Far from a jungle, but not completely tamed

More than a century ago, Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle shocked Americans with its lurid descriptions of filth and squalor in Chicago’s meatpacking plants. Responding to the public outcry, Congress and President Theodore Roosevelt quickly enacted the Federal Meat Inspection Act in 1906. This law, in tandem with the Pure Food Act of 1906, dramatically improved conditions in slaughterhouses and processing plants, and restored Americans’ confidence in the safety of their food supply. Today, more than a century later, it is time to reform and modernize America’s food safety system, once again.

Much has changed since Sinclair’s day. At the beginning of the 20th century, Americans ate much simpler fare; and most of the time, they prepared meals in their own homes with their own hands. Today, our meals have grown more complex, with more various ingredients and diverse methods of preparation. One meal can result from multiple steps from raw agricultural product to what appears on our plates. Different food ingredients may have traveled thousands of miles from farms or factories to forks. However, even as our tastes and production methods have evolved over the years, our food safety laws have not. The U.S. food safety regulatory system does not incorporate the latest scientific research into safer foods.

The 1906 Meat Inspection Act is still the basis for government inspection in packing and processing plants today. And though the Pure Food Act of 1906 was revised and became the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938, the food safety protections of this law are, for the most part, unchanged in the past seven decades.

Common sense says that as our food system changes, so must our food safety system.  The challenges of protecting food in the early 20th century were dramatically different from those we confront today. Back then, the main problems were on the macroscopic scale: animal disease, worker hygiene, and the presence of vermin. All of these problems could be addressed with governmental inspections.

Today, the main food safety challenges are on the microscopic level: food-borne pathogens such as E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella, Listeria and norovirus. These pathogens cannot be seen with the naked eye during inspections. That’s why we need processes to prevent the contamination of foods; we also need more testing and tracking of results to verify the processes are working.

Big increases in population have steadily hiked demand for food — and not just any food, but convenient, nutritious and an increasingly varied assortment of food. This demand has led, in turn, to big changes in agriculture. We welcome today’s broader selection of fresh foods available year-round, but they carry added food safety challenges, as does our increased reliance on foods imported from countries with inspection rates and standards different from our own.

As our food systems have become more complex, U.S. food safety agencies are still encumbered by methods that may devote too many resources on activities that do little to make our food safer or too little on activities that would bolster the safety of our food supply.

Thirty years ago, Food and Drug Administration inspectors made only 35,000 visits a year to cover the nation’s 70,000 food processors. While that level of oversight was obviously inadequate in the 1980s, as we move into the 21st century it has grown even more infrequent. Today inspectors make a total of just 6,700 visits each year to cover nearly 150,000 food processors.

I have long said that to say that food safety in this country is a patchwork system is giving it too much credit. Food safety in America has too often become a hit-or-miss gamble, and that is truly frightening.

It is long past time to modernize U.S. food safety laws and regulations and devote resources to cope with the numerous and dynamic risks threatening today’s more abundant and diverse food supply. For this reason, I have in the past introduced several pieces of legislation to improve food safety including the Meat and Poultry Pathogen Reduction and Enforcement Act; the Fresh Produce Safety Act; and the Safe and Fair Enforcement and Recall for Meat, Poultry and Food Act. While these past pieces of legislation were never signed into law, recent outbreaks of food borne illnesses have made it clearer than ever that we must take strong action now.

New leaders in the administration and Congress are realizing the importance of food safety and are taking action. President Obama’s Food Safety Working Group has kicked off a national dialogue on how best to reduce food-borne illness in the United States, and Congress is now considering various legislative options to change our food safety system so it more effectively prevents food-borne illnesses. Working together, we can — and must — pass major food safety reform legislation in this Congress.

Harkin is chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.