Food Safety Rules Being Rolled Back During Pandemic

Image: The Packer

At a time when there are growing concerns over future food shortages and food waste, the added worry of food being unsafe to eat is one more reality Americans must face in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak. 

As Civil Eats reported, the FDA, the EPA, and the USDA oversee the nation’s food safety net and regulate pollution from industrial farms. As the agencies have suspended rules meant to prevent foodborne illnesses and industrial pollution in the midst of the outbreak, experts worry that some companies may take advantage of the lull and do less to protect public health and the environment.”

Why This Matters: Lack of adequate food safety regulation can allow industries to self-regulate which has never been a winning strategy for consumer protection. Though the FDA cited that it was rolling back safety inspections to protect its own workers it put out a statement declaring that it has “confidence in the safety and quality of the products we all use every day.” Though without inspections, there’s absolutely no way to be sure about the safety of food products. 

The Bigger Problem: What’s happening at the FDA is part of a larger highly fragmented and ineffective food safety inspection system here in the United States. As Civil East explained:  

  • Some large grocery stores and restaurant chains create contracts that require their supply chains to adhere to their own standards
  • Often, they do their own checks and mandate the use of certified auditors, though those third-party auditors are paid by the very growers or shippers they inspect.

This fragmented system allows outbreaks to occur, like the myriad e. coli outbreaks originating in produce that the FDA had to investigate last year. COVID-19 is one more crack in that system that has hindered third party inspections, forced companies to reduce costs, and has hindered what limited role federal inspectors may have had. 

Go Deeper: Our food safety regulatory system is a complicated one. Read more about how and why breakdowns happen

Food Company and Inspection Workers Are at Risk Too: Some food processing plants have not taken adequate action to protect workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Plants like Smithfield Foods in Sioux Falls, S.D. (where nearly 500 workers have been infected by coronavirus) show how quickly outbreaks can occur in these plants and create risks for local communities when protection is not given to plant workers. This applies to inspectors too. Inspection workers are at risk from food processors’ minimal health protection steps too. USDA workers have been told to not wear masks, and inspectors get very little paid time off or sick days

As Tony Corbo, a senior lobbyist for Food and Water Watch explained,

You have USDA sending inspectors into these plants because they want the production to go on and it’s really endangering the lives of the inspectors.

He added as the inspectors see a growing number of plant workers staying home, they are going to ask themselves, “Why should we go endanger our lives?”

 

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