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IT has happened again. Like Froot Loops, Spaghetti-O’s, beef, and salami earlier this year, we have witnessed yet another recall of contaminated food.
This time, 500 million eggs, across 24 brands, are potentially infected with Salmonella enteritidis.
All of these eggs were traced back to just two Iowa producers, Wright County Egg, owned by Austin “Jack” DeCoster, and Hillandale Farms, in which DeCoster is a major investor.
There is a pattern of health and safety violations at these operations, including, as the Washington Post pointed out, “workers handling manure and dead chickens with bare hands.” As a result, more than 1,400 people across the country already have been made sick, simply as a result of eating breakfast.
This egg outbreak underlines the importance of passing food safety legislation this year. The bill will increase inspections at high-risk facilities, establish performance standards for reducing food-borne pathogens and grant the Food and Drug Administration mandatory recall authority. These important regulatory tools could have prevented this outbreak.
In addition, this recall of more than half a billion eggs introduced many Americans to the absurdities of the U.S. food safety system, and highlighted the glaring need for an even more comprehensive overhaul.
The average American eats 21 dozen eggs a year. Yet, although they are central to our diet, the regulation of egg safety is scrambled.
The FDA has jurisdiction over shell eggs. It has the authority to inspect egg farms, such as the ones involved in this recall.
However, once eggs leave these farms and go to processing plants, or “breaker” plants, for pasteurization, they fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Further compounding the problem, the USDA also has authority over any diseased chickens or broken eggs at egg farms, but not any contaminated, unbroken eggs these chickens happen to produce: Those are the FDA’s problem.
It is becoming more apparent that overlapping regulatory boundaries create holes in the system and result in people becoming sick from contaminated food.
So, it is no exaggeration to say we face a real chicken-and-egg problem with our food safety system.
Unfortunately, the split responsibility for protecting the food supply is not limited to eggs. Fifteen federal agencies have some food safety jurisdiction. That is nonsensical. It is wasteful and duplicative to have food safety expertise scattered across so many agencies, and this fragmented structure makes food-borne illness outbreaks extremely difficult to manage.
Also contributing to the ineffective food safety system are the conflicting and disparate roles for which the USDA and FDA are responsible. The USDA is charged with promoting the products it is supposed to regulate, while the FDA has to allocate resources to regulating other products, such prescription drugs, medical devices and tobacco.
The answer to this dilemma is simple. I believe we must create a single food safety agency that consolidates the work splintered across the 15 federal agencies. This would allow the appropriate personnel to perform the relevant functions, resulting in an effective food safety system.
We should not have one agency responsible for chickens and another one responsible for eggs. We need one agency focused exclusively on protecting our food supply. This would prevent jurisdictional confusion, result in an efficient and responsive food safety system and diminish the potential for future outbreaks.
I strongly believe we are playing with fire by continuing to rely on a fragmented and outdated food safety apparatus for protection. It is time to put all of our eggs into one food safety basket — one that can do the job right.
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