A Pass on Nutrition, an Incomplete on Safety

Good nutrition and food safety are important to all consumers. While there is some improvement in the nutrition information made available to consumers and a huge leap in Food Stamps, attention to food safety is lagging. To address that shortfall, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) passed Congress in 2010, but none of the urgently needed big rules it contains have yet been put into effect. The law mandated more inspections and much tougher anti-contamination standards and it placed more emphasis on preventing outbreaks than on chasing them down after people become sick.

Meanwhile, doing what they can within current authority and limited budget, the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), kept busy demanding that restaurants use labels to warn food allergy sufferers that peanuts, milk, eggs, shellfish and gluten might be present in the food offered to patrons, even in very small amounts. The FDA is also warning people of the long term health risks from saturated fatty acids and banning food processors from using the latest bogeyman – trans fats. With little fanfare, moderation in the use of salt is being urged by the National Institutes of Health. A few elected officials at the municipal level earned TV camera time by railing against sugary soda served in larger than pint size containers.

The FDA has approved some Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) crops but has not helped consumers internalize the science behind GMO safety. The House of Representatives blocked a proposed requirement for special labelling of food containing GMOs, because mandatory labelling would support a wrong assumption that GMO food may cause alarm.

Some anti-technology activists are fueling the smear campaign against GMOs, which they call “Frankenfood,” despite nearly 2,000 peer-reviewed, scientifically competent studies which conclude GMOs are safe. GMOs have for decades made food crops more pest resistant, more nutritious, higher in yield, and better adapted to challenging climates. Regardless, the activist sentiment against GMOs has misled some consumers, as evidenced by the 57% of consumers who feel GMOs are unsafe. It is the consumers’ and the national interest to correct that misimpression.

Organic certification for food means that the food was produced using FDA approved methods. That certification is focused on the process, and is not based on the absence of “chemicals.” Indeed, the FDA specifies the required log book for pesticide chemicals used and it offers guidance on use of chemical fertilizers. The main distinction of organic crops is in the 68% higher price above conventional crops. It would help consumers if the FDA offered consumers a more accurate (and less costly) understanding of what “organic” means.

On the safety side, the FDA monitors domestic and imported food for dangerous pathogens, natural toxins, pesticides, and other contaminants. Unfortunately, the efficacy of this safeguard hinges on having enough competent inspectors doing a thorough job and having sufficient authority to quickly halt any threat to public safety. There is not enough funding yet for the sturdier FSMA inspections. FSMA teed up the right issues, but the White House and Congress failed to finish by appropriating the necessary funding.

There are many questionable projects where government spends money, but food safety is not questionable. It should be mandatory and our elected officials need to finish the job so more outbreaks of E. coli, listeria or salmonella infections do not kill more Americans.