Behind the Attack of the Killer Tomatoes

Isaiah J. Poole

What we’ve been calling e. coli conservatism is a major factor in the salmonella outbreak in tomatoes that has led to at least 228 illnesses and one suspected death.

The outbreak took place several months after the Food and Drug Administration, the agency responsible for policing the produce supply, released its “food protection plan” that was, in the words of Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt, “a strategy of prevention, intervention and response to build safety into every step of the food supply chain.”

That plan was a response to a series of food-borne illness outbreaks, from tainted dog food to infected spinach, that revealed the weaknesses in the administration’s laissez-faire approach to food safety and its chronic starvation of the government agencies that regulate food safety.

But in the eight months since that announcement, we learned Thursday from the Government Accountability Office, the FDA has dragged its feet:

Since FDA’s Food Protection Plan was first released in November 2007, FDA has added few details on the resources and strategies required to implement the plan. FDA plans to spend about $90 million over fiscal years 2008 and 2009 to implement several key actions, such as identifying food vulnerabilities and risk. From the information GAO has obtained on the Food Protection Plan, however, it is unclear what FDA’s overall resource need is for implementing the plan, which could be significant. For example, based on FDA estimates, if FDA were to inspect each of the approximately 65,500 domestic food firms regulated by FDA once, the total cost would be approximately $524 million.

The GAO also noted that of 34 recommendations that the office offered to the FDA to improve its food safety inspection program since 2004, the agency has only implemented seven of them.

The Food Protection Plan is itself a mix of lofty promises and suspect strategies. One element of the plan, for example, would allow the FDA to designate third parties, including private contractors, to inspect food on the FDA’s behalf. That is a pander to conservative anti-government orthodoxy; there is no evidence that outsourcing food inspection to private contractors would work better than an effectively managed and adequately funded government program, and there is plenty of reason to suspect that a private contractor would be more susceptible to corruption and less accountable to the public.

All of which suggests that the Bush administration wants to appear as if it is concerned about food safety, but doesn’t want government to do the hard work of actually protecting the food supply. To the extent that it does, it does so kicking and screaming in response to political pressure.

Meanwhile, an article on Time magazine’s website Thursday notes that a victim of the salmonella-tainted tomatoes was identified as early as April 16, but the FDA did not announce that there was a problem until June 3. The article points to some factors — many salmonella victims may not have reported their symptoms, and to this date no one has actually gotten their hands on a confirmed salmonella-tainted tomato.

Still, the increasingly convoluted food chain that a tomato passes through from the vine it grows on to its place in your meal would seem to argue for a more robust inspection system. But, in fact, from 2001 and 2007, as the number of domestic firms under FDA’s jurisdiction increased from about 51,000 to more than 65,500, the number of firms inspected declined slightly, from 14,721 to 14,566. That reflects the fact that the Bush administration has not given the FDA the resources it needs to do its job.

What’s needed is not just more money but a complete overhaul of our Rube Goldberg-system of food safety. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., have introduced legislation intended to simplify the food inspection process. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy organization focusing on issues of food and science, rated their Safe Food Act the most comprehensive “pending food safety legislation.” This bill would:

  • Transfer all food safety activities to a newly created Food Safety Administration; an agency that would replace eight agencies’ food inspection services.
  • Establish a certification system for importers of food to the United States.
  • Create requirements for tracing food and food producing animals from point of origin to retail sale.
  • Provide the Food Safety Administration with tools to enforce administrative detention, condemnation, temporary holds, recalls (of which is currently voluntary for the food industry), civil and criminal penalties for violations of food safety laws, whistleblower protection, and civil actions.

Most importantly, the attack of the killer tomatoes is another opportunity to to put e. coli conservatism on trial and hold its practitioners and true believers on the campaign trail accountable for the casualties of their ideology.

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