Please Pass the Salmonella

Our house was hit with a bit of food poisoning last week that served as a timely reminder of why we want to keep our food supply as clean as possible. Luckily, the only real inconvenience was that my husband was stuck eating saltines and drinking ginger ale for a day. Not everyone is so lucky. Salmonella contamination in peanuts, eggs, and cilantro (to name a few) over the past couple of years has killed at least 9 people and sickened hundreds more. Outrage over the widespread contamination of our food supply prompted Congress to pass the Food Safety Modernization Act a little over a month ago. This law marked the most sweeping reform to food safety oversight we’ve seen in decades and smartly focuses on preventing food contamination in the first place. 

But with the stroke of a pen, House Republicans may be effectively repealing this law. They have proposed budget cuts of $202 million from the Food and Drug Administration that may prevent FDA from implementing the law and, worse, could render FDA’s already anemic food inspection programs practically meaningless.

FDA’s current food surveillance program is abysmal. High profile cases of Salmonella, E.coli, and Listeria contamination hit the news and serve as a clarion call for cleaning up our food supply. But other contamination that doesn’t get the attention of the public also slips past the FDA all the time.

Pesticide residues on our foods are tightly regulated, but lightly monitored. EPA is the agency that scientifically assesses and sets the limits on pesticide residues that can be on our food (called “tolerances”). EPA takes into account a lot of factors including how toxic the pesticide is, the increased susceptibilities of infants and children to the adverse health effects, and other sources of exposure to the pesticide to determine the safe level. FDA is the agency that enforces those limits, meaning food that contains pesticide residues that either are not approved or exceed the tolerance can be removed.    

On paper, this framework protects us from eating toxic pesticides; however, in reality, we just don’t know. A report by the investigative arm of Congress found that FDA reviewers only physically examine 1 percent of food shipments. ONE PERCENT. And a recent paper by Ryan Galt showed that FDA residue testing is missing a lot of pesticides that foreign farmers are using on food that is imported into the US.  A lot of these pesticides are not approved for  use in the US. But because FDA only checks 1 percent of the food shipments, the chances that it will catch this food is nearly zero.

But it’s not just about the food supply. A lot of consumer products are already avoiding regulation despite evidence that they can cause harm because FDA lacks the resources to tackle them. My colleagues have worked a lot on the chemical Bisphenol A in food packaging which is awaiting agency action. We have also talked a lot about the chemicals triclosan and triclocarban in antibacterial soaps that are making it into the food chain and which should have been regulated over 36 years ago. Taking away desperately needed funding to this agency will only further delay action.  Do we really want to reduce FDA’s ability to protect us from toxic contaminants in our food and products? I don’t, but it looks like some of the Republicans do.