By Tony Corbo
I was stunned to read an account of a recent panel discussion on the state of food safety regulation that took place at the International Association of Food Protection (IAFP) in Portland, Oregon. There, a top food safety official from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) made light of his agency’s inability to prevent food-borne illnesses caused by salmonella. It speaks to the insensitivity of some officials to the sorry state of food safety in this country, and it calls into question the competence of these officials to hold such positions of responsibility in the Obama administration.
The news account to which I am referring was posted on the website of Food Safety News entitled, “IAFP 2015: Taylor and Almanza Share the Same State in Portland.” I did not attend the IAFP conference, so I have to rely on this news account of what transpired at the panel discussion. The panel was composed of the Obama administration’s two top food safety officials—Alfred Almanza, USDA Deputy Undersecretary for Food Safety and Acting Administrator for the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) (he holds more titles than a Russian general has medals) and Michael Taylor, the Deputy FDA Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine. Mr. Taylor was also the FSIS Administrator during the first term of the Clinton administration.
During a question and answer period with the audience, Mr. Almanza was asked that if USDA does not consider salmonella to be an adulterant in poultry (courts have ruled that because poultry is consumed fully cooked, it is the consumer’s responsibility to ensure it is safely handled), should salmonella be declared an adulterant in beef products since some consumers prefer to eat their beef rare. When a pathogen or other anomaly is considered to be an adulterant, food that contains it is not permitted to enter the food supply and if it does, it is subject to an immediate recall.
As he was trying to respond to the question, Mr. Almanza first fumbled and then tried to blame Mr. Taylor for not dealing with the issue when he was FSIS administrator during the Clinton administration. According to the Food Safety News story, the audience laughed at his so-called response.
Had I been in the audience, I would not have laughed, but I would have promptly gotten up and scolded Mr. Almanza. This is not funny, and neither Mr. Almanza, nor anyone else in the Obama administration, is even trying to correct this glaring loophole in USDA food safety regulations. Ask the 634 consumers who got sick from consuming salmonella-tainted poultry products processed by Foster Farms in 2013 and 2014 if salmonella is funny. It took Foster Farms 16 months from the time the outbreak began to recall voluntarily some of these contaminated products. Ask the 22 consumers who were made ill in 2013, or the 46 in 2012 who got sick from eating salmonella-contaminated ground beef if salmonella is funny.
The Obama administration needs to go to Congress and seek legislation to give USDA the authority to declare salmonella or any other pathogen that can cause food-borne illness an adulterant in order to prevent contaminated meat and poultry products from entering the food supply. It has chosen not to do that even when top administration officials, such as the Secretary of Agriculture, have been pressed to in Congressional hearings.
Now, there is pending legislation in Congress that would give USDA that authority, but the administration has not endorsed it. However, it is moving ahead with plans to deregulate poultry inspection by turning over more of those responsibilities to the companies to police themselves.
This is not a laughing matter; it makes me very angry. So angry in fact, that I filed a Freedom of Information Act request in October 2013 for the all FSIS records into its investigation of the 2013-2014 Foster Farms outbreak. I am still waiting for a complete response to my request. That’s not funny either.