A Politico investigation could change the way you look at food safety

For anyone who eats food, Politico food policy reporter Helena Bottemiller Evich’s recent investigation, “Why President Obama and Congress turned their backs on food safety,” is a must-read. Evich takes readers on a ride through the maze of the country’s food safety system, a ride scary enough to make anyone who takes a bite of a peanut butter cracker or a lick of an ice cream cone think twice. The piece is the second in a series, “Broken By Design,” which Politico bills as an investigation into “little-known federal agencies where big policy challenges meet political realities.” The clash is not a pretty one for the public, as Evich shows. The series, which debuted in April with a piece on pipeline safety, is a commitment from Politico to take a hard look at the under-covered regulatory agencies where most of the nation’s health and safety regulations are thrashed out with the public knowing next to nothing about decisions that sometimes bring deadly consequences.

The focus of Evich’s narrative is the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) passed in 2010, after major outbreaks of illness caused by contaminated food killed several Americans and sickened thousands more. But, as Evich reported, almost five years after the law passed with the help of the food industry and a coalition of consumer and food safety advocates, “not one of the sweeping new rules has been implemented and funding is more than $276 million behind where it needs to be.” She writes, “a law that could have been legacy-defining for President Barack Obama instead represents a startling example of a broad bipartisan policy initiative stymied by politics and the neglect of some of its strongest proponents.”

When it came to going to bat for money needed to fund more inspectors and tougher anti-contamination standards on everything from peaches to imported pesto, the coalition fell apart and walked away. Imports were a special target. As Evich reported, two decades ago, the FDA oversaw 200,000 imports. Last year there were 12 million, accounting for about 15 percent of the nation’s food supply. But without rules, there can be no new standards. Without money, there can be no more inspectors. So far, the law’s promise, articulated by former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin—“parents who tell their kids to eat spinach can be assured it won’t make them sick” —has not materialized. There’s no prospect that it will any time soon.

Evich’s work shows there are public health consequences that come from the Beltway’s budget cutting binge, and the outlook for adequate funding from Congress is dim. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the FDA, which oversees most of the country’s food supply, would need $583 million over five years added to its annual agency budget of around $4 billion. That translates to an increase of about $116 million a year. In 2012, the administration asked for a $183 million increase, but the agency got only $46 million. In the last few years, the administration has asked for much less although this year it wants $109 million. Appropriations bills moving through Congress right now would give the agency less than half that amount. In an interview with Evich, FDA deputy commissioner Michael Taylor put it bluntly: “At this juncture, FSMA either succeeds…or it falls off the rails.”

Maybe it was supposed to. Evich told me that while the stakeholders, primarily the food industry, pushed to get the law passed, “who is going in and asking for money, is actually a very short list,” adding “it’s classic Washington–doing something big and not following through and getting funding.” She said the food industry has moved on to other Congressional priorities and, as she details in her piece, some food companies are at odds with the administration over imposing user fees to beef up enforcement. (User fees fund much of the regulation for drugs and medical devices.) Passage of the law may actually have been intended by the food industry itself as a symbol to assure the public that all was well with their food supply, and the regulatory lapses were intended all along to prevent the law’s realization.

“As anyone who covers policy knows, the heart of a story is never what people say on the record,” Evich told me. What makes her piece stand out is thorough reporting and back-and-forth over five months with a Beltway agency that allowed only two in-person interviews with “press minders” from the agency sitting in. The FDA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs declined to talk about staffing levels, saying final regulations have not been issued. Evich deftly weaves together food safety politics, the history of food regulation, and the deadly results of contaminated food for ordinary, unsuspecting people to tell the full story of “the breakdown of food-safety reform” in a way that more typical piecemeal reporting cannot.

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Politico’s enterprise editor, Bill Duryea, formerly of the Tampa Bay Times, says there are six more investigations planned that will be “moving all around the regulatory universe.” The aim is to marry storytelling with policy. While that’s hardly a novel concept in the history of journalism, these days any technique that gets to the nub of any policy issue, especially those dealing with health and safety, is welcome. “In some ways this is not a sexy story,” Evich says. “But we all have to eat.”

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for CJR's Covering the Health Care Fight. She also blogs for Health News Review and the Center for Health Journalism. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.