Safe Enough To Eat?

We begin our Evening News series on food safety tonight with a look at just how broken the food safety system is in America.

I have never seen official Washington so unanimous. Everybody knows the system doesn't work. Everybody, including the key members of Congress, knows that the fault lies with Congress. Everybody wants Congress to strengthen the system. How to do this exactly, what what agency, with which new regulations and with what funding are open questions. Needing to act is not an open question.

The problem is simple to define. Taxpayers spend most of their food safety dollars on the USDA, which has the primary job of inspecting animal carcasses inside slaughterhouses. Fine. Except that most Americans are getting sick today from e coli on produce; spinach and lettuce. And produce is regulated by -- the FDA. When the FDA tried to trace the source of the huge e. coli outbreak in spinach last September, it took weeks to find the farm, and the source was never precisely defined. The e. coli came from manure, either from cows or pigs, but they don't know how. Irrigation water? Soil? Splashing from rain?

It's tempting to blame the FDA, but given the agency's meager resources, it's lack of research dollars and the fact it does not have the legal right to proactively inspect farms, you can see why the problem is legislative.

Not to be graphic about this, but in the spinach outbreak four people died and almost 200 got sick because we are allowing animal poop to get on salad greens. Dozens of the people who got sick were very sick. They were on dialysis because of kidney failure, or plasma pherisis because of toxic blood.

You will hear a proposal in our story from Senator Dick Durbin to upgrade the Federal food effort by making one single food agency. I'm not sure this is realistic, and honestly, neither is Durbin. But Congress at a minimum does need to update the system, and put a much higher priority on research to make farm produce safe. Public confidence in fresh vegetables is on the line.

  • Wyatt Andrews

    Wyatt Andrews is a CBS News National Correspondent based in Washington D.C. He is responsible for tracking trends in politics, health care, energy, the environment and foreign affairs.