WASHINGTON -- In the wake of last year's E. coli outbreaks linked to bagged spinach and Taco Bell restaurants, a new congressional watchdog report is calling for major changes in the way the federal government protects the nation's food supply.
The report, released yesterday by the Government Accountability Office, was highly critical of the current system for preventing dangerous bacteria from contaminating food and leading to deadly outbreaks.
"Our food safety structure is collapsing and endangering public health," said Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, whose subcommittee will hold a hearing next week on food safety. "Congress should heed the wake-up call of the E. coli outbreaks last year and work toward ensuring that our regulatory structure can protect our food supply and prevent or minimize these outbreaks."
An outbreak of E. coli in fresh spinach farmed in central California killed three people and sickened 204 scattered across 26 states, including Maryland. A similar outbreak linked to iceberg lettuce at Taco Bell restaurants in the Northeast injured 71 people, several seriously.
The scares intensified public concern for the safety of the country's food supply, which former government officials say has been jeopardized by years of budget cuts to federal inspection programs.
Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, expressed hope that the new report would encourage Congress to reverse the cuts and put all the agencies responsible for food safety into one department.
"These programs are in critical condition," she said.
Each year, food-borne illnesses afflict 76 million Americans, killing about 5,000. Preliminary data taken from 10 states by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show declines of 29 percent or more in the rates of some major food-borne illnesses from 1996 to 2005.
Steven Cohen, a spokesman for the Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service, cited the falling rates as evidence of recent work to bolster government oversight through better detection. He said improved surveillance has also helped authorities find outbreaks that previously went unnoticed. The Food and Drug Administration, the other leading food safety agency, did not respond to requests for comment.
Janet Riley, a spokeswoman for the largest association of meat producers and packers, the American Meat Institute, said reformers should make sure any changes would keep driving down illness rates. Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association, said that providing more money for monitoring and adding new safety standards are more important than streamlining the way the government monitors food safety.
"It's really about the resources and focus, not how you put the boxes together," he said.
The GAO, among others, has repeatedly chronicled problems with federal regulation of food safety but had never before designated it an area of "high risk" requiring Congress' urgent attention.
In a 98-page report, the GAO blamed problems with federal food safety monitoring on a lack of coordination among 15 different agencies responsible for enforcing at least 30 different laws.
It also criticized funding for food inspections, saying that too much money went to the Agriculture Department, while the FDA was responsible for watching 80 percent of the food supply. At ports, Agriculture Department inspectors work in facilities that store products awaiting FDA inspection but cannot help the FDA with its work, the GAO said.
The report also found gaps in food safety laws. Agriculture Department inspectors must visit meat and poultry plants daily, while FDA inspectors make less frequent visits to fruit, vegetable and seafood plants, and the federal government is not able to order recalls of contaminated foods.
"A fundamental re-examination of the federal food safety system is warranted," the GAO said. It recommended that Congress enact a "comprehensive, uniform" food safety law and commission a panel to re-examine the structure of the regulatory system. Also, it urged President Bush to improve coordination among food safety agencies.
Talk of combining federal monitoring into a single food agency started during the Nixon administration, recalled Carol Tucker Foreman, an Agriculture Department official during the Carter administration. Every year since 1999, DeLauro has proposed legislation to consolidate food safety surveillance in a single agency.
Liberal interest groups cheered the advent of congressional hearings on food safety, but they said enacting reforms would be far more difficult to achieve.
"Getting that law passed is not going to happen overnight," said Foreman, now at the Consumer Federation of America. "And then you have to hope that a president, this one or the next, sees that this situation is not acceptable."