Every day, inspectors in white hats and coats take up positions at every one of the nation’s slaughterhouses, eyeballing the hanging carcasses of cows and chickens as they shuttle past on elevated rails, looking for bruises, tumors and signs of contamination.
It’s essentially the way U.S. Department of Agriculture food safety inspectors have done their jobs for a century, ever since Upton Sinclair’s blockbuster novel, “The Jungle,” exposed horrid conditions in a Chicago meatpacking facility and shook Americans awake to the hazards of tainted food.
But these days, the bulk of what Americans eat — seafood, vegetables, fruit, dairy products, shelled eggs and almost everything except meat and poultry — is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. And the FDA inspects the plants it oversees on average about once a decade.
These radically different approaches are a legacy from a time when animal products were thought to be inherently risky and other food products safe. But in the past few years, the high-profile and deadly outbreaks of food-borne illness linked to spinach, peanuts and cantaloupe have put the lie to that assumption.
The FDA’s approach is partly by necessity: The agency lacks the money to marshal more inspectors.
But it also reflects a different philosophy about how to address threats to the nation’s food supply: an approach based on where the risk is greatest.
The agency concentrates its limited inspections on food products that have the worst track record on safety — seafood, for example — and on companies with a history of problems. It puts most of its efforts into responding to outbreaks after the fact, using genetic fingerprinting and other scientific tools to track contaminants back to their source in hopes of stopping any further spread.
The USDA and the FDA are under pressure to overhaul their dramatically different procedures, in essence bringing them closer together. There’s a growing recognition among food-safety experts that the government can be smarter about tackling food-borne hazards that sicken one in six Americans each year and kill about 3,000.
“We have two extremes in the inspection programs,” said Michael Doyle, a nationally known microbiologist who directs the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia. “Neither system is working very well. They both need to be updated and upgraded.”
At the USDA, tight federal budgets and scientific advances over the past century make the case for new ways to manage risk, one that relies less on basic observation by an army of inspectors. But bureaucratic politics and union power have blunted these initiatives.
The FDA, meanwhile, was directed by Congress a year ago to shift more of its emphasis to preventing outbreaks rather than responding to them. Under a new law, the agency must increase the frequency of inspection while food companies are required to test consistently for potential hazards. But the agency has struggled to cover even part of the cost of inspections and ensure that companies meet the new requirements.
“I’m sure the resources can be allocated better,” said Michael Batz, a University of Florida researcher who studied the risks posed by different foods. “But each agency has a mandate. USDA, because of its mandate, has very little discretion about how it can use its resources. FDA has a broader mission, but, I think it’s fair to say, not enough resources.”
The agency now known as the FDA gained its modern-day mission in 1906, on the same day that the nation’s meat inspection law was enacted. Although that law barred meat from leaving the slaughterhouse or processing plant without a USDA stamp of approval, other foods were considered safe by the government and were not subject to daily inspection.
But for more than a generation, evidence has been mounting of the threats posed by foods regulated by the FDA, especially produce. About 10 years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report showing that outbreaks traced to fresh produce had jumped in absolute numbers and as a proportion of all reported food-borne illness outbreaks between 1973 and 1997. A separate study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that seafood and produce were the top two categories linked to outbreaks between 1990 and 2003.
Last year, the CDC reported that fruits and nuts were linked to the most illnesses, followed by vegetables that grow on vines and stalks.
These developments in part reflect the changing eating habits of Americans, who have been consuming more raw vegetables and fruits since the 1970s, explained Robert Tauxe, a deputy director at the CDC. He said that vast changes in the way food is produced, processed and distributed have also played a significant role. Decades ago, most vegetables and fruits were grown and sold locally. Today, crops such as lettuce are grown in only a few places in the country. “So when things go wrong, the effects are widespread,” Tauxe said.
The surge in imports has also increased the chances of contamination in foods regulated by the FDA. About 80 percent of seafood, 50 percent of fresh fruits and 20 percent of fresh vegetables are imported.
Despite the mounting threats, the FDA and its contractors inspected only 6 percent of the 421,000 domestic and foreign facilities under its watch in 2010, according to the most recent figures. Inspections account for the full-time work of just 1,000 employees. But if a site is linked to an outbreak of illness, inspectors and FDA scientists descend on it, sometimes staying put for weeks.
Under the food-safety bill enacted last year, food companies must adopt plans to spot and prevent hazards. The law also mandates more frequent inspections. For instance, plants that produce or process high-risk foods, including foods connected to previous outbreaks, must be inspected by 2015 and every three years thereafter.
But the bill does not provide funding for new inspectors. President Obama has requested $863 million for FDA food-safety programs, about the same amount Congress granted in each of the past two years — and significantly less than the $1 billion a year spent by the USDA on food safety. Obama’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year would also impose fees on food companies that would generate $225 million to help the FDA carry out the new law. But Congress has rejected similar proposals in the past, and the industry is already pushing back on the current fee plan.
In 1993, hundreds of people fell ill and four children died because of E. coli bacteria in hamburger served at Jack in the Box restaurants. In response, the USDA began to require the testing of meat for certain microbes, among other new safety measures.
In some large slaughterhouses, for instance, USDA inspectors must regularly shave slices off the surface of different pieces of meat and send them to labs to test for E. coli.
But science has done little to thin the ranks of traditional inspectors. The law requires that they be present whenever animals are slaughtered and that they visit meat processing plants at least once a day. The USDA has more than 7,500 people doing the job — more inspectors than it has slaughterhouses and processing plants to inspect.
The USDA launched an initiative in 1997 that would have shifted some responsibility for identifying carcass defects on slaughter lines to food company employees so that inspectors could focus more on microbial contaminations, USDA officials said. But a year later, the American Federation of Government Employees, some federal inspectors and a public-interest group sued to block the plan, alleging that it scrapped the carcass-by-carcass inspections required by the 1906 law.
As a result of the court battle, the USDA was forced to keep at least one inspector on each slaughter line.
Richard Raymond, a former USDA undersecretary of food safety, tried another approach in 2005. He worked to reallocate the time inspectors spend in meat processing plants based on the facilities’ safety record and the risk posed by the foods processed: Ground-beef plants, for example, would get more attention than a canned-ham operation.
But after two years of discussion with the food industry, consumer groups and unions, Congress barred the USDA from using funds to pursue the initiative. Raymond said he suspects that unions, fearful for their members’ jobs, blocked the effort.
In January, the USDA unveiled a proposal that would keep one inspector on each poultry slaughter line while the rest focused on what the agency considers higher risks, such as testing poultry for pathogens. Much of the responsibility for spotting obvious problems with the carcasses would fall to the plant’s employees.
The voluntary proposal would save taxpayers more than $90 million over three years, lower production costs for the industry by $257 million a year and better protect the public against contaminants, USDA officials say.
Some consumer advocates worry that the government would be shirking its responsibility to protect the food supply.
They can point to studies that indicate meat and poultry continue to pose a serious threat. An analysis released last year by the University of Florida, for example, looked at the burden that tainted food puts on society, taking into account medical costs, lost days on the job and suffering.Topping the list were poultry tainted with the Campylobacter pathogen and pork contaminated with Toxoplasma.
But other advocates say change is overdue.
“It’s not necessary to have an inspector in a plant every day watching carcasses whiz by,” said Bill Marler, a lawyer who has represented thousands of victims in tainted-food cases. “The battle we’re fighting now is not the tumor on the cow. It’s the microbe that you can’t see, taste or smell that will kill you.”