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Food Safety's Dirty Little Secret

From the first reports of a salmonella outbreak this spring, it took a full 89 days before jalapeño and serrano peppers correctly came under suspicion as the culprit. During that period, as more than 1,440 victims trickled in to hospitals, federal officials struggled to trace the source of the outbreak, erroneously singling out tomatoes for weeks before homing in on peppers. No sooner had that outbreak tapered off than the high-end Whole Foods Market was forced to launch a massive recall of E. coli-infested ground beef.

The incidents prompted renewed calls for reform and stricter oversight of food safety. Some lawmakers are even suggesting stripping the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture of their inspection duties and giving them to a new agency. Yet the FDA in particular has long been starved of funding and understaffed. Its workload, meanwhile, is rapidly expanding as the global food chain grows larger, more complicated, and less transparent, all of which adds to the agency's already overcrowded plate.

Congress is under pressure to take up major food-safety legislation this fall that would offer sweeping proposals for regulatory change. The country's appetite for reform, however, is likely to collide with an uncomfortable reality: The responsibility for food safety, as it works today, lies heavily in private hands. Even as bacterial outbreaks have become more high-profile and the financial fallout from recalls more severe, the government has been handing off many food-safety responsibilities to industry. Food safety today is a business-and a booming one at that.

For most Americans, however, the FDA is still the public face of food safety. It was created in 1906 amid the fervid response to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, which exposed unsanitary conditions in meatpacking factories. Today, the duties are split. The USDA handles meat, and the FDA takes care of pretty much everything else. But in reality, oversight of farms and food plants has gradually changed hands. A pivotal moment came in the mid-1990s, after 21 people in Connecticut and Illinois were hospitalized during a huge lettuce-related outbreak of E. coli that was ultimately tied back to a grower in California. In response to this and other incidents, federal officials worked with academics and industry to come up with a set of voluntary guidelines to avoid future outbreaks.

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