A few cases of salmonella, possibly from sushi, and the government jumps into the fray to make things worse once again. First the “official” report, a report from Bloomberg that takes the easy road and doesn’t investigate any of the details:
Eating a spicy tuna roll shouldn’t make you sick. Nor should eating cantaloupe, cold cuts, peanut butter or onions, all of which were linked to food poisoning that sickened and killed people in the U.S. within the past five years.
Reports last week of a salmonella outbreak, possibly related to sushi, serve as a timely reminder of why the Obama administration must expedite a plan to modernize the country’s food-safety regulations, which haven’t been updated since the Great Depression.
So far, more than 100 people in 19 states have been stricken, all by an unusual strain of the bacteria known as salmonella Barielly. No deaths have been reported. Many of those who fell ill told health officials they had eaten sushi in recent days, though tracing the source of food poisoning is often difficult.
There’s a chance that if sushi were the culprit, the Food Safety and Modernization Act would have prevented it. Passed two years ago with wide bipartisan support, the law is designed to stop food contamination at the source, not simply react to incidences of food-borne illness. The deadline for issuing the rules to implement the law was Jan. 4, pending a review of the regulations by the Office of Management and Budget.
The wide bipartisan support for this bill basically means both parties have been equally bought off by the largest food suppliers, who are happy to see onerous restrictions placed on small food suppliers and family farms. The law will be written with their input. And painfully impact local producers. The irony is that the problems with salmonella come as much from huge food industrialization than anything else. It starts with the producers, who cut costs by buying products from places like Vietnam, where the fish farms are appallingly polluted. It ends with the sushi restaurants themselves. Once again chains dominate. In Japan, sushi is generally served in a smaller shop, and the sushi chefs are right in front of you. This is changing, too, unfortunately – and Japan is seeing a rise in food poisoning that coincides with the growth of restaurant chains. And speaking of Japan….
The law would focus on four broad areas, one of which is the establishment of a more efficient system for testing, monitoring and verifying imported foods. U.S. inspectors also would collaborate with foreign suppliers. Much of the food now shipped to the U.S. enters the supply chain untested, and sometimes from unknown sources. About 80 percent of the sushi sold in the U.S. comes from overseas suppliers.
Other parts of the law are intended to enhance the safety of processed foods, animal food and fresh produce.
Because the country’s food supply is increasingly concentrated among a handful of large producers and distributors, the potential for mass poisonings is growing. Some of the 50,000 food-processing plants in the U.S. go as long as a decade without being inspected.
The Obama administration was a strong supporter of more stringent regulation following the outbreak of salmonella from tainted peanut butter in 2009, so the delay in putting the law in place is troubling. Perhaps the bureaucratic wheels are turning slower than usual; perhaps the White House doesn’t want to be accused of adding “job-killing regulations” in an election year.
The OMB is confronting a math problem: Carrying out the law would require additional funding for the Food and Drug Administration, the agency that drafted the rules and would be charged with overseeing and enforcing the law. With little support in Washington for increasing spending, the OMB is searching for ways to offset the agency’s need for more money.
One interview with a small farmer exposes how the new laws are restricting their growth. The end result is that more of our produce and food will have to be imported from poorer countries with poorly enforced standards.
Again, the detachment that so many Americans have from their food is the real source of trouble. They don’t know who grew it or raised it, they don’t know where it’s from or who the middlemen were, and they often don’t even know who is preparing it for them. Decades of processed food consumption have numbed tastebuds, so people are happy with whichever restaurant is the most fashionable, or has the best advertising, or is cheapest with the largest servings. Little thought is given to the food itself, or even to freshness.
The absurd suggestion by the Bloomberg article, and the White House, is the the food laws need an overhaul – by which they mean even more food laws. When people by locally, that’s the best way to avoid problems. Your local grocer, local farmer, local fishmonger certainly don’t want you getting sick from their food. Their reputations would be destroyed. However, in the commoditized and anonymously sourced food world of today, what reputation is there to be tarnished?