Testimonies and Speeches

Testimony of Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D.
Executive Director
Before the Senate Committee on Government Affairs Subcommittee
on Oversight of Government Management
Hearing on "Federal Food Safety Oversight: Does the Fragmented Structure Really Make Sense?"

Washington, D.C.
October 10, 2001

     My name is Michael Jacobson, and I am the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). CSPI is an advocacy and education organization focused on food-safety and nutrition issues. We are supported principally by the 800,000 subscribers to our Nutrition Action Healthletter.

     Food-safety experts estimate that contaminated food causes 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths each year.(1) While those estimates illuminate the magnitude of the problem, for many consumers, the aggregate numbers mean less than the notorious food-poisoning outbreaks, named after such companies as Jack in the Box, Schwan’s Sizzler, and Sara Lee. Those well-publicized episodes have awakened consumers—some of whom have experienced miserable cases of food-poisoning themselves—to the fact that unintentionally contaminated food is a risk that must be reduced.

The Threat of Bioterrorism

     The terrorist attack on the U.S. has spurred widespread concern about the vulnerability of our food supply to intentional contamination—and the ability of our nation’s food-safety system to minimize the risks. Just last week, members of the Senate Appropriations Committee (including Senator Durbin) discussed food-safety issues prominently in a hearing on bioterrorism.

     Those concerns are not unfounded. Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Strategic Planning Workgroup on Biological and Chemical Terrorism warned that terrorists might try to contaminate our food supply.(2) While it may not be possible to predict when or how such an attack might occur, the workgroup concluded, the consequences of being unprepared could be devastating.(3) Among the potential biological agents that the CDC cited were the foodborne pathogens Clostridium botulinum, Salmonella spp., E. coli O157:H7, and Vibrio cholerae.(4)

     Biological agents may be particularly attractive to terrorists, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has explained, because those agents “may be produced in ways that are relatively fast, inexpensive, and easily concealed and that do not require vast knowledge or technical skill.”(5) Biological agents also are easy to transport and distribute.(6) We saw how easily biological agents could be used for terrorism when, in 1984, members of a religious commune in Oregon contaminated ten restaurant salad bars with Salmonella typhimuirum, sickening 751 people.(7) It took a year-long investigation to link the commune to the outbreak,(8) but far faster action is required now that threats of widespread terrorism are involved.

Prevention Strategies, Not Just Response Plans, Are Needed

     Recent discussions of chemical and biological terrorism have alerted the public to the possibility that we may be confronted with intentional contamination of food, water, or air. While every effort must be made to prevent those acts in the first place,(9) it is clear that better food inspection offers a critical avenue to protect our food supply from both intentional and unintentional contamination.

     Bioterrorism is just the latest example of the problem with relying on old laws to regulate new hazards. Senator Durbin’s Safe Food Act of 2001 offers a much-needed strategy during this time of crisis to correct some of the deficiencies in our federal food-safety system that have left consumers#151;and the food industry itself—vulnerable. Today, for example, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must ensure the safety of nearly four million food shipments entering the U.S. from more than 100 different countries.(10) But the FDA has only 150 people available to conduct those inspections. Not surprisingly, less than one percent of those four million shipments are inspected.(11)

     Moreover, the responsibility for food safety is split among at least nine federal agencies-from the Department of Agriculture to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. That fragmentation requires many major food issues to be addressed by at least three different government agencies. Balkanization and inflexible restrictions on applying resources results in many gaps and inconsistencies in government oversight, as we have seen in the case of mad cow disease, or BSE.

     The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has for years banned imports of cattle and beef products from countries with documented cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). Unfortunately, APHIS’s bans may look better on paper than they are in practice. A recent Inspector General report found that APHIS couldn’t adequately track shipments of banned products to ensure that they were disposed or re-exported.(12)

     And while APHIS is responsible for cattle health, it doesn’t have authority over cattle feed, which is how BSE can spread. Jurisdiction over animal feed rests with the FDA, which is too strapped for resources to adequately enforce its BSE prevention measures, while also ensuring that fish, shell eggs, and other FDA-regulated foods are safe.

     Meanwhile, the safety of the beef that consumers eat is governed by yet another agency, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). To date the FSIS has treated BSE-related issues as “quality” rather than “safety” issues, and the enforcement of human-food-safety controls has been minimal. As new concerns have arisen about the use of animal diseases as terrorist weapons, and now that BSE has spread from Europe to Japan, it is clear that we need better accountability and control within our food-safety system.

     Other gaps in food-safety protection remain. The FDA, which shares with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) the regulation of GE plants that are used for human food, does not approve them or even require a safety review before they are sold to consumers. Nor does FDA give the public an opportunity to comment on GE foods before they are introduced into the food supply.(13) The FDA says that, to date, all biotech companies have voluntarily consulted with the agency before marketing their foods. However, that “behind-closed-doors” system does little to instill public confidence in the safety of this powerful and potentially valuable new technology.

     This year, the FDA proposed to mandate that companies notify the agency of their intent to market GE foods and to submit specific information for agency review. That’s a step in the right direction, but CSPI has urged FDA to both review and actually approve the safety of every genetically engineered crop before it is marketed. We have been pleased to work with Senator Durbin’s staff in developing legislation to improve the FDA’s system for regulating GE foods.

Strengthening the Federal Food-Safety System

     A stronger, federal food-safety system is an essential component of a defense against terrorist attacks on the food supply and also would help to prevent foodborne illnesses due to unintentional product contamination.

