Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Inquirer Editorial: Food shouldn't make us sick

Looking back at this age of the killer omelet, future historians may puzzle over Congress' long-standing inability to pass a food-safety bill.

Looking back at this age of the killer omelet, future historians may puzzle over Congress' long-standing inability to pass a food-safety bill.

Just a few months ago, egg magnate Jack DeCoster was telling members of that same deliberative body that he was "sorry" about having unleashed a mass poisoning on the American public.

DeCoster's squalid Iowa mega-farm was the source of a salmonella outbreak that sickened at least 1,500 and led to a recall of half a billion eggs. Until then, the Food and Drug Administration had never inspected the facility.

The egg disaster came on the heels of massive outbreaks involving peanut butter, spinach, and more. The government estimates that one in four Americans is sickened by tainted food each year, and 5,000 die from it.

But an obstructionist Oklahoman, a television conspiracy theorist, and now a procedural blunder have helped prevent food-safety legislation from passing. And with the House about to change hands, there's not likely much of an opportunity left.

The legislation in Congress would dramatically strengthen U.S. food laws for the first time in 70 years, bringing them in line with a modern, global food industry. It would require the FDA to inspect more farms and food producers, grant it access to their records, and empower it to recall products instead of hoping companies do so voluntarily.

In a long-overdue move away from the nation's current strategy of essentially waiting for outbreaks to occur, the bill would also require companies to devise verifiable strategies to prevent contamination. And it would take sorely needed steps to subject poorly regulated food imports to U.S. standards.

It's a measure of the problem's severity that the bill has rare bipartisan support. The New York Times reported that some staffers on opposite sides of the aisle met each other for the first time while negotiating the legislation.

So what was the problem? Sen. Tom Coburn, for one. The Oklahoma Republican blocked the bill for months on grounds that it would create costly bureaucracy. While the measure would indeed cost $1.4 billion over four years, one recent study found that food-borne illness costs the country more than 100 times that every year.

Of course, no opposition to a good cause would be complete without Glenn Beck, who has argued that the legislation is designed to discourage consumers from eating meat - vegetarianism apparently being a greater threat than toxic vegetables.

The bill passed both houses despite all that, but it was derailed last week by a procedural problem. Because it contains a fee provision that did not originate in the House, as the Constitution requires, it has to be approved again. It was attached to a spending bill in a last-ditch effort to get it passed in the next week or so.

Failing that, our representatives can join the next food-poisoner who offers the public a wan apology.