Country-of-origin labeling is part of a Farm Bill that President Bush has vowed to veto. (Photo courtesy of Marc Rumminger)

Food safety controversy continues

Consumer confidence in the safety of food, especially imported food, is steadily dropping and is causing calls for various regulatory options, including labeling.

A recent survey by the Hartman Group shows that tainted-food scares, especially regarding products from China, are making consumers increasingly wary of imported food. Three-quarters of consumers in the Hartman survey supported country-of-origin labeling (COOL), with only 8% opposed.

COOL enforcement, in place for several years for seafood, is pending for other foods in a federal agricultural bill. Congress overrode President Bush’s veto to pass the bill, but a clerical error left the bill’s legal status in doubt as of press time. If current provisions are maintained in the bill’s final version, COOL will go into effect for meat, poultry, produce, peanuts and other types of perishable foods on Sept. 30.

The measure had actually been passed in 2002, but strong lobbying by some food industry segments, especially domestic meat producers, had kept it from being implemented for everything except seafood.

Technically, responsibility for COOL compliance lies with food retailers. In practice, retailers and distributors will require their major trade suppliers to ensure the accuracy of COOL information, and probably, in some cases, to indemnify the retailers against any consequences of mislabeling.

A recent report from the United Fresh Produce Association highlighted several changes to the original 2002 legislation that are pending in the current farm bill. These include forbidding the USDA to take action against a food retailer for COOL violations unless that retailer has “not made a good faith effort” and “continues to willfully violate the act.” It also would relieve retailers of responsibility for misinformation from suppliers. The association paper also called it unlikely that the USDA will actually begin enforcing COOL on Sept. 30.

A report by the Food Policy Institute also found that consumer confidence in the safety of food, especially imported food, is down. The report named the fragmented nature of safety inspection and enforcement, with responsibility divided among several federal agencies, and the lagging of inspection technology used by government inspectors.

“[T]he lack of resources devoted to keeping up with explosive growth of food imports as evidence of a food safety system that is badly in need of reform,” the report says. However, it goes on to state that improvements in food pathogen detection and communication may account in part for high-profile recalls.

The Chinese scandal has led to a controversy over how the Food and Drug Administration carries out inspections and how they should be funded.

Some members of Congress have called the FDA’s budget for overseas inspections inadequate and seek for it to be increased. However, the Bush administration is opposing this in fiscal prudence grounds.

Some have called for industry to fund the additional inspections. But critics have suggested that this would make industry too cozy with the agency. “The FDA is too important to be left to the industry to fund it,” Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen’s health research group, toldThe New York Times.

Imported food now makes up 10% to 13% of the American diet. The FDA recently announced that as a result of legislation passed last year, it will fill 600 new positions and 700 existing ones in 2008. These will include consumer safety officers, chemists, microbiologists and others who will be able to help ensure the safety of imported food.

The FDA has asked for an additional $275 million for food safety, some of which is earmarked for the new staff. The Senate Appropriations Committee has recommended that these funds be included in the FDA’s budget, but a final decision had not been made as of press time. F&BP

Food Policy Institute

The Hartman Group

United Fresh Produce Association