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Public Citizen Calls on Congress Not to Accept “Quick Fixes” on Food Safety

Sept. 20, 2000

Public Citizen Calls on Congress Not to Accept “Quick Fixes” on Food Safety

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Public Citizen today called on Congress to hold comprehensive hearings about our food safety system. The group also cautioned Congress against adopting quick fixes to plug up a food safety system that is becoming filled with holes.

“One of the problems, in our view, has been the attempt by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to deregulate food inspection,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. “While making industry more responsible for its own actions is laudable, turning food inspection over to it is asking for major trouble.”

The implementation of HACCP – the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point system – has led to confusion, unnecessary tension between federal food inspectors and industry, and a lowering of wholesomeness standards for meats. What has resulted is a food safety system in distress.

The federal government’s microbial testing program is not as strong as it could or should be. Company testing is largely a company honor system and government testing is limited, sporadic and poorly administered. Food inspectors’ authority should be reinstated and they should be given the scientific tools to make testing meaningful.

Hauter also said that microbial testing should be used as an additional tool and not a substitute for the traditional organoleptic (using senses) inspection techniques that are currently in place.

“Our first line of defense are our food inspectors,” Hauter said. “Any additional tools that could be used to help them perform their jobs more effectively and make our food supply safer should be welcomed. But these tools should not used as a way to reduce an already overworked and short-handed workforce.”

Both the USDA and the FDA have recently come under attack by government investigators for the way their food safety programs are administered. In June, the USDA’s inspector general issued a report that pointed out deficiencies in HACCP as it is being implemented by the USDA; and just last week, the General Accounting Office released a report critical of the way both the USDA and FDA handle food recalls.

The USDA and FDA also have accepted the use of “silver bullets” to cover up the deficiencies in the food safety system. Earlier this year, both agencies approved the use of irradiation for meats.

“We contend that these government agencies were premature to grant their approval of using irradiation on meats,” Hauter said. “The FDA ignored studies that it had conducted in the 1970s and 1980s that questioned the safety of this technology. Irradiation will also be used to mask filth on food that might be contaminated with feces, urine, pus and other contaminants that spread disease. What do you have when you irradiate food that has these contaminants? You have sanitized feces, urine and pus. Is that what we want to eat and feed to our families?

“Instead of attacking the root causes of disease and filth that would make our food supply safer, the USDA and FDA seem satisfied with tolerating a certain level of contaminants and using questionable methods to deal with them.”