Food Safety Regulations: Will More Regulation Make Us Safer?
An AEI Reg-Markets Event
About This Event

Several high-profile food safety issues involving salmonella contamination of peppers, tomatoes, peanuts, and pistachios have led to a call for strengthening food safety regulations. The Obama administration has established a new website devoted to food safety ( and created a new electronic database for manufacturers to use to report food Listen to Audio

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safety issues, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has put into effect more stringent rules for reporting potential contaminations. In addition, the House of Representatives has drafted the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009, which would create a Food Safety Administration within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to consolidate food safety regulations under the secretary of Health and Human Services.

But will more regulations and a more centralized food safety bureaucracy make us safer? What kind of regulations and implementation mechanisms would best serve the public's desire for ensuring food safety?

AEI will host a panel discussion featuring David W. K. Acheson, former associate commissioner of food safety at the FDA and managing director of the Food and Import Safety Practice at Leavitt Partners; Carol Tucker Foreman, distinguished fellow and former director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America; Walter K. Olson, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute; and Michelle Worosz, assistant professor in the department of agricultural economics and rural sociology at Auburn University. Kenneth P. Green, a resident scholar at AEI, will moderate.

Event Summary

WASHINGTON, OCTOBER 20, 2009--A panel of experts gathered at AEI to speak about the future of food safety regulation. They agreed that any regulatory reform should consider the different levels of risk posed by different products and the increasing complexity of the food supply chain. They also grappled on issues surrounding the effectiveness of expanded mandates for the agencies that deal with food safety, and the impact that tighter regulation would have on the food industry, particularly on small producers and farmers.

Former associate commissioner of food safety at the FDA and managing director of the food and import safety practice at Leavitt Partners David W. K. Acheson said that the primary goal of reform should be to set clear standards and "raise the bar to industry best standards through regulatory requirement." Just because an establishment is small or local, he said, it should not exempt from the regulation that applies to bigger producers because not complying with regulations can be just as dangerous for small firms. He cited the incident involving tainted peanut butter from the Peanut Corporation of America as an example. He added that every firm, regardless of size, should be made to adhere to a basic standard of safety, with extra levels of control for higher risk foods. Another point Acheson raised was the need to revamp the top-down approach in favor of one that allows for "engagement with the industry on solutions and sharing of information and understanding of risks."

Distinguished fellow and former director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America, Carol L. Tucker Foreman said that the increasing complexity of supply chains and widespread use of processed foods has made the process of tracking the contamination from the individual to the source very difficult, adding weight to the argument that more investment in food science safety is necessary. She also stressed the need to expand awareness and technical assistance to educate both consumers and producers about food safety practices, and argued for building in redundancy at every point because "having the FDA enforce regulations doesn't excuse the retailer from responsibility, or ultimately, the customer from responsibility." 

Acheson and Tucker Foreman both agreed that the primary food agencies are currently ill-equipped to undertake inspections that are frequent enough or effective, so Congress needs to step up to provide adequate funding and accountability. They also said that regulations that only apply contamination prevention on domestic supply are likely to be inadequate, due to the fact that food supply and production cross borders.

Drawing comparisons from safety-related issues of other consumer products under the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) of 2008, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute Walter K. Olson said regulating the food industry would have a disproportionately adverse impact on small firms that do not have political clout. He added that bigger firms would be able to leverage their Washington lobbies to make sure that the regulations stay within  limits they can handle. Small producers and farmers don't have those resources. Olson stressed the importance of having different requirements for firms of different sizes since all firms do not have the same resources at their disposal to adhere to agency guidelines. Olson also pointed out a flaw in the other panelists' support for regulation targeted toward high-risk sectors of the industry, since "most of the spectacular episodes have been from things people thought were safe, not products that people considered high risk." But he added that he "wouldn't be surprised if a general increase in inspections led to a general increase in good practice" within the industry.

Michelle Worosz, assistant professor in the department of agricultural economics and rural sociology at Auburn University, noted that food safety regulation was necessary but it was important to know what was being regulated as well as to find the most effective means to do it. She spoke about the need to consider the scale of production and distribution before imposing restrictions on firms. Worosz also stressed that whatever legislation is passed has to take into consideration the relative sizes of firms and that this issue needs to be addressed legislatively, before regulations are formulated.

