President Bush's appointment this week of a high-level panel to recommend reforms to ensure the safety of imported food and other items would be a worthy idea except for two things: Congress is already working on a package of reforms, and it's no mystery what needs to be done.
The Food and Drug Administration is woefully ill-equipped to do more than a cursory inspection of a tiny fraction of the food coming into this country. It needs to be beefed up, so to speak - in the sense that beef is one of the very few items that fall under the purview of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (along with other meats, poultry and eggs), and the USDA is much better staffed and does a much more rigorous job than the FDA.
The head of the FDA, Dr. Andrew C. von Eschenbach, boasted to a House committee Tuesday about designating a "food safety czar." The U.S. doesn't need a czar, and it doesn't need a panel. The country got a "czar" on Iraq, and no one has heard of him since, and it got a panel, the Iraq Study Group, whose recommendations President Bush ignored. On the question of imported food, what the country needs is simply a better FDA.
One way to build a better FDA would be to combine all food safety responsibilities in one agency.
One thing not to do would be to cut the number of FDA labs from 13 to six, as Dr. von Eschenbach has proposed.
Right now, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the FDA inspects 1 percent of imported seafood, produce, animal feeds and grains. Even then, most inspections are fleeting. Food imports went from 4 million shipments in 2000 to about 10 million last year. Pet food wasn't even on the agency's radar until cats and dogs in this country started dying this year from contaminated Chinese imports.
To inspect just 10 percent of imports, the FDA would need to hire 1,600 additional inspectors. A step in that direction would be provided for in a proposal by Sen. Herb Kohl of Wisconsin to increase the agency's budget by $48.4 million.
But imports are not the whole story, or the only problem. At least 85 people, and perhaps as many as 600, became ill from salmonella after attending a fair in Chicago this week. More than 60 people, in 19 states, have contracted salmonella since June from a snack food called Veggie Booty. This year, Peter Pan peanut butter was found to be contaminated with salmonella, and before that, California spinach carried E. coli.
Cleaner, safer food isn't beyond reach. It just requires a food safety agency that is up to the job.