Opinion

Food safety falls short

The largest recall of meat in the nation's history is not likely to make Americans any more confident about the ability of the federal government to regulate the food supply.

Last week, a California meat packer recalled 143 million pounds of beef, including 37 million pounds that had been designated for school lunch programs. Unfortunately, much of that meat already had been eaten.

So far, there have been no reports of illness in connection with consumption of the meat. And, according to government officials, the danger of having eaten tainted meat from this supplier is small.

But our confidence in the food safety system erodes with every new recall or report of contaminated food. This is only the latest in a string of food scares that includes spinach contaminated with e-coli bacteria, poisoned pet food from China and tainted fish.

Last week's meat recall resulted from incidents in which employees were observed using pitchforks, forklifts and other means to force so-called "downer" cows to walk to the slaughterhouse. Sale of meat from these animals has been banned.

These practices might have gone unnoticed if they had not been uncovered and reported by the Humane Society of the United States, a private organization. Five federal meat inspectors at the meat-packing plant had failed to notice the slaughter of diseased cows.

By now, the inability of the Food and Drug Administration to monitor the food supply should come as no surprise. According to a report last month by the Government Accountability Office, the FDA is woefully under-funded and under-staffed. To make matters worse, the system for tracking food supplies is dangerously inefficient, especially in regard to imported food products.

Congress needs to allocate more money for food inspection and stiffen fines and penalties for those who try to circumvent the system. Better yet would be a proposal by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., to create a single agency to oversee food safety, replacing the patchwork of inspectors from different agencies now in place.

The nation had less to worry about when most food production was domestic and on a smaller scale than it is now. But with the boom in imported food and the rise of mega-farming and large scale meat production, keeping track of where our food comes from and whether it is safe has become significantly more difficult.

If we are to regain confidence in the quality of our food supply, we need a dramatic approach, such as Durbin's, to improve oversight of inspections. We don't need another massive recall to realize that the current system isn't working.

IN SUMMARY

Nation needs to completely revamp its system for overseeing the food supply.

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