Weather Forecast


Column - Why won't Congress let the FDA do its job?

With one-half billion chicken eggs on recall, maybe the lunkheads in Washington, D.C. will finally wake up and do something about this nation's worse-than-pathetic food-safety system.

Don't hold your breath, dear readers.

So far, an estimated 1,300 people have been sickened by salmonella-infected eggs. Fortunately, salmonella-caused deaths are rare, but just ask anyone who has ever suffered from salmonella poisoning. It is agonizing pain, they will tell you.

Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, is calling for an increase in the frequency of inspections at food-producing plants, including egg "factories," and legislation that would allow the FDA to order recalls when there are problems. Incredibly, recalls are activated only if a company does it voluntarily.

It's obviously another case in the sorry history of the U.S. Congress of an orgy of deregulation, letting companies do anything they please, putting foxes in charge of chicken coops.

Every time there is a food-borne problem regionally or nationwide, we hear the same things: The power of the FDA must be tightened, more inspectors must be hired, the punishments for not passing safety inspections must be more severe, recalls must be initiated immediately when problems are apparent.

We've heard that same mantra after food-borne illnesses related to spinach, lettuce, peanut-butter products, hamburger, cookie dough and pet foods from China. Typically, some Congress people make noises - political noises - but nothing gets done.

What's most infuriating about the tainted-egg scandal is that the two Iowa "factory" farms that produced those eggs have been cited and fined several times. The owner of one of the egg farms, Austin "Jack" DeCoster, was fined in 1997 for unsafe and unsanitary conditions at a plant in Maine, a plant described as "simply atrocious" by then-U.S. Labor Secretary Alexis Herman. DeCoster agreed to pay a settlement of $2 million, but since then he and his cronies have continued their non-stop violations.

How many of these animal "factories" exist in America? The FDA should keep close tabs - daily tabs - on every one of them, including a watch on their treatment of animals. Some of these plants should be shut down immediately if only because of their cruel and hideous treatment of animals.

"We need better abilities and authorities to put in place these preventive controls and hold companies accountable," commissioner Hamburg said in her press conference this week.

Hamburg is whistling in the dark. In fact, the FDA is virtually powerless to stop food-borne illnesses because it doesn't even gather information until people have already become ill. Any investigations that could lead to criminal indictments occur long after the "evidence" is gone and the crooks have covered their tracks.

This week, small farmers throughout the nation did a fine clucking business selling record numbers of eggs. It's yet another example of the souring of trust - this time, mistrust of our ever-growing corporate food industry.

Krista Eberle is director of food-safety programs for the Egg Safety Center and the United Egg Producers. She said the recalled eggs are "less than 1 percent" of the 80 billion eggs produced in the U.S. annually. Ms. Eberle, tell that comforting "fact" to the 1,300 people who became deathly ill.

There is FDA reform legislation in the works, but it's "stalled" in the Senate. How many other critical actions are "stalled" in the Senate, that Do-Nothing Assemblage of Useless Pretenders?

What next is going to come along to make us sick? Or kill us? We should all wonder and worry.

In the meantime, we should kick the butts of every Congress person claiming to represent us and demand they "deputize" the FDA with enough money and manpower to do the job it was meant to do.

Dennis Dalman, a former reporter for the Echo Press, is a regular contributing columnist to the Opinion page. He is currently the editor of the St. Joseph Newsleader. He can be reached via e-mail at