Foodborne illnesses sicken and kill thousands of Americans each year, but the threat is still taken lightly by Washington’s law- and policymakers. One in six Americans suffer from a foodborne illness, each year, with 128,000 resulting in hospitalization and 3,000 in death. The federal government, however, has outsourced much of its food inspection responsibilities to third-party companies that aren’t transparent and have no accountability or oversight.
The Food and Drug Administration inspected just 6 percent of the nation’s food producers in 2011, and it has no rules governing third-party inspectors or how often producers should be inspected, according to Bloomberg News. For-profit inspection services often examine “only those areas their clients ask them to review,” and as a result, they often miss sickening and potentially deadly pathogens that infect food that will hit supermarket shelves:
What for-hire auditors do is cloaked in secrecy; they don’t have to make their findings public. Bloomberg Markets obtained four audit reports and three audit certificates through court cases, congressional investigations and company websites.
Six audits gave sterling marks to the cantaloupe farm, an egg producer, a peanut processor and a ground-turkey plant — either before or right after they supplied toxic food.
Collectively, these growers and processors were responsible for tainted food that sickened 2,936 people and killed 43 in 50 states.
Despite these facts, food safety and inspection continues to be a relatively ignored issue in Washington and beyond. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has proposed a rule that could privatize much of its poultry inspection — poultry companies would reap huge profits — even as salmonella outbreaks have hammered parts of the country. Both President Obama’s and the House Republican budgets included cuts to the Food Safety Inspection Service.
The GOP has fought efforts to fully fund an overhaul of the nation’s food safety laws, signed by Obama in 2011, cutting funding to the FDA, USDA, and other programs even as food safety outbreaks hit meat, poultry, and produce industries across the country. Foodborne illness rates are on the rise, according to the CDC, but Republicans cut $700 million from Obama’s requested FDA budget, which included funding for the Food Safety Modernization Act. The House GOP’s farm bill, which never passed, also included cuts to food safety.
“You need to be in a culture that takes food safety seriously,” Doug Powell, who authored a study on third-party food monitors, told Bloomberg. “Right now, what we have is hidden. The third-party auditor stickers and certificates are meaningless.”