Testimony of Caroline Smith DeWaal, Director of Food Safety before the Senate Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Government Management, Restructuring and the District of Columbia

WASHINGTON (August 4, 1999) - My name is Caroline Smith DeWaal and I am the director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). CSPI is a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C. Since 1971, CSPI has been helping to improve the public’s health, largely through its work on nutrition and food-safety issues. CSPI is supported primarily by the one million subscribers to its Nutrition Action Healthletter.

   Food-safety experts believe that contaminated food causes up to 33 million illnesses and 9,000 deaths each year. While these estimates illuminate the magnitude of the problem, for many consumers, the aggregate numbers mean less than the specific outbreaks and recalls, such as Jack in the Box, Odwalla, Hudson Food or Bil Mar. These well-publicized cases have awakened consumers to the fact that contaminated food is a greater risk than we thought. Food contamination problems are cropping up in foods ranging from apple cider and alfalfa sprouts to hamburgers and hot dogs. It is hard to know what is safe to serve your kids or aging parents anymore.

   CSPI has been collecting data on foodborne illness outbreaks for several years. Today we are releasing an updated version of this data in a report called Outbreak Alert! Closing the Gaps in Our Federal Food Safety Net. In this listing, FDA-regulated foods were identified in three out of four of the foodborne illness outbreaks. Yet FDA receives roughly one out of every four dollars appropriated for food-safety regulation. This disparity is only one of many created by our current system, which spreads responsibility for food safety among numerous federal agencies.

   Senator Voinovich asked us to address the following questions: If the federal government were to create a food safety system from scratch, would it resemble the current system? Is this the best and most logical organization for the federal food safety agencies?

   The answer to both questions is a resounding NO. It makes no sense when food safety problems fall through the cracks of agency jurisdiction. It makes no sense when multiple federal agencies fail to address glaring public-health problems. It makes no sense to have a single food-processing plant get two entirely different food-safety inspections while other plants get no federal inspection at all. It makes no sense that the widely touted HACCP program is markedly different at FDA and at USDA. It makes no sense that new food-safety technologies face multiple hurdles at various agencies before they can benefit consumers. It makes no sense that the US inspects imported foods differently depending on which regulatory agency is in charge. Quite simply, the current food-safety system makes no sense.

   CSPI documented these problems last year for the National Academy of Sciences’ panel that wrote Ensuring Safe Food from Production to Consumption. This year, we have documented even more. For example, there are no uniform testing methods established for use by state laboratories. This means that contaminated food recalls and outbreak announcements can be delayed for several days while the federal agencies retest product to confirm the findings of the state laboratories. Another example is genetically modified plant species. These are subject to a mandatory review by APHIS to ensure plant health but only a voluntary review by FDA to ensure human health.

   The agencies want us to believe that they can coordinate their way out of these problems. It is true that the Clinton Administration has worked hard to address many pressing food-safety problems. Despite their best efforts, however, coordination will never provide the whole solution. While a joint FDA/FSIS egg safety task force has been meeting for years, neither agency had proposed on-farm controls for salmonella that infects eggs. In addition, a Memorandum of Understanding between FSIS and FDA on inspection issues failed to net any meaningful change because USDA is statutorily limited to conducting only meat and poultry inspections. These examples show that coordination cannot ultimately address many of the problems with the current system.

   In Vermont, where I grew up, there is a joke about a city slicker who asks directions from an old Vermont farmer. The punch line is: You can’t get there from here. Today we all want the safest possible food supply. But like that old Yankee farmer, I am afraid that you can’t get there from here. This is why CSPI strongly supports the Safe Food Act of 1999. Thank you for your time and attention.