Sunday, April 29, 2007

Watching the never-ending hearings Democrats are now holding on the Food and Drug Administration reminds us of Al Capone’s assertion that “I have built my organization on fear.” Indeed, a day has not gone by that a show trial has not been held claiming that our drugs are unsafe, and, now that our food is poisoned because the agency is compromised by a cozy relationship between the industries, it is supposed to police and the regulators themselves. The four most common bacteria, including salmonella and e-coli, contribute to about 5,000 deaths each year and cost our economy nearly $7 billion annually. The recent spate of food-related problems — ranging from spinach contamination to a peanut butter recall and now to the discovery that a poisonous additive may be in animal food imported from China — underscores the importance of ensuring the safety of the nation’s food supply.

But adding more bureaucrats, or, alternatively, threatening FDA officials with salary cuts, are not the responses our nation needs. The recent problems have a common theme: They are the product of a more global and industrialized process of food production that allows pathogens to spread and emerge more rapidly than was the case 20 years ago. Better tools for identifying and detecting outbreaks and contaminants in the food supply in real-time fashion are available but not in widespread use at this time.

The United States has a surveillance system in place for detecting emerging pathogens called Foodnet. In turn, it is supported by a series of labs called PulseNet that subtypes and electronically compares pathogens as they are discovered and detected. This network needs to be upgraded and enhanced.

Moreover, both the FDA and the Department of Agriculture should clear the path for the use of nanotechnology devices that will be able to detect toxins, pathogens and chemicals in the production and packaging of foods on the spot. Such devices could monitor the presence of such materials without on-site inspection. Also, they could be used to alert consumers to tainted products at the retail level.

Unfortunately, Congress is more interested in building up the size of government through fear-mongering rather than insuring the public safety with advances in technology. Capone would be proud.

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