Food Summit: Steps Toward a Safer Food System

Braised pot roast
Braised pot roast Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday, I attended the first-ever Atlantic Food Summit, a series of panel discussions convened by the Atlantic magazine and hosted by the Newseum in D.C. Those of you who follow me on Twitter already heard some tidbits, but here's a more complete summary.

There were three main themes, each with its own set of panelists: Food safety, food security/hunger, and "the way we eat" (consumer behavior; nutrition and obesity issues). That's too much for one blog post, obviously, so I'll take one at a time.

As I've written before, food safety is a complicated issue, but not necessarily a controversial one—everyone wants it. Consumers don't want pathogens in their food; and neither do the farmers, corporations, retailers and restaurants that grow and sell that food. Yet there are some 76 million cases of food-related illness in the United States each year, racking up, according to one recent study, an estimated $152 billion in health-care costs, and killing at least 5,000 people. Outbreaks of food poisoning hit the headlines so often that in our online poll last October, nearly 90 percent of you said you worry about food safety.

Is there any good news?

Well, according to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, "big change is possible" right now, as consumers and industry have begun to agree on reforms, and the Obama administration has made the issue a priority. She hopes to soon see the first significant update to the country's food safety laws since the 1930s. The Food Safety Enhancement Act was passed by the House last summer, and a similar bill is now on the Senate's plate, though it seems to have been pushed aside by the health care reform debate.

Among other things, this legislation would give the FDA the power to order mandatory recalls of contaminated products—a power that many people assume the agency already has, when in fact the agency can only request that companies issue such recalls voluntarily.

And then, of course, there's the issue of funding. Monitoring and enforcing safety has become increasingly expensive as the food system has grown more globalized, and government inspectors can't afford to be everywhere at once. Hamburg was blunt about this, ending her optimistic speech with a caveat: "In order to do this, we will need adequate resources. And it's a sad truth that over the years, we have not had those."

The money problem could be eased in part by a provision in the new legislation allowing the FDA to charge a $500 annual registration fee to each food facility under its purview. As the Atlantic's Sara Rubin noted in her own summary of the event, that pill isn't too difficult to swallow for most corporations, but it could cause very small businesses to choke.

Hamburg also emphasized the idea of a "farm to table" approach to preventing food-related illness, holding everyone from the grower to the consumer accountable: "Everyone who touches food shares responsibility for its safety," she said.

As if on cue, this morning's newspaper added another loud note to the chorus of evidence that this problem is not going away on its own: salmonella in a ubiquitous flavor-enhancing product prompted what is expected to be one of the biggest food recalls in the nation's history.

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