A series of recent high-profile meat recalls involving E. coli infections, mad cow disease, and listeria, among other maladies, has left Americans wondering about the safety of their food and the effectiveness of regulators at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) who are supposed to watch over the meat supply. Critics have specifically questioned the policies and competence of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which is charged with assuring that the commercial supply of meat, poultry, and egg products is safe, wholesome, properly labeled, and packaged in compliance with various inspection laws. In 2007 alone, meat companies recalled 30 million pounds of beef. “Although the meat industry now performs significant testing of its own and publishes best practices for members to follow, FSIS does not have a formal campaign for educating meat industry representatives and encouraging the implementation of best practices,” the USDA’s inspector general reported to Congress earlier this year. The Government Accountability Office has long called for drastic reorganization of food safety; in a 2004 report, it said the current system, which emerged piecemeal over decades, needs to be streamlined and brought under a single, independent food safety agency. At the moment, besides the USDA, the Food and Drug Administration also has jurisdiction over the safety of many food items.
The FSIS told the Center it is better-equipped than ever before to fight diseases such as mad cow, has expanded its testing of imported beef, and has improved its recall process. In congressional testimony last March, Richard Raymond, USDA’s under secretary for food safety, said that the percentage of E. coli positive samples had declined significantly, compared to the years 2000-2003. In its fiscal 2009 budget request, the Bush administration proposed to generate nearly $100 million in user fees to be collected from the industry to boost meat inspections, a move lauded by Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, who has championed more stringent oversight of food safety. During the campaign, President-Elect Obama vowed he would increase “funding for meat inspectors to ensure compliance with current federal laws.”