Hundreds of humans and pets have died this year as a result of a fractured food safety network. But Congress took a step closer to mending that system at a heated hearing with food safety regulators today.
The House Agriculture Subcommittee hearing focused on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) which is responsible for inspecting meat, poultry and processed egg products.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) highlighted a Centers for Disease Control report that revealed that over the past five years, instances of food-borne illnesses have either increased or stayed the same. Many of those pathogens are found in meat products.
However, over that same period of time, the FSIS found decreases or unchanging figures in instances of those illnesses at the meat plants, slaughterhouses and samples it inspected, according to Richard Raymond, M.D., the USDA's Under Secretary for Food Safety.
But according to a February Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, many plants are not inspected frequently and about one-third were not inspected at all in the past year.
In response to the CDC's figures and the GAO report, Raymond said the USDA is implementing a risk-based inspection (RBI) process which will focus inspection efforts on suspect plants and slaughterhouses based on past data. He said he hopes to implement RBI by June.
DeLauro asked Raymond many pointed questions about how the FSIS will determine which plants to inspect. Raymond was unable to answer many of those questions. At that point, DeLauro, chairman of the subcommittee, lost her temper.
"For the past several years, the GAO has pointed its finger at food safety as high-risk yet the food safety agencies have ignored those claims!" DeLauro shouted. "I am going to do everything I can to delay RBI until we're standing on solid facts."
Today's hearing highlighted the frequently-heard complaint that the U.S. food safety network is a patchwork of agencies not efficiently protecting consumers. The GAO report noted that 15 agencies comprise the U.S. food safety network. Even within the USDA, there are various departments in charge of one type of food or another.
Food Safety Act
DeLauro and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) have responded with the Safe Food Act, legislation which would put all the powers of those 15 agencies under one roof, potentially eliminating the overlaps and holes that the GAO uncovered.
At today's hearing, representatives pressed Raymond on the deadly delays in recalls of peanut butter and pet foods.
"That's not our jurisdiction," was his frequent response.
"If everyone is pointing their finger at someone else, I don't see how we're accomplishing much," Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.) said.
Despite the lapses in concrete data Raymond was able to provide, he told ConsumerAffairs.com that he believes RBI is the best route to safe food and that the Safe Food Act will create too much bureaucracy.
The next step for the Safe Food Act is that it will go before the Agriculture and Commerce Committees for a joint vote in the House. In the Senate, it has been referred to the Agriculture Committee. If it passes those votes, it will go before the entire House and Senate floors for a vote and then to the President.
There are no scheduled committee votes for either the Senate or House versions of this bill said DeLauro spokeswoman Adriana Surfas.
"I know she is working hard to get this bill before those committees," Surfas said.