On Food Safety, the Bush Administration is Out to Lunch

This coming Fourth of July, families across the country will gather to barbeque hot dogs and hamburgers. Parents trust that this food is safe for their children. The U.S. Department of Agriculture gives its seal of approval to all meat products.

Unfortunately, our food-inspection system has significant holes. Every year, contaminated food sickens 76 million people, resulting in 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Stronger safeguards and tougher enforcement could significantly reduce this risk. However, food manufacturers have steadfastly resisted increased oversight, and the Bush administration has declined to take them on. On the contrary, food manufacturers have been allowed to call the shots.

Consider the administration's response to mad cow disease. At first, the administration virtually ignored the threat of mad cow – which has killed at least 137 people, mostly in Great Britain – and then declined to significantly increase testing when, in December 2003, an infected cow was discovered in Washington state. At the same time, the administration has failed to take decisive action to prevent the spreading of the disease among cows and ensure that central nervous tissue – where the disease is found – does not make it into the food supply.

Moreover, it was recently disclosed that the USDA violated its own ban on importing ground beef from Canada, where an earlier case of mad cow had been discovered. At the urging of large American meatpackers with plants across the border, the agency permitted 33 million pounds of Canadian processed beef to be sold in the United States, according to the Washington Post.

Other examples raise similar concern as to whether the administration is putting food manufacturers ahead of American consumers. In one case, USDA cracked down on John Munsell, then owner of the family business Montana Quality Foods, Inc=, after he alerted the agency that meatpacking giant ConAgra had shipped him beef contaminated with dangerous E. coli bacteria. Instead of taking action against the politically connected ConAgra, USDA blamed Munsell and placed Montana Quality Foods under tighter surveillance than any other plant in the beef industry, eventually forcing Munsell to sell his business. Later, lab tests confirmed Munsell's claims, and a full six months after he alerted USDA, ConAgra was forced to recall 19 million pounds of ground beef; CDC linked contaminated meat from ConAgra with at least one death and 35 illnesses during the first month after the recall.

Unfortunately, this does not appear to be an isolated example. In 2001, USDA routinely allowed negligent companies to sell meat and poultry to American consumers after violations were detected, according to a report by the General Accounting Office.

Nonetheless, in spite of this record, USDA has boasted about its recent performance. In late 2003, the agency claimed it had achieved a one-year 12 percent reduction in Salmonella and a 25 percent decline in Listeria. "These data validate our scientific approach to protecting public health through safer food," said Elsa Murano, USDA's undersecretary for food safety, in a press release just before Thanksgiving.

However, on closer inspection, these numbers turned out to be highly misleading. Barbara Kowalcyk, a biostatistician at the University of Wisconsin whose son died of E. coli poisoning, discovered that USDA was doctoring the data to pump up its performance. "[USDA is] going around using sound science as their selling point, yet they're really not using it," Kowalcyk told Food Chemical News. "The fact is that they misled the American public and Congress by issuing these press releases, and it's irresponsible."

The Bush administration has similarly undermined science on other threats to our food supply. For instance, the administration imposed a gag order on EPA scientists and regulators from publicly discussing perchlorate – which is found in rocket fuel – after two independent studies from the spring of 2003 strongly suggested that the chemical is contaminating the nation's lettuce supply.

This has been the pattern during the Bush administration across a range of areas – from auto safety to consumer protection to worker health to the environment. As documented in a report released last month by our organizations – prepared on behalf of a coalition called Citizens for Sensible Safeguards (see the report at www.sensiblesafeguards.org) – the administration has repeatedly undermined crucial public safeguards at the behest of special interests, and then suppressed information and scientific findings that would call its decisions into question.

This agenda puts the public at significant risk while undermining our democratic ideals. We need to get back to a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people." The health and safety of our children is too important to sacrifice to special interests.

John Podesta is president and chief executive officer of the Center for American Progress. Gary D. Bass is executive director of OMB Watch.