From strange-smelling chemicals in Apple Jacks to salmonella tainted eggs, news headlines seem to announce a new food recall every week. Why’s so much unsafe food making it to our supermarket shelves when we’ve got government agencies regulating our food supply? According to a new survey, those agencies are troubled by political and corporate interference.

That news comes from the Union of Concerned Scientists, a well-respected nonprofit that, with the help of the Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology at Iowa State University, sent out surveys to food safety employees at the Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture. More than 1,700 of the nearly 8000 employees who got the survey responded — many reporting they’ve been pressured by political or corporate interests. The Los Angeles Times summarizes the major findings:

Almost half of those surveyed said that in the last year they had experienced “situations where corporate interests have forced the withdrawal or significant modification of [an agency] policy or action designed to protect consumers or public health.”

And 45% said they had experienced similar interference by members of Congress.

Fifty-four percent said the agencies gave political interests too much weight in their decision-making.

The situation’s slightly improved since the George W. Bush era, but the Obama administration still has a ways to go to bring scientific integrity to food safety, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. To that end, the nonprofit’s put together a four-page list of solutions and recommendations (PDF). If you’re just learning about the problems in our food system because you were scared by the latest egg recall, reading this list will clue in to just how little power the FDA and USDA has in ensuring food safety. For example, the Union of Concerned Scientists recommends that we:
Give FDA and USDA full authority to mandate food recalls and give FDA more resources to protect food safety and increase the frequency of FDA inspections and shorten the interval between inspections. Ideally, all food facilities should be inspected annually, with high-risk or problem facilities inspected every six months.
Yes, that means the FDA and USDA do NOT have full authority to mandate recalls — and do NOT inspect all food facilities on an annual basis. And that, in turn, means that we end up with a lot of food safety issues. To read about specific instances of how political and corporate interference coupled with government agencies’ weak enforcement affected our food supply, visit the Union of Concerned Scientists’ examples of food safety outbreaks. You’ll find out the deeper problems behind the many recalls you may recall — like the tainted peanut butter, scary spinach, and sickening pot pies.

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