Health

Senator Pressures FDA To Crack Down On ‘Disgusting’ Warehouses That Supply Our Food

CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY)

Last year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cited squalid conditions in 90 warehouses, including a Chinese food distributor that the agency found to have rodent nests, carcasses, and feces littering in its warehouse during an inspection in December.

That’s why Sen. Chuck Schumer wants the regulatory agency to up the ante and crack down on food manufacturers that cannot maintain sanitary spaces for food production. He’s calling for more frequent inspections, higher fines, and the creation of an easily searchable food database for distributors and consumers.

“At the end of 2014, the FDA quietly revealed hundreds of food safety violations at food processing facilities over the course of the year, and everyone from restaurant-goers to owners are appalled by some of the disgusting conditions at warehouses that supply our food. Reports of the filthy conditions at some of these warehouses sound like a page straight out of Upton Sinclair’s ‘The Jungle,’” Schumer said in a press release.

Schumer and other FDA critics say that a failure to check negligent food manufacturers has posed deadly consequences for American consumers. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports nearly 48 million instances of food poisoning annually, which result in nearly 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. High profile cases of food poisoning include a 2011 food poisoning stemming from listeria-tainted cantaloupe that killed 13 people. In 2009, more than 700 people fell ill after eating peanut butter tainted by salmonella. The salmonella outbreak forced the largest food recall in U.S. history and the first criminal trial of a food manufacturer.

The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act requires domestic food manufacturers and distributors to take measures to ensure food safety before products make it to supermarket shelves and stores. The legislation, originally passed in 1938, also allows the FDA to routinely inspect food facilities in conjunction with state regulatory agencies.

The frequency of inspections often depends on the type of facility, the type of food processed, and the public health risk associated with certain products. Follow-up inspections occur in the event that inspectors initially find a facility to be in violation of government regulations. In 2010, the FDA took further steps in securing food safety by launching the Safety Reporting Portal, which allows public health officials to open accounts and upload reports. One year later, President Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act — legislation that broadened the FDA’s authoritative powers over food harvest and production — into law.

If the FDA takes Schumer’s suggestions into consideration, the agency will increase facilities designated as high risk more often than once every three years and increase the fines for those who are in violation of food sanitation rules.

Despite efforts to strengthen food regulations, the Food Safety Modernization Act has come under scrutiny in recent months from organic farmers who consider the preventative measures outlined in the legislation to be restrictive. Last September, the FDA revised the law so that it would allow easier application of raw manure, relaxed oversight of irrigation water, and exempted small farms from produce safety rules.

The regulations that Sen. Schumer suggested may provoke similar pushback. However, the legislator doesn’t seem deterred in his battle to make the food inspection more transparent, especially since the FDA is only required to release information about violations by the end of the end of the year, a rule that he wants to change.

“The process takes too long and is much too private,” Sen. Schumer told a CBS New York affiliate. “There’s no easy way for the purchasing restaurants and the public to find out which warehouses have violations.”

Schumer’s recent call for stronger inspection rules comes on the heels of his demands to strengthen other public health policies. Last year, along with his Democratic colleagues, he pushed to curb magazine advertising of tobacco products to teenagers and increase research into gun violence.