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Published in Print: May 8, 2002, as Congress: Too Many Cooks Oversee Food Safety

Congress: Too Many Cooks Oversee Food Safety

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An increase in food poisoning in schools has some politicians and experts calling for a streamlined system to deal with outbreaks.

School food poisonings increased about 10 percent a year during the 1990s, according to a General Accounting Office report released last week. Fifty school outbreaks made 2,900 people sick across the nation in 1999, the latest year for which data are available. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 76 million Americans suffer from food poisoning each year, and 5,000 die.

During a joint House-Senate committee hearing April 30, food-poisoning victims, food-safety advocates, and federal lawmakers dissected the current system of dealing with outbreaks that occur when 27 million school meals are served each day.

Two different agencies track contamination and deal with the repercussions when a food-poisoning incident occurs. Though America's foods are considered safer than those in most other countries, confusing regulations and differing federal responsibilities surrounding poisoning outbreaks can cause bureaucratic snarls with real-world consequences, some lawmakers said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture monitors meat, poultry, and egg products. The Food and Drug Administration, meanwhile, is responsible for most other foods. For example, a meat pizza would fall under the USDA's purview, while the FDA would oversee cheese pizza. And neither agency has the power to recall products.

"We're lucky to have the safest food system in the world, because that food system is a bureaucratic tangle," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin. "There's no good science behind this, only political tradition."

The Illinois Democrat co-chaired the hearing between the Senate Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, Restructuring and the District of Columbia and the House Subcommittee on Government Efficiency, Financial Management and Intergovernmental Relations.

Sen. Durbin also criticized the fact that the USDA keeps information on producers of tainted food confidential, preventing state and local agencies that buy food from knowing which companies may have produced bad products. He said he would introduce legislation to make that information public and to provide federal food agencies with recall authority.

He has already introduced a bill that would create a single food-safety agency.

Lawrence J. Dyckman, the director of natural resources and environment for the GAO, Congress' investigative arm, said the food industry is against those changes. "If the industry is begging you not to do something, you have to look pretty leery at why they don't want a change," he said.

Elsa Murano, the USDA's undersecretary for food safety, said her department has just begun allowing state and local agencies access to records on the distribution chain of food linked to poisoning. She also said the USDA now has a process for preventing schools from tossing food suspected in poisonings, allowing the agency to do thorough investigations.

"I'm not going to allow bad actors to sell food, not only to the school lunch program, but to anybody," she said.

And Lester Crawford, the deputy commissioner of the FDA, said his agency and the USDA have made efforts to work more closely together.

Both Ms. Murano and Mr. Crawford are opposed to Sen. Durbin's proposal to create a single food-safety agency.

Federal Guarantee

But some members of Congress weren't satisfied.

"Parents deserve a federal guarantee that the food their children eat at school is safe," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill.

Most of the illnesses connected with school lunches were caused by salmonella bacteria and Norwalk-like viruses, the GAO report says. The report also says that while the Agriculture Department buys some food for the school lunch program, with state and local agencies buying the rest, the USDA provides "little guidance" on assuring that food is safe.

Parent Cheryl Roberts of Comer, Ga., told the panel that food poisoning can be more than just a minor illness, especially for children whose immune systems are still developing. In 1998, Ms. Roberts' son Tyler, who was then 11, ate an undercooked hamburger tainted with E. coli bacteria while at school.

Tyler went into kidney failure, was in severe pain, and had to be hospitalized, said Ms. Roberts, a member of the group Safe Tables Our Priority, a Burlington,Vt.-based organization working to make food safer.

"It would be well over a year," she said, "before our 11-year-old son got his color and strength back and began to look like a normal child."

Vol. 21, Issue 34, Pages 19-20

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