A food safety system full of holes

While our government was hamstrung by the shutdown, our country faced a full-blown food safety disaster.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officials were rushed back to work as more than 330 Americans across 20 states and Puerto Rico fell ill, 42 percent of them hospitalized, because poultry products from California producer Foster Farms were contaminated with antibiotic-resistant strains of salmonella. With or without a shutdown, this salmonella outbreak exposed, once again, glaring holes in our food safety system that must be rectified.

ADVERTISEMENT

One of the critical functions of good government is helping to ensure that the food in our fridges and on our kitchen tables is safe and uncontaminated.

Our food safety system has been woefully failing families in this regard. An outbreak of similarly contaminated Foster Farms chicken beginning in 2012 infected 134 Americans; 31 percent of them were hospitalized. Despite more than 400 people being sickened by Foster Farms’s products due to multiple outbreaks in the last year, the company has not recalled any of its products, and the government has not asked them to do so.

The company continues to feed its chickens sub-therapeutic levels of antibiotics with little scrutiny by federal regulators. This practice allows farmers to keep animals in crowded and unsanitary living conditions and breeds ever more virulent and drug-resistant strains of bacteria that threaten human life.

It is tempting to blame this current outbreak on the bad behavior of one poultry company, but the real culprit is a failed regulatory structure.

For one, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) at the Department of Agriculture knew what was happening at Foster Farms. Having taken no action to address the first outbreak, the FSIS notified the company about the second outbreak in July — but they did not even intensify testing for salmonella until two months later!

When news of the latest outbreak reached fever pitch, the FSIS, having documented numerous noncompliance records for unsanitary conditions and “findings of fecal material on carcasses,” gave Foster Farms 72 hours to clean up its act or face plant closings. Instead of temporarily closing the plant or demanding more accountability, inspection service appears to have simply accepted the company’s self-prescribed plan to clean up and took no further action. That is just not an acceptable response to a contaminated food outbreak that endangers Americans’ lives and health.

Congress also must share some of the blame for these food safety failures.

Since this current House Republican majority came to power, funding for the CDC, which plays the lead role in detecting the source of food-borne illness outbreaks, has been cut by roughly $1 billion, or 15 percent. Attempts to enhance and modernize the CDC’s food safety efforts have been limited for lack of funding. The deep and indiscriminate sequestration cuts are also negatively impacting the CDC, the Food and Drug Administration, and other food safety responders, and crippling their ability to respond to these outbreaks.

We have been fortunate that, so far, there have been no deaths from the salmonella outbreak. But people have been severely sickened and we need to take these systemic failures as a wake-up call. Even as the FSIS has failed to respond appropriately to the contaminated chicken at Foster Farms, it is telling us that China’s food safety system is robust enough to ensure the safety of Chinese processed poultry exported to the United States. Since we cannot even seem to ensure the safety of American-made chicken at the moment, these assurances must be taken with a grain of salt.

Sadly, these recent events are just another symptom of the broader problem: Our food safety system is not just underfunded — it is broken and in dire need of structural reform. It is an archaic system with overlapping jurisdictions across multiple agencies and with regulations that are either not strong enough or not implemented fully to protect families. And it is one in which, far too often, business interests trump the public health.

We have to do better. When it comes to food-borne illness, people’s lives are at stake, and we are risking a future catastrophe if we do not take this opportunity to learn from the mistakes we have seen here, and revamp our broken food safety system so that it no longer fails American families.

DeLauro has represented Connecticut’s 3rd Congressional District since 1991. She sits on the Appropriations Committee and is ranking member on the Subcommittee on Labor, Health, Human Services and Education. Slaughter has represented New York’s 25th Congressional District since 1987. She is ranking member on the Rules Committee.