America's Food Supply Is Mostly Unprotected

Ever wonder just how inane and disgraceful Washington and, in particular Congress, can become when lobbyists are allowed to control the direction of the debates within their hallowed halls? Well, as you should know by now, I will never ask you a question such as that without having some very handy references at hand.

Various consumer groups have united to look into the subject of the safety of the food American's eat. (No, you don't need to worry about being mugged by the celery.) They have informed the White House of their findings and are urging the Clinton administration to create a new federal agency dedicated exclusively to the policing of the foods you put before your unsuspecting family.

An estimated 9,000 Americans die every year from tainted food and another 33 million contract illnesses which can be directly linked to the food that they ate. Even this huge number, the groups believe, are vastly under reported because of misdiagnosis or visits to a family physician which may go unreported.

The groups acknowledge the many valuable achievements that have come from the Clinton administration but strongly argue that many more steps are needed before America can be completely secure in what they buy. They are, in fact, soliciting ideas from the public and the various food and farm industries for suggestions on how to improve steps of growing to harvesting to transportation to the final sales cycles.

Meeting with White House officials in a series of conferences to discuss the problem has been very helpful, according to the group. The White House spokesman, Dr. Neal Lane, assured the nation that, for its part, "This will not just be about flowery rhetoric. We have open minds. We don't have a strategic plan already worked out in our hip pocket".

The comforting assurances of a government official aside, there is already the suggestion from the consumer groups that all agencies of the government that oversee the various steps in the food production system be combined in order to share their budgets and eliminate duplication of work and authority. Such a politically charged idea, however, may never make it even into Congressional committee since the Right will automatically raise the cry of "Big Government" without the bother and fuss of offering any alternatives.

In fact, the present situation is so lax that the FDA has its staff peruse phone books to learn about any new companies that have been created that deals with food and its distribution. They even have their staff visit local supermarkets in order to see if any new products have been added to the shelves and only then are the products put in line to be checked for sanitation and possibly illegal additives.

Think about that last item, gentle readers. The FDA has such a small budget and such little authority that the products that are reaching the shelf and being placed in your basket may very well be dangerous but the FDA will only learn of that should one of their staff discover its existence or you or your family become ill or die from ingesting the food. Now do you see why the Republicans in Congress are so adamant that the FDA be destroyed completely? Because as long as there is even the slightest possibility that the FDA may investigate one of the Republican's masters and discover that they are poisoning the American people, then their masters cannot be given unrestricted privilege to deny the charges and continue the deaths, all in the name of profit.

USDA inspectors are charged with examining raw eggs to guarantee that the yolks are a standard size but neither it nor the FDA inspect fresh eggs for salmonella poisoning. The USDA has a huge budget and many more inspectors while the FDA has such limited resources that they can barely inspect two percent of the imported fruits and vegetables. Combining the two would allow for far more rigorous inspections of all food products throughout its various cycles all the way to your cart.

Now for the fun part. Industry groups who oppose stricter compliance with existing laws have made a number of amazingly absurd recommendations that, they claim, will remove the need for combining or strengthening the agencies. They say, and I am not making this up, that restaurants should be mandated to "sterilize bathroom doors" and ordering farmers to "take better care of their animals" No, seriously! That was their suggestions. I know, I know. It sounds like I'm just making up silly facts and quotes in order to ridicule Congress and their masters but, think about it, could anyone make up this kind of rubbish?

According to the Safe Food Coalition (its political bias not mentioned) and its spokesperson and former USDA official Carol Tucker Foreman, the White House must also stop asking for the user fees from the industry which are always included in their budget proposals. Congress, she says, is "infuriated" and the industries unite over their grudge against such fees. (Think about those two statements; does it seem just possible that Congress is only infuriated with something because their owners don't like it? Makes sense to me!)

In fact, because the White House includes these fees in their budgets for the FDA and the USDA and, since Congress obediently refuses to accept them in their final budgets, the two departments are so under funded that they must then make draconian choices in just how strenuously to force the industry into compliance with federal laws. Foreman also claims that the White House, not Congress, is thus to be blamed for the shrinking budgets of the two agencies. We'll accept her claim at face value mostly because it is a waste of our valuable time to ridicule Congress again.

Other suggestions from different industry spokesmen are to stop inspections completely and to use the money saved to "research the causes of food-borne illnesses and greater use of technology". Stop the inspections? Doesn't that sound just the least bit self-serving for an industry under fire for the illnesses and deaths which can be laid directly at their door already?

I tend to agree with them when they claim that, "Arbitrarily reorganizing the government...will not make our food supply safer." I do believe, though, that the act of very specifically reorganizing all departments which deal directly with the safety of American's food purchases can be done intelligently and with little fuss. I also believe that the cost and the hassle of paperwork to industry would be greatly reduced by the simple act of giving them only one federal agency to deal with in all areas of food safety. It would also contribute to one of the Republican's pet projects which is making the government smaller and more efficient. Everyone would win except those in Congress and the food industries who are far more interested in the bottom line than in providing safe and healthful foods to the American consumer.

Oh, wait, that eliminates most of Congress and a nearly all industry groups. Okay, so I guess it is just a dream, after all.

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Copyright 10/29/98