Action and Dysfunction in the U.S. Food-Safety Effort

A 1993 E. coli outbreak linked to Jack in the Box hamburgers sickened 700 people and drew new attention to the dangers of food-borne illness. More than 20 years later, how far have we come?

By Clyde Haberman
An image from RetroReport

The notion that “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste” is credited to the American economist Paul Romer, who offered the thought a decade ago in a discussion about education. Mr. Romer's observation has since been echoed in a variety of contexts. It could be applied as well to stewardship of this country's food supply. Significant measures to keep Americans from being sickened, and sometimes killed, by what they eat have tended to come only after calamity strikes. Even then, in the view of many experts on food safety, the United States has wasted too many crises for comfort.

This pattern of horror-induced action is not new. An early consumer protection law, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, was inspired by stomach-turning descriptions of unsanitary meat processing plants in Upton Sinclair's novel “The Jungle.” In 1938, Congress passed legislation giving the Food and Drug Administration enhanced powers after some food companies were found to have doctored rancid meat and vegetables to make them more palatable. Four years ago, after repeated outbreaks of food-borne illnesses, President Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act, which further strengthened the F.D.A. and sought to focus federal regulators more on preventing contamination, not just reacting after the fact.

Still, specialists in the food-safety field are hardly convinced that all is now fine because of a new law. Far from it. By the most recent estimates of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tainted food sickens 48 million Americans a year, sends nearly 128,000 of them to the hospital and leaves more than 3,000 dead. To explore enduring concerns, Retro Report, a series of video documentaries focused on major news stories of the past, zeroes in on one of the country's worst moments in this regard. That was a 1993 flare-up of illness, largely in Western states, for which undercooked hamburgers served by the Jack in the Box fast-food chain were blamed. The culprit was a toxin-producing bacterium, Escherichia coli O157:H7, which can be menacing, especially for the young and the old. More than 700 people were sickened in the 1993 outbreak. Some suffered kidney failure. Four children died.

It proved to be one crisis that was not wasted. Procedures at processing plants were tightened to keep beef from coming into contact with feces or with the contents of cow intestines, where this particular strain of E. coli naturally resides. Jack in the Box raised its cooking temperature to 155 degrees from 140, which also became a federal standard to kill any bacteria that may have found their way onto hamburger patties.

Significantly, in 1994, the Food Safety and Inspection Service, a division of the Agriculture Department, declared E. coli O157:H7 to be an “adulterant.” That meant the tolerance level for it would be zero. It was the first time that a food-borne organism had been so labeled, making it no different from any foreign matter — say, a chemical or cigarette ash — that might contaminate a batch of ground beef. Now, at the first sign of E. coli, the food would be automatically subject to recall. In 2011, this adulterant scarlet letter was extended to six less common strains of E. coli.

Within a decade of the Jack in the Box ordeal, recalls of tainted beef dwindled. But the troubles were not over. Outbreaks affecting other foods kept coming: spinach, lettuce, cantaloupes, unpasteurized apple juice. Nor was domestically raised produce the only concern. Imports account for an estimated 15 percent of the food that Americans consume, yet federal officials have often been unable to vouch for the safety practices of overseas growers and processors.

E. coli is not the lone villain. Salmonella bacteria sicken a million Americans a year and take 370 or more lives, according to C.D.C. estimates. Salmonella is, in fact, the country’s No. 1 food-borne killer. Chickens and eggs are particularly vulnerable; an outbreak in 2010 led to the recall of 500 million eggs. Unlike E. coli, salmonella is not classified as an adulterant by the Agriculture Department, though the F.D.A. sets its own rules and can order recalls of salmonella-tainted food. Whether normal cooking destroys every one of the pathogens that may linger is an open question.

As some food safety specialists see it, the oversight system is a study in dysfunction. “It’s slow to react to science — it’s slow to react to change,” Dr. David Acheson told Retro Report. Dr. Acheson, now an adviser to food companies, used to be the chief medical officer at the Food Safety and Inspection Service and at the F.D.A. A certain amount of political buck-passing may also be at work, as shown in an installment of “Frontline” that is scheduled to be broadcast on Tuesday on PBS. In that segment, which explores safety in the poultry business, the Agriculture Department and Congress essentially blame each other for the lack of action to label salmonella as an adulterant.

Part of the problem, some believe, is the balkanized nature of safety inspections. Most responsibilities fall to the F.D.A. and to the safety inspection service. But 13 federal agencies play lesser roles as well. Forming this bureaucratic alphabet soup are the C.D.C.; the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service; the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyard Administration; the Agricultural Marketing Service; the Agricultural Research Service; the Economic Research Service; the National Agricultural Statistics Service; the National Institute of Food and Agriculture; the National Marine Fisheries Service; the Environmental Protection Agency; the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau; United States Customs and Border Protection and — are you still with us? — the Federal Trade Commission.

The fragmentation is enough to arch eyebrows. The safety inspection service has jurisdiction over meat, poultry and processed eggs. The F.D.A. is responsible for nearly everything else — in all, roughly 80 percent of the nation’s food supply. How does this work out? Not always smoothly.

A frozen cheese and tomato pizza is the province of F.D.A. inspectors. But scatter slices of pepperoni across that pie, and the safety inspection service takes over. Eggs still in their shell? They are the F.D.A.’s concern. But if the eggs are cracked and whipped into some other product, the inspection service has the ball. Then there is the Agricultural Marketing Service setting quality standards for eggs — Grade AA, Grade A and so forth — but not checking at the same time for bacteria. That safety control is the F.D.A.’s job.

In February, the Obama administration sought to impose a measure of order by proposing that all these agencies be combined into a single entity: the Food Safety Administration, which would become part of the Department of Health and Human Services. Whether anything will actually change is uncertain. Congress must give its consent. Turf struggles among the agencies are unlikely to vanish overnight. And some consumer groups and food safety experts are not convinced that creating a giant bureaucracy is the magic wand that will make the system’s shortcomings suddenly disappear. There is a sobering lesson in the Food Safety Modernization Act, the law that bolstered the F.D.A. Four years later, that agency still struggles to get the money it needs to do the job right.

Over the past four years, Congress gave the F.D.A. less than half of the $580 million that it should have had, the Congressional Budget Office said last month.

Which brings us back to Mr. Romer and crises. Dr. Acheson, for one, says that nothing short of a catastrophe may be necessary to rattle officialdom sufficiently to redesign the safety system. Rather grimly, he told Retro Report, “We need — I hate to say it, but — bodies in the street before we get it.”

CLYDE HABERMAN, a regular contributor to Retro Report, has been a reporter, columnist and editorial writer for The New York Times, where he spent nearly 13 years based in Tokyo, Rome and Jerusalem. Subscribe to our newsletter here and follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.

This article first appeared in The New York Times.