In early 1993, two children died and hundreds of others in the Pacific Northwest became ill after eating Jack in the Box restaurant hamburgers contaminated with a deadly E. coli virus. Because the poisoning occurred during President Clinton's first days in office, food safety suddenly became a White House priority.
Eager to prevent similar outbreaks, the Clinton Administration took steps to begin overhauling the slow, unresponsive federal food-safety bureaucracy. It sought to restructure the Agriculture Department's food-safety program and refocus the national food-inspection system.
The food-safety concern isn't solely a matter of appearances. Federal regulators say contaminated food kills as many as 9,000 Americans every year and sickens nearly 33 million others.
Now the White House is poised to unveil the details of another food-safety initiative, this one announced by Clinton in a January radio address. The $43 million initiative would expand a rudimentary, nationwide early-warning system for foodborne illnesses and enhance seafood inspections.
But the money Clinton requested for that program would be directed to several federal agencies that handle food-safety issues, a move that citizens groups charge would dilute the usefulness of the proposals. "It's a patchwork of good ideas for a patchwork of food-safety programs," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the private Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The President's push could also be weakened by top-level departures from the Administration--chiefly Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner David A. Kessler and the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service administrator, Michael R. Taylor. Kessler and Taylor, both widely credited with keeping the White House focused on food-inspection programs, haven't been replaced.
Some activists, as well as some former federal regulators, say more ambitious steps are needed to prevent future food-safety problems. They want Congress to create an independent food-safety agency that would replace today's piecemeal system. Jurisdiction over the nation's food supply is shared by the Agriculture Department, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Environmental Protection Agency and the FDA, among other agencies.
"Without that kind of real reform, we're going to be left with agencies that are just acting as recall management agencies, not protecting the food supply," DeWaal said. "That's not good enough."
But the Administration has been lukewarm about merging federal food-safety programs. In the aftermath of the hamburger contamination, Vice President Al Gore suggested that the FDA take on all federal food-safety duties. But that proposal went nowhere. Regulators are now debating whether to include a similar proposal in their coming report on Clinton's January food-safety initiative.
Industry executives oppose the push for a new umbrella agency for food safety, arguing that the congressional committees that now oversee the FDA and Agriculture would resist giving up their jurisdiction. "We'd rather put our energy into improving the coordination between the agencies," said Rhona Applebaum, an executive vice president of the National Food Processors Association.
In any event, some Administration officials concede that their efforts to improve the food-safety system have produced mixed results. For example, most of the specialists who could be assigned to food safety are at the Agriculture Department, which Congress tends to favor, not at the FDA, which has tangled with the Republicans on Capitol Hill over tobacco and drug approval issues.
As a consequence, Agriculture Department inspectors maintain nearly daily contact with food processors; FDA agents may not visit the same plant twice in 10 years.
To make up for that gap, FDA regulators have begun limiting their spot inspections and are requiring food suppliers to maintain records that, regulators say, will help them track future outbreaks of food contamination.
Experts say keeping food contamination-free is getting more difficult because of new trade agreements that have increased the amount and kinds of food being imported into the United States from countries with less stringent safety controls. Americans are also eating fewer processed foods and more fresh fruits and vegetables, which are more likely to carry pathogens. And they're eating more meals in restaurants, which might or might not be careful about the freshness and preparation of food.