How Safe Is Your Fresh Produce?
Why Food Inspection Isn't Working
"Virtually all of these illnesses and loss of life could be prevented if the right measures were taken at each step from the farm to the table," says Michael R. Taylor, former head of the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service and a one-time deputy commissioner at the FDA. All farms, whether foreign or domestic, are encouraged to follow good agricultural practices. But here in the U.S., we have a strong sanitation infrastructure. Growers in other nations don't always operate under the same safe circumstances.
The reason meat has a better safety record than produce is not just because meat is usually cooked, thus killing pathogens. The USDA, which is responsible for meat, poultry, and egg safety, has about 7,600 inspectors covering 6,500 processing plants. By congressional mandate dating back nearly a century (for beef), the USDA is empowered to inspect every slaughtered animal and all meat as it goes through processing. And if foreign meat and poultry companies want to do business in the U.S., they must pass inspection to show that they meet the same stringent food-safety standards. The USDA can dispatch inspectors to foreign countries to ensure the rules are being followed, and it can inspect the meat again when it enters the U.S.
The FDA is charged with overseeing the safety of fresh produce. And yet it is not armed with a congressional mandate to police the imported food supply adequately. Additionally, many consumer advocates insist the agency is woefully low on resources. The FDA doesn't get as much federal money for food safety as the USDA does, says Taylor, who is currently director of the Risk, Resource, and Environmental Management Division of Resources for the Future, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. And as the amount of fruits and vegetables the U.S. imports has increased, the percentage of foreign produce inspected at the border by the FDA has actually dropped from 8 percent in 1992 to less than 2 percent now. Just 900 inspectors must cover 420,000 places where food is held, processed, or transported in the U.S. Worse, the FDA is allowed to stop shipments only at the border, which does nothing to fix the source of contamination.
When contamination is spotted, the government moves as quickly as possible to contain the problem by tracking the source of infection and seizing the food. In the Chi-Chi's case, although the scallions were obviously not stopped on their way into this country, FDA investigators were able, after the outbreak, to trace the scallions to four food growers in northern Mexico. Inspections of their fields later identified many potential contamination sources, including inadequate hand-washing facilities, lack of sanitizing systems to remove harmful germs from produce, inadequate water purification systems, and antiquated pipe systems that might have allowed seepage from sewage lines to water lines.
To stem further infections, the FDA halted shipments from these growers at the border, according to David Acheson, MD, chief medical officer for the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition in College Park, Maryland. But by then, of course, scores of people were ill. (There is a continuing import alert on scallions from these growers, which means they can be withheld from coming into the U.S. until they meet FDA standards.)
Today, FDA practices have come under the congressional spotlight, but ironically, it was a non-food-related event that put them there: the September 11th attacks and the subsequent establishment of the Department of Homeland Security. In December 2003, under the Homeland Security Act, the FDA was given more power and resources to inspect shipments at the border in order to thwart possible bioterrorist attacks. But critics say ramping up inspections at the border is too little, too late: The agency still has little sway with foreign growers and can inspect their fields only with local authorities' permission. The FDA needs to be able to go to Mexico, Guatemala, and the dozens of other countries that export produce and certify that the farms have clean water and sanitary conditions. We do it for meat and poultry, experts say, so we ought to be doing it for fruits and vegetables, too.
"By the time produce reaches the border, it's already too late," says Dr. Doyle. Although inspectors are empowered to collect samples of produce and ship them to nearby laboratories for evaluation, "The reality is that inspection isn't going to solve the food-safety problem," he says. "We need a greater presence for the FDA in the fields, and in the handling and processing areas in other countries." Only strict enforcement of more sanitary conditions on the farms can prevent these contaminations.