Spoiled-Food Federalism

When it comes to protecting the food supply, states leave it to Washington. Maybe they shouldn't.
May 2001
By Jonathan Walters  |  Senior Editor
A Senior Editor of Governing, Jonathan has been covering state and local public policy and administration for more than 30 years.

It's been a bad-news year for food, whether it's food wandering around on the hoof, or pre-packaged, or sitting on the shelves of your local produce section. From mad cow to salmonella, E. coli to microbes on lettuce leaves, there's heightened anxiety everywhere about what we eat. The hoof-and-mouth epidemic rampaging across the British Isles, while not dangerous to people, has been disastrous for public confidence in the food production and distribution system.

Now comes a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that seems to confirm some of the anxieties. The gist of the report is that gastrointestinal illness--which in many cases means food poisoning--is 34 percent higher in this country than it was in 1948. According to the CDC, there are 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths due to food poisoning every year.

There are a host of reasons for this. People are eating more raw vegetables and fruits, and some of these carry viruses and bacteria that would be killed if the produce were cooked. Pre-prepared carryout food in deli sections of supermarkets has increased the chance of a bacteria outbreak. But a large part of the problem, according to the CDC, is that the federal government hasn't devoted the resources it should to inspecting food.

You might wonder how the feds got this job in the first place, when it would seem to be an issue of more direct concern to state and local officials. After all, what's closer to home than a sick constituent? Yet food safety (with the one major exception of restaurant inspection) has in modern times been the federal government's job. The effort began with the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act of 1947. Then came the Poultry Products Inspection Act of 1957, followed by the Poultry Acts of 1967 and 1968. President Clinton signed the Food Quality Protection Act in 1996. All were aimed at standards of food safety and inspection.

But while Congress has lavished all kinds of attention on food safety, it hasn't been quite so generous when it comes to funding the foot soldiers in the fight against tainted food.

On the shortage of resources side, there's the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for the edibility of fruits, vegetables, seafood and cheese--the source, not incidentally, of 85 percent of all food poisoning cases, according to the federal government. A tiny platoon of 400 FDA inspectors is supposed to police food-processing quality in nearly 60,000 manufacturing plants nationwide.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which handles meat and poultry inspection, has 300 inspectors in New York and New Jersey alone. But even that sizable contingent seems challenged in getting the job done. Three meat-processing plants in New York City and northern New Jersey were shut down this spring because of questions about the rigor of the inspections to which they'd been subjected, and overseers swarmed over 50 more facilities because of questions in those plants.

Given such news and such numbers, one might expect that state and local officials would express concern, if not outrage. But despite the plight of the FDA and all the bumbling at the USDA, there's been barely a peep from state and local government.

There are some understandable reasons for this reticence. If state and local regulators moved heavily into the food-inspection business, there would be frequent temptation for a jurisdiction to engage in anti-competitive practices, with one state summarily rejecting another state's box of oranges on a flimsy pretense just because they're a citrus competitor. We've all read about European nations that do that to us; few want it to start happening here as an intramural sport.

Beyond that, there is the cost factor: States and localities aren't too excited about the prospect of having to hire their own armies of inspectors to ensure that the food its citizens are eating is safe.

Then, of course, there is the cynical explanation: Given the size and complexity of the task of ensuring food safety, and the inevitability of food-poisoning incidents, state and local officials would prefer to point a finger at the feds when things go bad, instead of taking the heat themselves.

A few states seem willing to move on the issue. There were hearings in New York recently on the idea of requiring grocery stores to put up labels indicating where produce comes from. This year, the North Dakota legislature debated the safety of genetically modified crops. Whatever you may think about the genetic food issue, the discussion is one we ought to be having.

But it hasn't been extensive enough. On an issue as important as what we all eat, government at every level ought to think about some extensive reassigning and redesigning. For a model, they might consider the intergovernmental system that's been set up to oversee environmental health. The feds could set basic standards for food safety, with states overseeing the inspection. It wouldn't be easy to create, but the improvement in safety might be substantial. The fundamental goal of keeping citizens safe from food poisoning seems worth an experiment.