Attack on food safety
At the same time a deadly, virulent form of E. coli bacteria is creating panic in Europe, House Republicans want to weaken the Food and Drug Administration's regulatory authority, including its ability to curtail the promiscuous use of antibiotics in food products, a practice that can create super-strains of bacteria. Supporters of the proposals to slash funding for inspections say the nation's food is safe. Georgia Republican Jack Kingston says of safeguards, "There is not much room for improvement." But research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that food-borne diseases accounted for approximately 50 million illnesses, 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths in the United States last year.No room for improvement? Undermining food safety regulations threatens the economy as well as the public health. Food-related illnesses can quickly ruin businesses, such as restaurants that serve tainted food, or farms whose crops are blamed for an outbreak of some illness. Remember a few years ago how Florida's tomato industry was nearly destroyed when tomatoes were blamed for a severe outbreak of salmonella? The state's crop was fine, but because the FDA did not have the resources to quickly identify what crop was at fault, much less keep the dangerous produce from getting to the market, Florida growers suffered a 60 percent drop in sales. And it is naïve to believe some greedy interests won't take chances with contaminated food. A couple of years ago a salmonella epidemic that caused nine deaths and sickened nearly 700 people was linked to peanut products produced in Georgia. Investigators found the firm shipped its product to peanut butter manufacturers even after tests showed the food was contaminated. The company was forced out of business. Also deeply troubling is Montana Republican Rep. Dennis Rehberg's attempt to prevent the agency from controlling the widespread use of antibiotics in agriculture, particularly livestock. An Associated Press investigation last year found the overuse of antibiotics in humans and animals had caused a plague of drug-resistant infections that killed more than 65,000 people in 2009. The medical profession has campaigned to stop the overprescription of antibiotics to people and wants to stop the prolific use of the drugs among livestock. Yet Rehbert would halt FDA's efforts to discourage livestock producers from giving antibiotics solely to fatten them. He is pushing language that would require the FDA to base all decisions on "hard science," a nebulous term that would likely prevent the agency from taking action, since tracing the source of superbugs is extremely complicated. Last year Tom Chiller, a CDC medical director, explained to The Washington Post, "It is hard to do a study, document that Antibody A, used in Cow A, caused Infection Z in Human Z. But we know along the continuum of all those lines that antibiotic-resistant bacteria from animals are getting into the food supply." The antibiotics obviously have to be administered to treat sick animals and prevent the spread of disease. But many farming operations use the drugs solely to speed up animals' growth rates. The continual use of low dosages can result in the development of drug-tolerant bacteria. Every government agency must endure cuts during these tough times, but haphazardly slashing the nation's food-safety guardians is certain to end up harming the public health and the agriculture industry.