The jurisdictional lines between agencies are tough to keep straight. Bottled water standards fall under the purview of the FDA, but tap water is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA sets pesticide levels for fresh produce, but the USDA and the FDA share residue-testing duties. The FDA regulates cheese pizza, but pepperoni pizza falls to the USDA. The FDA has primary responsibility for seafood safety, but, in a move to protect domestic catfish farmers from foreign competition, the 2008 farm bill shifted catfish to the USDA’s purview. In the wake of the Gulf oil spill in 2010, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration coordinates with the FDA and the EPA on testing seafood in the surrounding area for harmful contaminants.
Attempts to reorganize this regulatory spaghetti into a single food-safety agency, an idea that gets floated after each major outbreak, have not gained traction. It is understandable, then, that media outlets don’t have a comprehensive way of covering this system. If a newsroom even has a reporter assigned to cover food safety, in most cases it is just one piece of a much broader beat, or multiple beats.
The Associated Press, for instance, has Mary Clare Jalonick on food policy, which includes food safety and agriculture. McClatchy has Erika Bolstad on food safety, as well as environment and agriculture. Dow Jones has Bill Tomson covering the USDA and food safety. NBCnews.com’s JoNel Aleccia covers the entire universe of health issues. USA Today has veteran food-safety reporter Elizabeth Weise, but she’s on the paper’s breaking-news team and also handles science issues. At The Oregonian, Terry also is on the breaking-news team, but picks up food safety when there’s a big story.
For many other outlets, food safety is just not a priority. For the second time in two years, The Washington Post has shifted its reporter covering food safety—as part of a “consumer regulatory issues” beat—to a different area, and as of late November it had not named a replacement. Reuters does not have a reporter assigned to food safety. The New York Times has reporters who cover food and agriculture, food business, and the FDA (which ends up being mostly drug issues), but no one is directly responsible for staying on food-safety issues. One reporter at the Times acknowledged that sometimes food safety “falls through the cracks.”
A year ago, Bloomberg assigned Stephanie Armour to the beat, and has since ramped up its coverage of food-safety policy. Armour recently collaborated with Bloomberg reporters in Mexico, Vietnam, and China on a months-long investigation for Bloomberg Markets Magazine that detailed broad conflict-of-interest problems with private food-safety auditing firms, including Peanut Corporation of America’s auditor, which gave the company’s Georgia plant a “superior” rating before the Salmonella outbreak.
Yet despite this increased focus on food safety, Bloomberg recently added hospitals to Armour’s portfolio.
After years of work by a broad coalition, including hundreds of lobbying meetings with victims of foodborne illness, Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) in December 2010. When President Obama signed the act into law, nearly everyone, including the media, hailed it as the most significant update to food-safety law in seven decades, since the modern FDA was founded in 1938.
But the overhaul promised by FSMA, which was supposed to shift our system from reactive to preventive, has not happened. The four most critical regulations called for in the bill, which would mandate preventive safety practices for food manufacturers and produce growers in the US and abroad, have been languishing at the White House Office of Management and Budget for a year. OMB officials maintain that the rules are complex and that they are working diligently to finalize their review, but industry stakeholders, consumer groups, and public-health advocates say that election-year politics put the regulations on hold. With the election over, food-safety activists hope the administration will finally move ahead with these regulations.
Several editorial boards have urged the Obama administration to implement FSMA, but there has been limited news coverage of the delay, even as foodborne-illness outbreaks continue to grab headlines. Covering these policy-heavy stories can be challenging, in part because it’s difficult to translate them into something interesting for the average news consumer. “When journalists do actually write those stories, they are often too technical for the general public to follow, not because the writer has done a bad job, but because of the complexity of America’s food system and the byzantine rules that are meant to keep it safe,” says Jane Black, who used to cover food at The Washington Post, where she now writes a monthly column.