The latest symbol of government waste: pizza

The latest symbol of government waste: pizza

Outrageously priced shower curtains, $600 hammers, stacks of outdated regulations, archaic IRS computers, space shuttle toilets, multi-billion-dollar aircraft programs on the scrap heap. All have become symbols of government waste and incompetence. But 1999's hottest, freshest symbol of bureaucratic blunders may also be in your lunch plans today: pizza.

Yes, pizza-cheese or pepperoni. The government's pizza problem appeared deep in a General Accounting Office report (OCG-99-1) released in January (Observers with long memories may remember that GAO originally brought up the pizza problem in a 1988 study). As an example of the overlap and fragmentation among federal food inspection programs, GAO noted that frozen meat pizza is inspected by the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service, but frozen cheese pizza is the responsibility of the Food and Drug Administration.

The symbolism was too tasty for many to pass up.

House Majority Leader Richard Armey, R-Texas, and Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, stacked dozens of pizza boxes on the Capitol lawn and called a press conference Feb. 11 to draw attention to the fact that "hundreds of billions of dollars are wasted by the executive branch of the federal government," as Sessions explained. Pizza was just the tip of the iceberg, the lawmakers said.

On the Jan. 27 broadcast of NBC's Nightly News, Tom Brokaw asked, "How many government bureaucrats does it take to tell if your food is safe?" An NBC reporter called the revelation "one more reminder taxpayers are being fleeced, even when they bite into a pizza." ABC's World News Tonight carried a similar story, as did The Washington Post, The Palm Beach Post and the Charleston Daily Mail.

But the story behind the symbol shows the pizza problem is not a story of bumbling bureaucrats, as many of the news reports and congressional press releases would leave one to believe. The real problem is not so easily digestable.

The pizza problem begins with a novel, Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, published in 1906. That book, which described in disgusting detail the operations of the meat-packing industry, led to the creation of USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) under the 1906 Federal Meat Inspection Act. Along with subsequent legislation, the act gave FSIS responsibility over meat, poultry and frozen and dried eggs.

The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938, along with other legislation, gave the FDA inspection authority for most other types of food.

That legislative history-not bureaucratic incompetence-explains the pizza problem. FSIS is required to inspect meat products only, while FDA is responsible for non-meat products.

The laws also set up very different inspection structures for the two agencies. While FSIS must inspect every carcass that makes its way to American tables, Congress has not given FDA the authority or resources to inspect all the food it regulates before it hits the marketplace. Instead, FDA responds to problems and issues recalls. So while FSIS inspectors visit the pepperoni lines of pizza processing plants every day, FDA inspectors get around to each pizza processing plant once a year or so, GAO estimates.

Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, notes that the inspection discrepancy between pepperoni and cheese pizza is even deeper because of the legislative differences between FSIS' and FDA's authorities.

While FDA may inspect a cheese pizza once in a blue moon, the pepperoni on a meat pizza will go through three USDA inspections-once in a slaughter plant, once at a pepperoni processing plant, and again at the pizza processing plant, DeWaal says.

In addition to FSIS and FDA, a dozen other agencies also have been granted authority by Congress over various aspects of food safety, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Marine Fisheries Service in the Commerce Department.

The mix of jurisdictions can be confusing for food producers, who must learn the separate, and occasionally overlapping, regulatory structures of each of the agencies with inspection authority over them, GAO has noted. In some cases, laws and budgetary constraints have left gaps in inspection coverage, DeWaal says. For example, FDA relies completely on the states for shellfish inspection.

DeWaal's center and GAO both advocate the creation of a single food safety agency to deal with the inconsistencies in the food inspection system. The Clinton administration, meanwhile, has created a food safety council with representatives from all agencies with food safety responsibilities. The council is developing a strategic plan and a unified budget in an attempt to improve coordination and make up for the patchwork system of federal food safety laws.

To address the pizza problem, those laws must be re-written, DeWaal said.

"This is an accident of history," she said.