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Senator Hillary Clinton has responded to the animal abuse at the Hallmark/Westland slaughter house and a subsequent recall of 143 million pounds of ground beef, much of it already consumed by school children. The response reflects just how difficult it is to propose policy while responding on the campaign trail to widely publicized events. (I go into more detail on the recall in a commentary that appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on Feburary 19).

Senator Clinton’s food safety plan calls for a “thorough audit of our nation’s food safety system to locate weaknesses and gaps.” While there is nothing objectionable in this proposal, the system has been audited frequently over the past 20 years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Inspector General, by the General Accountability (then Accounting) Office, by Congressional investigators, by academics and by non-governmental organizations. Their recommendations often have been “accepted” by USDA but seldom implemented. The deregulation of the food safety system and its replacement with de facto industry self-regulation that began in the Reagan Administration continues - audits, foodborne illness, and meat product recalls notwithstanding. For example, when testing determines that a company’s product is contaminated, the company may withhold the product from further government testing that would confirm the initial test and result, at the very least, in bad publicity for the company.

Senator Clinton’s proposal to increase resources for USDA food safety funding by 50 percent echoes many similar proposals. But the problem is not just funding level but the willingness of USDA management to use the funds appropriated by Congress for their intended purpose. USDA management used previous Congressional appropriations to add management layers and commission risk assessments to justify the need for less inspection. Despite the “continuous inspection” requirement of the Meat and Poultry Inspection Act, even large volume producers like Hallmark/Westland lack federal inspectors working fulltime onsite to inspect product. Instead management instructs federal inspectors to inspect the paperwork of plant inspectors who carry out industry “self-regulation.” A new Administration would have to stand up to industry’s attempts, with USDA management cooperation, to restrict federal authority and oversight of slaughterhouses and meat processors. 

The regulatory powers of the Food and Drug Administration are even weaker than those of USDA, as the multiple import product safety incidents have demonstrated over the past year. Reorganizing U.S. food safety under a single agency, as Senator Clinton proposes, along with many others, will do little to protect consumers, and indeed, the food industry, if current industry and management practices remain prevalent. If the next Administration extends the current "lite" federal oversight of industry to all products and outsources product inspection, as proposed in November 2007 by President Bush’s Interagency Working Group report, U.S. consumers will be yet more vulnerable to product hazards. The off-shoring and outsourcing of government inspection to private organizations that would certify products as safe for export may provide plausible deniability for the government and a corporate liability shield if imports harm consumers. But the privatization of government inspection and enforcement functions is very unlikely to prevent harm to consumers, the stated goal of the report.

Senator Clinton, and indeed, all candidates for federal office, should develop well-researched food safety policies for a new Administration and a new Congress. The Clinton campaign’s effort to respond to the Hallmark/Westland animal abuse and beef product recall has merely touched the tip of a very large iceberg.

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