Thursday, September 16, 2010

A Different Kind Of Tea Party

Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland is still one of my favorite pieces of literature. These days I find myself going back to the Mad Hatter's tea party time and again as the perfect metaphor for so much of what is going on in this country. Take, for example, this bit of news on the division of tasks between the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture when it comes to managing the safety of the nation's food supply.

As lawmakers prepare for hearings into the largest egg recall in U.S. history, food safety advocates say the congressional probe could give momentum to a long-delayed measure that would enhance the power of the Food and Drug Administration.

If passed, say policymakers, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act could be the first major step toward streamlining the often unwieldy food safety system.

For example, in the U.S. cheese pizza is regulated by one federal agency, but a pepperoni pizza is overseen by another. An open-faced turkey sandwich, likewise, falls under the purview of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but one with two slices of bread is under the jurisdiction of the FDA. Liquid beef broth and dehydrated chicken broth? USDA. Liquid chicken broth and dehydrated beef broth? FDA. ...

The USDA regulates the quality of eggs still in their shells; it also inspects liquid, dried and frozen egg products. The FDA is responsible for the safety of eggs still in their shells, but until recently it could intervene only after problems became evident. So neither agency was proactive about examining the production facilities operated by Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms of Iowa, where federal inspectors recently found giant manure piles, rodents and maggots.

In other words, there is no coherence in the way food producers are regulated. Nor, at least at this point, is there any way to force recalls when dangerous conditions lead to polluted food. When bad food hits the markets and people are sickened, all the FDA can do is recommend a recall to the producer of that bad food. Generally, the industry complies, primarily to avoid litigation, but they can delay the recall while they lawyer up.

The bill currently pending in the Senate would at least grant the FDA the power to force recalls. It doesn't, however, address the problems of the insanely crafted overlap of jurisdiction between the two agencies. Consumer advocates still think the bill would get things started in that direction, and most food producers seem to be behind the bill unless too many costly amendments are added. At least one Republican (Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma) has threatened to hold the bill up because it expands the authority of the FDA too much. No surprise there.

The real problem is going to be to get the Senate to act on the bill at all this term. November elections are looming, and there's an enormous backlog of business still to be considered. Harry Reid may not feel that such a bill has any priority at this point. And that's a shame.

Clean cups! Clean cups!

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home