     Consumers have become sensitized to the issue of microbiological contamination of food, in part, because of much better reporting of food-poisoning outbreaks. Several years ago, CSPI began tracking food-poisoning outbreaks, so we could better identify which foods were actually making people sick. CSPI’s database of foodborne-illness outbreaks documents more than 1,600 outbreaks over the last decade. Even so, our database includes only a small fraction of the outbreaks that actually have occurred, because outbreaks so often go unreported.

     Foods regulated by the FDA, such as vegetables, eggs, and seafood, account for almost 80 percent of the outbreaks in our database. The FDA has about 770 food inspectors for its 57,000 plants, so, on average, a single FDA inspector has responsibility for 74 food plants. By contrast, USDA has approximately 7,600 inspection personnel for about 6,500 meat, poultry, and processed-egg plants. That imbalance between risk and resources led CSPI and other consumer organizations to call on Congress and the President to develop a single, coherent food-safety statute that is implemented by a single, independent food-safety agency. Such an agency could allocate its resources according to risk. In contrast, USDA’s meat and poultry inspectors cannot be assigned to inspect plants that produce fish, shell eggs, or other FDA-regulated foods, even in the face of documented health problems or new health risks.

     Whether the problem is intentional food contamination by bioterrorists or unintentional contamination by a dirty food plant, our food-safety system is flawed. The challenges are so great, in fact, that they led Professor John Bailar of the University of Chicago, the chair of the committee that wrote the 1998 NAS’ report Ensuring Safe Food from Production to Consumption, to conclude recently:

A council of agency chiefs would not be able to deal rapidly and effectively with the full range of possible microbiological, chemical, and physical hazards, as well as with the integrity of the food supply itself. . . . Our country needs a single independent food safety agency. . . . When bioterrorism is added to the mix, the case for prompt and sweeping change becomes compelling.(14)

That is why CSPI strongly supports the Safe Food Act of 2001. That bill provides a blueprint of how our food-safety system should be designed. We would support a parallel-and equally essential-effort to develop a unified food-safety statute.

     The costs of combining the existing agencies need not be more than the cost of the existing system. The FDA told the House Agricultural Appropriations Committee it would need $670 million dollars to inspect the 57,000 domestic food plants under its jurisdiction once per year and to inspect just 10 percent of food imports. If FDA inspected domestic food plants twice per year and 20 percent of imports, it would need $1.3 billion. While that is a significant cost, it would still fund only very modest inspection goals, especially compared to the government’s daily inspection of meat and poultry processors.

     Consumers want all high-risk food—not just meant and poultry—inspected much more than every year or two. And if we are to erect firewalls against food bioterrorism, it is clear that Congress needs to dramatically increase funding for FDA’s food program. Failing to spend the money could lead to terrible tragedies. In the long run, combining agency functions will likely not only provide more protection, but also will be more economical.

     Weaknesses in our government programs could set the stage for a crisis in consumer confidence, a crisis that we would like to see prevented. This is why we support the creation of an independent food-safety agency with responsibility from farm-to-table. Such an agency must be strongly oriented to protecting public health as a means of protecting public confidence. So far, other nations, including Great Britain, Denmark, and New Zealand, are ahead of the U.S. in moving to unify their food-safety activities. It is time that the U.S. joined those leaders.

     Thank you for your continuing leadership to improve food safety and for giving me the opportunity to share CSPI’s views on food-safety priorities.


1. Paul S. Mead et al., Food-Related Illness and Death in the United States, 5 Emerging Infectious Diseases (1999), available at <http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/eid/vol5no5/mead.htm>.
2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Biological and Chemical Terrorism: Strategic Plan for Preparedness and Response; Recommendations of the CDC Strategic Planning Workgroup, 49 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report No. RR-4 (2000) [hereinafter CDC Biological and Chemical Terrorism].
3. CDC Biological and Chemical Terrorism, at 1.
4. CDC Biological and Chemical Terrorism, at 5-6, Box 3.
5. John C. Bailar III, Ensuring Safe Food: An Organizational Perspective, in Firepower in the Lab: Automation in the Fight Against Infectious Diseases and Bioterrorism, 133, 139 (Scott P. Layne et al. eds., National Academy of Sciences, 2000) [hereinafter Firepower] (Microbiological agents, in particular, can reproduce themselves and can be made in ton-sized lots.).
6. Firepower, at 139.
7. Thomas J. Torok et al., A Large Community Outbreak of Salmonellosis Caused by Intentional Contamination of Restaurant Salad Bars, 278 JAMA 389, 393 (1997) [hereinafter JAMA].
8. JAMA, at 393. Also, in 1996, a dozen laboratory workers in Texas became infected with Shigella dysenteriae after eating pastries that investigators concluded were intentionally contaminated. Shellie A. Kolavic et al., An Outbreak of Shigella dysenteriae Type 2 Among Laboratory Workers Due to Intentional Food Contamination, 278 JAMA 396 (1997).
9. Although the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has vowed to step up its Foreign Animal Disease surveillance, a new Inspector General report has shown that APHIS’s tools for tracking foreign meat and poultry coming into this country are woefully inadequate. Office of Inspector General, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Report No. 50601-003-CH, Assessment of APHIS and FSIS Inspection Activities to Prevent the Entry of Foot and Mouth Disease Into the United States (July 2001) [hereinafter OIG APHIS Report].
10. General Accounting Office, Food Safety: Overview of Federal and State Expenditures 4 (2001) [hereinafter GAO Food Safety Expenditures].
11. GAO Food Safety Expenditures, at 4.
12. OIG APHIS Report.
13. By contrast, before a new GE food crop may be commercialized, it must be approved by APHIS to protect from pests and diseases. And if the bioengineered plant contains a plant pesticide, it must pass a safety review by the EPA as well. Both APHIS and EPA seek public input before approvals are granted.
14. Firepower, at 141.