Sure, we all hear that unclean, unlabeled and contaminated food can possibly lead to serious health problems or, in worst case scenario, death. And as we all make our weekly grocery store trips, we also realize America is fortunate enough to enjoy a vast variety of foods that are cleaner and safer than in many other countries. Acronyms like FDA and USDA start popping in our heads when we think of food regulation. These same acronyms provide us with a feeling of safety when headlines appear of FDA recalls. However, not to scare or disillusion your safety, what many of us probably dont know is the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are not the ones who mandate recalls. They both oversee Americas food system, but not in the way you may think.
The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (1938) addressed a need for food safety with factory regulations and permitted certain authority to the FDA. But the series of Congress-passed laws did not enable the FDA the ability to order a manufacturer to recall a product (food, cosmetic or supplement). Usually what happens is the FDA learns about a possible contamination in products and then the agency contacts that specific manufacturer. It is then suggested that there be a recall -- not mandated. If the company does not comply, the FDA can seek a request for a recall, with evidence, and that then leads to legal action.
And not to completely break your comfort bubble, but if you dont see any problems, maybe the FDA and USDA employee survey will enlighten you:
As you can see, political interference is highly prevalent in the science aspect of food regulation. Although America is among the top countries in the world to have a "safe" food supply, there is obviously room for improvement, starting with allocating more power to regulation companies like the FDA. Barely a month goes by without a recalled item and at least one food item a year is highly publicized (E. coli in spinach, salmonella in contaminated eggs, etc.) to the masses. But with the knowledge that some producers prioritize profits over public health, you cant help but wonder how many suggested recalls went unanswered by manufacturers.
Responses to the Union of Concerned Scientists' (UCS) survey as published in their study "Voices of Federal Food Safety Scientists and Inspectors":
"Typically once a member of Congress gets involved the agency does whatever it can to make the situation go away rather than address food safety issues." -- USDA worker
"Food safety has succumbed to the higher priority of global corporate profits." -- FDA employee
In order to make sure what we are putting in our shopping basket is really safe, reforms need to be aimed at restoring scientific integrity and authority in the face of politics. Congress should update the laws governing food regulation to combat todays capitalistic goals. The issue of public safety is arising more and more with this knowledge of government interference and the lack of adequate resources to effectively police our food supply means questioning Congress' priorities.
To read more (and coincidentally burst your comfort bubble completely) about corporate and political interference with food regulation, please visit the Union of Concerned Scientists website to view recent examples of suggested recalls.