HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Food Safety - Peanuts and More . . .

Tom Laskawy, writes about the lack of food safety here in the United States, and informs us of all the problems we are having right now.  He states,

It's been a bad week for food safety. First, it was the peanut butter, then it was the High Fructose Corn Syrup and now it's deadly antibiotic-resistant staph bacteria (aka MRSA) in CAFO pigs (and their minders).  And of course, as Bill Marler - litigious scourge of the food industry - reminds us, we're continuing to lose the fight against E. coli.

Much has been written about the efforts to track down the sources of contamination. And invariably the companies involved quickly close the their doors (which is how we lost one of the largest ground beef distributors in the country virtually overnight and why the Peanut Corporation of America is no more). But what's truly worrisome is that in each case, the USDA and the FDA (who have joint responsibility for food safety) had information at hand about all of these problems. . . .

It's understandable then, that USDA chief Tom Vilsack is less concerned with creating whole new regulatory structures for food safety and more concerned with making the ones that we have actually work. But continuing to mix boosterism and regulation - as many of our federal agencies including the FDA and the USDA do - will inevitably lead to these kind of breakdowns. And though you can come up with laundry list after laundry list of changes to penalties, enforcement, inspections and agencies that would improve matters, the frequency and seriousness of each outbreak suggests good intentioned reform may not be enough.

That the output of one contaminated peanut processing plant could require the recall of hundreds of varied and unrelated products and could kill 8 and sicken over 400 in more than 40 states across the country suggests we may have reached the limits of consolidation in the food industry. You'd think that such centralization of food production would make regulation easier. Indeed, the ease of regulation, along with low cost, was one of the prime alleged advantages of consolidation. But we're seeing not just production failures, but the wholesale failure of the regulatory structures themselves. Well, food is cheap anyway.

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