On the question of whether private inspection companies might be able to do the job better than the government agencies, Acheson said the challenge was to establish appropriate standards. Even with a high level of trust and transparency, he explained, the issue surrounding conflict of interest would remain if the outcome of the inspections influenced private inspectors' payrolls. Responding to the same question, moderator and AEI resident scholar Kenneth P. Green said that a private insurance system might not be viable, especially when faced with an extensive governmental system. He also expressed doubts regarding whether regulation would indeed be the most efficient way to ensure safety in the food industry, arguing that allowing litigation to come into play might be a better way to address the problem than imposing restrictions on firms.

Acheson and Worosz commented that insurance companies have started stepping up to provide insurance and policing services in the food industry, but said that an understanding of their long-term efficacy and impact has yet to be established.

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Speaker biographies

David W. K. Acheson is the managing director for food and import safety at Leavitt Partners LLC, a consulting firm with offices in Salt Lake City and Washington, D.C. Previously, he was the associate commissioner for foods at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), where he was responsible for all agency-wide food and feed issues, including health promotion and nutrition. Mr. Acheson has also been the chief medical officer at the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. He has published extensively and is internationally recognized both for his public health expertise in food safety and his research in infectious diseases. While an associate professor at Tufts University, he also undertook basic molecular pathogenesis research on foodborne pathogens, especially Shiga toxin-producing E. coli.

Walter K. Olson is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and author and commentator on American law and regulation. His books include The Litigation Explosion (Penguin Books, 1991), The Excuse Factory (Free Press, 1997), and The Rule of Lawyers (Truman Talley Books/St. Martin's, 2003). Over the past year, he has extensively criticized the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 on his website, which is widely cited as the oldest blog on law. Before joining the Manhattan Institute in 1985, Mr. Olson spent four years at AEI with the magazine Regulation, where he worked with the magazine's editors Antonin Scalia and the late Anne Brunsdale.

Carol L. Tucker Foreman, Distinguished Fellow in Food Policy at the Consumer Federation of America, has had a major influence on food policy in the United States over the past thirty years and has advised several presidential administrations. As assistant secretary of agriculture for food and consumer services during the Carter administration, she was responsible for the United States Department of Agriculture's food assistance and food safety programs, led the successful campaign to pass food stamp reform legislation, and was responsible for publishing the first Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Ms. Tucker Foreman's other accomplishments include founding the Safe Food Coalition, persuading Congress to approve a new program that encourages creation of new locally-based meat processing companies, and supporting efforts to adopt the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points meat and poultry inspection system. She has also served on the U.S. Agricultural Policy Advisory Committee for Trade and been appointed to the President's Commission on White House Fellowships and the U.S.-EU Consultative Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology. President Carter nominated her as a director of the National Consumer Cooperative Bank and of the Commodity Credit Corporation. From 1982 to 1999, Tucker Foreman was president of the public policy consulting firm Foreman Heidepriem & Mager, Inc.

Michelle R. Worosz is assistant professor in the department of agricultural economics and rural sociology at Auburn University. Ms. Worosz's work has focused on pesticide use and the Food Quality Protection Act; examination of commodity systems including the creation, use, and contestation over grades, standards, and notions of quality; and agrifood governance as a whole. In her current work, Ms. Worosz examines the nature of contestation over the meaning of "food safety" and the associated development, interpretation, implementation, surveillance, and enforcement of food safety statutes and regulations. Much of this work focuses on the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Wholesome Meat Act, as well as the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points regulation and the associated notices and directives. She has also conducted research on consumer perceptions of the food safety system, including various actors within the food safety system; food safety regulatory barriers for producers and processors attempting to enter into the alternative red meat sector; the statutory and regulatory barriers to marketing small-scale beef production and processing; and the framing of the debates surrounding recent high-profile recalls, including leafy greens and beef. Prior to joining Auburn University, Ms.Worosz spent several years at the Food Safety Policy Center at Michigan State University, where she was also affiliated with the Institute for Food Laws and Regulations.

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