Monday, April 20, 2009

Developing a New Food Inspection System

I recently read an article in The New York Times called “To Fill Food Safety Gap, Processors Pay Inspectors,” which discusses new small-scale efforts to improve our country’s deteriorated food inspection system. If they are implemented on a larger scale, these efforts could be the solution to our country’s food safety problems, because they would shift the work to the states and place more responsibility on the food industry instead of the large, unenforceable federal system.

Because of recent food scares, industry has started paying for state inspectors to make a more concerted effort towards food safety. For example, companies in California have formed the Leafy Greens Products Handler Marketing Agreement, which “pays the state money so that auditors… can inspect farm fields for safety.” This agreement was the product of an E. coli scare related to spinach grown in California. As other food scares have happened, similar agreements have been contemplated and often implemented across the country. Almonds, for example, were not properly pasteurized until people started getting sick, and the almond industry worked with the Department of Agriculture to institute pasteurization rules.

After the many discussions we have had in class decrying the food industry, it is interesting to read that the industry is taking it upon itself to bring food inspection up to par. After all, we have read in Fast Food Nation how the meat industry has complete control over the USDA, bending rules to its will. We have also read about how there are never enough inspectors available to ensure safety in slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants, which only benefits the industry in its quest to be as profitable as possible, with no consideration for safety. So it’s very surprising to see that other sectors of the food industry are the ones taking responsibility to pay for state-provided food inspectors and making sure that food poisoning crises happen less often.

The Times article suggests that the government is to blame in this situation. Because the FDA, the Department of Agriculture, and the USDA can’t get their acts together, industry must do so instead on a state-by-state basis. The fact that there are so many different governmental bodies controlling the food system also contributes to the fact that so many problems go unattended, and national control over food safety is so disjointed and inconsistent. We read a series of articles in class discussing whether a Department of Food should be established, which would overrule all the other organizations currently trying to control the food systems. But if food safety is now starting to be controlled on a smaller scale, perhaps we need to shift our focus to this model and work with it instead of trying to continue having a federal food inspection system.

A similar situation can be seen in our country’s health insurance system. An article in The New Yorker discusses the idea of universal health coverage and how we can implement it in the United States. The author points out that universal systems in countries such as England and Canada developed as a direct result of the unique circumstances in those countries. For example, England’s NHS rose up out of military programs created during World War II. Thus, if the US wants to move to universal coverage, it cannot simply mimic a system in another country, or use a cookie-cutter solution that sounds good in theory. It must work with what is already in place.

Similarly in the food industry, we have to work with what has already been started. We know our federal system is broken, and because of the huge and widespread food industry in our country, we should consider having food safety run by individual states instead, working directly with sectors of the food industry to address the unique problems involved with each kind of food production—whether it be meat, vegetables, dairy products, or peanut butter. This method is working well so far in the examples cited in the article, and although it could have its own problems were it to be used across the country by every state, it has the potential to be a long-awaited solution to the problems inherent in our federal food inspection system today.


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