Food Safety's Dirty Little Secret

Increasingly, the government is leaving the job in private hands.

Works sort through a fresh batch of tomatoes after a salmonella scare hurt sales.

Works sort through a fresh batch of tomatoes after a salmonella scare hurt sales.

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The price tag is important. With new technology, companies can do all sorts of wild—if at times unsettling—things to keep food free of bacteria. For one thing, they can zap it with radiation. The government approved irradiated meat in 1997, and regulators last month gave the nod to leafy vegetables like lettuce and spinach. But irradiation is still controversial. Advocacy groups say it ruins taste and destroys nutrients, and consumer fears about irradiation have limited its adoption. More broadly, companies with effective new products—be they oxidizing sprays, viral cocktails, or microbe detectors—often struggle to find buyers, because of either costs or public concerns.

Biotech companies, for example, are working on another promising technology that food companies prefer not to talk about—bacteriophages, which are naturally occurring viruses that kill certain bacteria, including E. coli and Listeria. One company, Intralytix, received FDA approval in 2006 to sell its "phage cocktail" as an additive to ready-to-eat meats like hot dogs and deli turkey, which are more prone to factory contamination. It's now used by at least one commercially available smoked salmon brand. But don't look for it on many labels. Intralytix CEO John Vazzana says that food companies are interested, but they get cold feet about having to put a disclaimer on their hot-dog or deli-meat packaging that would alert consumers about the little guys inside. (Some are bypassing the rules by removing the viruses before packaging.)

Little enforcement. Whether it's new technology or inspectors-for-hire, private-sector remedies can go only so far. Voluntary inspection guidelines clearly have their shortcomings. They didn't prevent the 2006 outbreak of E. coli involving spinach that claimed five lives and caused more than $350 million of damage. To win back consumers, the Western Growers Association, which represents California and Arizona produce farmers, spent much of 2007 working with the federal government to overhaul its guidelines. Under the new agreement, state agriculture officials are being trained to do inspections, and more scientific sanitation standards have been adopted. Observers say these moves could help, but enforcement and penalties are limited. Though many growers choose to participate, they are not required to by law.

If Congress takes up food safety this fall, it will most likely focus on efforts to improve the response time to outbreaks, perhaps by adopting a national trace-back program to locate contaminated food more quickly. It also might push the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the agency responsible for tracking down the source of an outbreak, to do a better job of sharing information with the FDA.

But these reforms are just one side of the coin. The other half, the prevention part, will depend on bringing order to the sprawling mosaic that is the global food chain. Today, about 80 percent of the nation's seafood and slightly less than half its fresh fruits are imported from overseas. But the FDA inspects only about 1 percent. Private auditors must be part of the answer, says Christine Humphrey, a former FDA field investigator. The challenge is to make sure they're qualified. She points to medical devices as a possible guide. In the late 1990s, regulators couldn't work fast enough to approve new devices. To eliminate the waiting list without lowering standards, the FDA began certifying third-party companies. "The results have been phenomenal," she says.

Likewise, having more bodies watching over food production could be a good thing, as long as they're qualified. The only entity with the independence and credibility to make that call, most experts say, is the federal government.