside the home. 

The problem is, our food safety system has failed to move with the times. Right now, our amazingly complex food supply is policed by fifteen separate agencies.  That is right—fifteen agencies in our government have overlapping jurisdiction over our food.  

As the GAO points out, the 2010 nationwide recall of more than 500 million eggs because of Salmonella contamination highlights this nonsensical oversight arrangement. From start to finish, the life of an egg traces the complicated web of federal agencies with food safety oversight.  One agency manages the health of the hens. Another oversees the feed they eat.  Yet another sets quality standards, but does not test the eggs for Salmonella.  Once the egg is laid, if it is in a shell, it is the responsibility of the FDA, but if it is processed into an egg product, it is the responsibility of the Food Safety and Inspection Service.  

In 2010, Congress passed the historic FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. This law updated the Food and Drug Administration’s food safety authorities to better address emerging risks and focus on preventing foodborne illness. 

We remain focused on finalizing new rules and providing the much needed increases in funding to fully implement the law.  Without major structural reforms, our fragmented, uncoordinated food safety system will continue to jeopardize public health. 

The incremental changes we have made so far have enhanced the safety of our food supply, but have done nothing to address the fragmentation of our current food safety system. Gaping holes also remain when it comes to ensuring the safety of meat and poultry in America. 

Without major structural reforms and funding increases, our fragmented, uncoordinated food safety system will continue to jeopardize public health. 

Congress, with the support of President Obama, needs to act now to do what several other industrialized nations have already done - create a single food agency. 

Consolidating our nation’s food safety functions into one independent agency would provide a regulatory structure better equipped to take advantage of the great work already being done by public health experts in the areas of research coordination, prevention activities, inspections and investigations.  

When President Obama calls on Congress to come together on a bipartisan basis to address matters of national security, let us not overlook the improvements we can make at home to secure the safety of our food supply and by doing so, better protect public health today and prevent outbreaks in the future. The lives lost because of our fragmented food safety system can be saved. 

Durbin is Illinois’ senior senator, serving since 1997 and is currently Senate Minority Whip. DeLauro has represented Connecticut’s 3rd Congressional District since 1991. She sits on the Appropriations Committee.