WASHINGTON, D.C.--Outdated food safety laws and a fragmented federal structure serve as barriers to improving protection of the nation's food supply from contamination or other hazards, according to Ensuring Safe Food From Production to Consumption*, a new congressionally mandated report from a committee of the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council. Federal officials should adopt a science-based approach that helps them prevent, identify, and target the largest threats. Arcane safety laws must be repealed, and one individual should be appointed to provide a single point of leadership to implement a comprehensive plan that pulls together efforts currently spread across at least 12 federal agencies.
"The United States has some of the attributes of an effective food safety system, but it lacks a central authority and is hampered by old laws that don't allow flexible responses to today's threats," said committee chair John C. Bailar III, chair of the department of health studies at the University of Chicago. "As the challenges to ensuring safe food change and grow more complex, it is crucial that we rethink how to address the greatest threats to human health."
Some 9,000 deaths and 81 million illnesses each year have been attributed to consumption of contaminated food in the United States. Increasing reliance on minimally processed fresh fruits and vegetables, emergence of new strains of food-borne bacteria, the centralization and growth of large food distributors, consumer preference for ready-to-eat foods, and a growing number of people at high risk for severe or fatal food-borne illnesses have placed new stresses on the system in recent years. Currently, federal agencies responsible for food safety often lack coordination and consistency in their missions, policies, regulations, and enforcement practices, are not well-integrated with state and local activities, and are too driven by responding to crises rather than by planning ways to prevent them, the report says.
The report recommends that:
- The food safety system should be based on science. With limited resources to
address safety issues, regulatory priorities should be supported by strong
scientific evidence that aims at prevention when possible, and identifies and
addresses the greatest threats, including microbiological pathogens, naturally
occurring toxins, allergens, food additives, agricultural chemicals,
environmental contaminants, animal drug residues, excessive consumption of some
dietary supplements, and improper methods of handling and preparing food.
- Congress should establish a unified, central framework for managing food
safety programs, headed by one official with control of resources for all
federal food safety activities. This person would have responsibility for
management of food-borne disease outbreaks, setting standards for food safety,
inspection, monitoring, disease surveillance, risk assessment, regulation
enforcement, research, and education. Although many members of the committee
believe that the best arrangement would be to establish a single food safety
agency, federal officials may be able to address the needs identified in the
report through other organizational structures. All options meeting the
criteria of an effective system should be carefully reviewed before the final
organizational structure is determined.
- Congress should change federal statutes so that inspection, research, and
enforcement are based on scientifically supportable assessments of risk. Some
outmoded safety statutes, such as the visual inspection system for meat and
poultry, may even detract from protection efforts by diverting resources from
implementation of science-based inspection reforms. At a minimum, Congress
should no longer require inspection of each animal carcass, as required by laws
controlling meat and poultry inspection. Congress also should mandate a single
set of regulations for all foods, and should specify that foods be imported only
from countries with food inspection systems deemed equivalent to that of the
United States. Additional resources should be devoted to prevention and to
implementing the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point system used by the U.S.
Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration to detect or
control for potential hazards at each step, from raw material to the finished product.
- A comprehensive national food safety plan should be developed. The plan should support research aimed at prevention and detection of risks, and include surveillance needed to monitor changes in the food supply or consumption that might pose new risks. It should further integrate federal efforts with state and local activities, while addressing the distinctive hazards associated with Americans' increasing reliance on imported foods.
The current food safety system has evolved piecemeal over the past century in response to changes in the food supply. Although efforts have been made to modernize it, most recently with the president's National Food Safety Initiative of 1997, such efforts take only the first steps toward an effective national approach, the report says.
Although the Food and Drug Administration issued a Food Code in 1993 with recommended standards for handling food, it has not yet been adopted by many state or local authorities. The federal government should mandate adherence to minimum standards for food products and processes, the committee said, and allocate adequate funding to help support state and local food safety activities.
The Institute of Medicine is a private, non-profit organization that provides health policy advice under a congressional charter granted to the National Academy of Sciences. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. The study was sponsored by U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service.
*Copies of Ensuring Safe Food From Production to Consumption are available from the National Academy Press at the mailing address in the letterhead; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. The cost of the report is $29.95 (prepaid) plus shipping charges of $4.00 for the first copy and $.50 for each additional copy. Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information at the letterhead address (contacts listed above).