Consumer advocates push for food safety reform

Times-Herald Newspapers

DEARBORN — It was meant as a screed against the evils of capitalism, but what Upton Sinclair’s defining work, “The Jungle,” is best known for is alerting an oblivious public to the dangers lurking at the dinner table and in the pantry.

Published at the turn of the 20th century, Sinclair’s in-depth account of the freewheeling Chicago meatpacking industry describes chilling stories of men falling into cavernous rendering vats, where their flesh and bones are boiled with meat being processed; diseased animals being butchered and sent to market; and deadly acids and dyes being used to make spoiled hams appear sound for sale.

Historians characterize the horrifying tome as the driving force behind the nation’s first food safety laws, the Food and Drug Act of 1906. Among its key provisions, the law prohibited the interstate transport of food which had been “adulterated” with fillers of reduced “quality or strength,” coloring to conceal “damage or inferiority,” or the use of “filthy, decomposed or putrid” substances.

But vagaries about enforcement mechanisms and a series of court decisions that narrowly defined the government’s regulatory authority left the law lacking in punch. And it would be three decades before Congress would take up food safety reforms, which culminated in the passage of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1906.

The law authorized factory inspections and expanded enforcement powers, set new regulatory standards for foods, and brought cosmetics and therapeutic devices under federal regulatory authority.

But as the food-industrial complex has exploded in growth and interconnectivity over the last 70 years, the government’s regulatory tools have remained relatively static. And with a recent string of high-profile food recalls startling enough to make Sinclair gasp, there is a new movement afoot for tougher food safety laws.

“Too many of us heard about the egg recall as we sat down to breakfast and had to wonder where the omelet on our plate came from,” said consumer advocate Meghan Hess, referencing the August recall of 500 million eggs for salmonella contamination. “But the problem is more than just eggs. It’s our failed food safety net.”

Hess, a program associate at the nonpartisan Public Interest Research Group in Michigan, visited the University of Michigan-Dearborn on Thursday to discuss a report aimed at spurring legislative action on modernizing the federal food safety system.

According to the report, in the last 13 months, 56 recalls have occurred in Michigan due to contamination by food-borne illnesses. For example, in 2009 there were multiple cantaloupe recalls because of salmonella contamination.

In May of this year there was a widespread recall of romaine lettuce. In all instances, the food was already on store shelves or in people’s kitchens.

Hess said that in many of the cases cited in the report, the chances of sickness and contamination could have been exponentially reduced if regulators had expanded authority.

“They are really limited in what they can do,” Hess said. “Most people don’t even know that the FDA doesn’t have the power to launch a recall. It’s all up to the company.”

In June 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Food Safety Enhancement Act, which would require mandatory inspection frequency, stronger traceback provisions and mandatory recall authority. The bill, sponsored by Rep. John Dingell (D-Dearborn) was passed with bipartisan support.

But despite the groundswell of Republican and Democratic support in the House, the bill has languished in the Senate since passing committee in November 2009. Dingell, in a prepared statement, urged his Congressional colleagues to take action.

“Closing our eyes and wishing our food safety problems will go away has never been a sound strategy,” he said. “The problems American consumers face with unsafe food is a systemic one that needs to be addressed immediately.”