Food Safety System Still Needs Major Overhaul
February 20, 2009 -- The recent unprecedented domestic and international recall of products containing peanut butter and paste produced by the Peanut Corporation of America has again called attention to the need for an overhaul of the nation's food safety system. Consumption of tainted peanut products have so far led to more than 600 reported cases of salmonella poisoning and a number of deaths in the United States alone. To date, more than 2,100 products have been voluntarily recalled by more than 200 companies, and the situation has spurred congressional hearings, FBI investigations, and a Justice Department criminal investigation.
Oversight of food safety at the national level currently involves a minimum of 12 separate federal departments and agencies, operating under more than 35 statutes related to food safety and 50 different interagency agreements. These regulations are implemented and enforced to varying degrees, resulting in considerable waste, confusion, and inefficiency in food safety activities.
In 1998, the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council issued the report Ensuring Safe Food from Production to Consumption, which recommended the integration of all federal food safety activities into a single, centrally unified framework. At the time, this consensus study was one of more than 20 commissions, committees, and studies (dating back to 1949) that had made similar recommendations for reform of the federal food safety system. In the intervening years since this study was released, there has been little if any progress made toward creating a cohesive system responsible for ensuring the safety of the food supply. In 2003 the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council issued Scientific Criteria to Ensure Safe Food that again highlighted needed improvement to achieve a science-based food safety system.
Seven years after Ensuring Safe Food from Production to Consumption was released, the Institute of Medicine convened a workshop where participants explored the nature and extent of such foodborne threats to health, and reviewed existing research, policies, and practices in order to identify unmet needs, challenges, and opportunities for improving food safety systems, surveillance, and emergency response. In the summary of this workshop, Addressing Foodborne Threats to Health: Policies, Practices, and Global Coordination -- Workshop Summary, Dr. John Bailar, who chaired the 1998 study, reiterated the consensus opinion of Ensuring Safe Food, stating that Congress should establish a unified and central framework for ensuring the safety of the U.S. food supply from intentional and unintentional adulteration.