While nominating Dr. Margaret Hamburg as head of the FDA and appointing Joshua Sharfstein as her deputy, President Obama showed a laudable passion as he addressed the nation regarding food safety. Unfortunately, his understanding of the situation is incorrect and his professed goal is counterproductive.
President Obama showed he is blinded by the liberal conceit that the government is the most important factor in food safety: "There are certain things only a government can do. And one of those things is ensuring that the foods we eat are safe and don't cause us harm."
This is nonsense. The government does not farm or process anything, it does not distribute, market or cook, and it cannot possibly monitor the hundreds of millions of people in over 100 countries and every state, from field to fork, that have a role in food safety.
Food in the United States is generally safe for four reasons: First, because there are moral precepts that make the vast majority of producers intent on doing no harm to their customers. Second, because the value of a brand and a company dissipate rapidly if they sicken or kill their customers. Third, because those who prepare meals at home mostly love those they cook for and so try to serve wholesome foods. Fourth, because the United States is an affluent, western society with advanced technologies and procedures for making foods safe and we are both willing and able to spend money to have safer food.
Of course, government is important. It sets up the legal and economic ground rules within which we operate. But its specific effect on food safety is dramatically overstated by those, like the president, who seem able to identify virtue only in public employees.
What else could the president mean when he says, "The men and women who inspect our foods it is because of the work they do each and every day that the United States is one of the safest places in the world to buy groceries"? It seems the president has this notion that the entire private sector for food production and distribution is filled with bad actors being held back by an army of federal inspectors.
The president says this but in the same address he contradicts himself by pointing out that "the FDA has been underfunded and understaffed in recent years, leaving the agency with the resources to inspect just 7,000 of our 150,000 food processing plants and warehouses each year. That means roughly 95% of them go uninspected." Obviously it is impossible to both hold that we barely inspect anything and yet it is these inspections that are responsible for the overwhelmingly safe food we have in America.
The president either misunderstands or misrepresents the problem. He explains that "in recent years, we've seen a number of problems with the food making its way to our kitchen tables. In 2006, it was contaminated spinach. In 2008, it was salmonella in peppers and possibly tomatoes. And just this year, bad peanut products led to hundreds of illnesses and cost nine people their lives these incidents reflect a troubling trend that's seen the average number of outbreaks from contaminated produce and other foods grow to nearly 350 a year--up from 100 a year in the early 1990s."
The choice of the early 1990s as the baseline is telling. For it was only in 1993, during the horrible Jack-in-the-Box food safety outbreak in which four children died, that staff from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention used a technique of DNA fingerprinting known as pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) to establish that the sick people all had the same strain and that the strain matched the strain of E. Coli found in the hamburger patties.
Up to that point, food safety outbreaks were typically identified in the context of a local event such as a banquet, where many people may have gotten sick from eating the same contaminated food. Before we used PFGE, there was simply no way to tie together illnesses in different cities and states by people who had eaten many different things at many different times.
Even after PFGE was known to work, there was no easy way to share that data. After the Jack-in-the-Box outbreak, the CDC established standardized PFGE techniques and began development of PulseNet, a computer bulletin board at CDC headquarters in Atlanta where state labs could share and compare their PFGE findings. Officially opened in 1996, the system hobbled on for many years--the states didn't collect the proper data; and few scientists at the state laboratories had the expertise or experience to use PFGE and PulseNet properly.
It was really only after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 when, due to concern about food security not food safety, we saw enhanced funding for PulseNet and the state laboratories. This resulted in a quantum leap in our ability to identify outbreaks. But better identification is not the same as the "troubling trend" the President spoke of. In all likelihood, our increased sophistication, such as the use of Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) plans in food processing, the development of Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Commodity Specific Guidelines for specific produce items and a myriad of food safety steps taken to protect beef, means we have less foodborne illness than ever. Our better detection techniques distort the numbers.
The president touchingly invoked his daughter Sasha's love of peanut butter sandwiches to define his food safety bottom line: "No parent should have to worry that their child is going to get sick from their lunch." Tugging at heartstrings probably wins points on the national polls but it would have been more helpful if the president explained the real situation to the people of America.
The truth is that our food supply is enormously safe. Known pathogens account for about 1,800 deaths per year from foodborne illness. If we include unknown pathogens, an estimated total of about 5,000 Americans die each year of foodborne illness -- mostly those with weakened immune systems such as the very old, very young or those with AIDS or undergoing cancer treatment. Although we can and should reduce this number, it needs to be kept in perspective. For example, over 40,000 people, including 6,000 teenagers, die each year in motor vehicle accidents. Yet the president hasn't announced that no parent should have to worry because their child steps in a car.
Food is not made safer for the same reason cars are not made safer. We have the technology to make autos safer, but we recognize that there are trade-offs. Safer vehicles may be more expensive, use more fuel, emit more carbon, etc. Equally, food safety is not a free good. A farm can be contaminated by soil, wind, water, animals or people. We can add buffer zones, put in more pest traps, fence the farm, train employees better and test the water more frequently. Each notch up may make things marginally safer but it also increases the cost. The logic leads to growing each bell pepper in a semiconductor type "clean room" and selling the pepper for $30 each. Does anyone really want that?
The biggest obstacle to enhancing food safety has been that the FDA has been unwilling to accept anything other than a zero tolerance of pathogens. To this day, despite entreaties from industry, FDA will not define what specific food safety measures it wants a produce farmer, for example, to adopt. This is because any specific measure will still leave the occasional outbreak as a possibility, and FDA is petrified of accepting responsibility for this, even if food safety improves overall.
The most important step is for FDA to move away from its zero tolerance attitude and adopt a continuous improvement model as we have in both aviation and autos with great success. Farmers and the food industry are fully prepared to do this. If we focus on doing better we can reduce foodborne illness and save lives. Unfortunately, the president's contempt for the private sector and absolutist attitude toward Sasha's lunch moves us further from this easily obtainable goal.
Jim Prevor is the founder and editor-in-chief of Phoenix Media Network, Inc., a business-to-business media company specializing in the food industry. He writes frequently on food safety and other topics at PerishablePundit.com.