‘Fractured system’ fails to ensure food safety, panel finds

Who made sure that frozen pizza you ate last night was safe?

Depends on whether you had meat on it.

The current system of food production and inspection in the United States is such a mess that important and long-term changes are needed to fix it, according to a sweeping new report from the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production released this week.

The report, two years in the making, examined animal agriculture and its explosive growth over the last half-century; among the areas the report addressed were public health, environmental risks, animal welfare and the effect of factory farms on rural America. Former Kansas Gov. John Carlin, a former dairy farmer, was one of its authors.

Conflicts of interest in USDA

One of the interesting recommendations is for the establishment of a federal Food Safety Commission, which could streamline the current multiagency system and remove the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) out of the equation.

Critics have frequently blasted the USDA over conflicts of interest in its dual mission of promoting and regulating farms and farm products. Criticism has intensified with the “downer cow” beef recall from a California plant earlier this year and the neurological illnesses of at least 13 workers at a Hormel pork processing plant in Austin, Minn.

How would this affect your pizza?

The commission said: “The current system to ensure the safety of U.S. food is disjointed and dysfunctional; for example, FDA regulates meatless frozen pizza whereas USDA has jurisdiction over frozen pizza with meat. This fractured system has failed to ensure food safety, and a solution requires a thorough national debate about how the most effective and efficient food safety agency would be constructed.”

Other recommendations focus on the safe handling of animal waste and associated health hazards for humans and the environment. The report suggests that states remove farm-waste regulation from their agriculture departments and into environmental protection agencies. (Some of this is already in place in Minnesota, where the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency regulates animal feedlots, for example.)

Ag industry presented obstacles
Robert Martin, executive director of the commission, said some farm groups and agribusinesses were “serious obstacles” in preparing the findings.

“[T]he formation of this Commission was greeted by industrial agriculture with responses ranging from open hostility to wary cooperation,” Martin wrote. “In fact, while some industrial agriculture representatives were recommending potential authors for the technical reports to commission staff, other industrial agriculture representatives were discouraging those same authors from assisting us by threatening to withhold research funding for their college or university. We found significant influence by the industry at every turn: in academic research, agriculture policy development, government regulation, and enforcement.”

The commission noted that farms have become more productive: what Americans pay for meat, poultry, dairy and eggs in 2007 is less than in 1950, adjusted for inflation. But the total costs of production are not always apparent. “Given the relatively rapid emergence of the technologies for industrial farm animal production, and the dependence on chemical inputs, energy, and water, many [industrial] systems are not sustainable environmentally or economically,” the report said.

Among the other recommendations are new policies on antibiotic use, a national disease-monitoring database, improvements in the care of animals, and better planning in the siting of factory farms. 

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