Feds' Alphabet Soup Hinders Food Safety

Wyatt Andrews food safety meat processing
After eating tainted spinach last September, Lisa Brott — a dedicated fitness buff at age 50 — found herself hemorrhaging blood, CBS News correspondent Wyatt Andrews reports.

"I was very critical for several days, I was in the ICU," Brott says. She was suffering from kidney failure. Brott was in the hospital 13 days with her organs shutting down.

"E. coli is a very aggressive, dangerous bacteria," Brott says.

After E. coli in produce caused two huge outbreaks last fall, you might think the federal agency in charge of E. coli would have a prevention plan by now. You'd be wrong — and here's why.

"There's no one in charge in the federal food safety system," says Mike Taylor, a former USDA and FDA food safety official.

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Taylor says the nation's food safety system is broken — a hodgepodge where the USDA inspects meat, but the FDA inspects milk. The USDA regulates chickens, but when a chicken lays an egg, that's the FDA. The EPA regulates pesticides in food, the CDC and National Marine Fisheries are involved. All told, 12 federal agencies have a role in food safety.

Worse, Taylor says most food safety money — 80 percent — goes to the USDA, which visually inspects meat in slaughterhouses, while millions of Americans actually get sick from the invisible germs in produce.

"The basic allocation has nothing to do with who's getting sick, and it's out of proportion to where the actual risks in the food supply," Taylor says.

During the past 10 years, Congress has been warned again and again that the food safety system is an organizational mess that does not fully protect consumers. But the spinach outbreak has led to new calls for reform. One idea: Create a single food agency to finally put someone in charge.

Sen. Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, says he thinks a single food agency would have traced the last outbreak more quickly. He says under one agency, money could be focused on disease prevention.

"When you consider 75 million Americans with food-borne illnesses each year, I do believe a better, more modern, streamlined agency would reduce those numbers. And it means that more people would survive," says Durbin, who on Wednesday will introduce a bill to bring all food safety under a single agency.

Brott calls it unacceptable that Congress has tolerated so many sick Americans.

"It's outrageous so many people are poisoned by food," Brott says. "A lot more has to be done, whatever it takes, to protect people's health."

One casualty of last fall's outbreak was consumer confidence in fresh food. Too many Americans like Brott ate their greens — and paid for it with a trip to the hospital.

The series "Safe Enough to Eat?" continues Wednesday on the CBS Evening News with a look at how farm workers are suiting up like surgeons to keep the food chain contamination-free.

The series continues Thursday on The Early Show, with a report on whether food served in school cafeterias make the grade.