Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
The University of Maryland’s administration was probably relieved to hear that the recent salmonella outbreak at the school didn’t result from contaminated dining hall food, especially in light of its recent incidents of food safety issues. While the university may be off the hook for this incident, the foodborne illness issue isn’t going anywhere, and it’s something that needs to be addressed on a national level. To prevent foodborne illnesses and uphold food security and integrity, the U.S. needs to have stronger regulations on the food industry.
It’s clear that when the food industry is poorly regulated, our entire food supply is in danger of contamination. Imported products from countries with weaker food regulations have contributed to many E. coli and salmonella outbreaks in the U.S.
Despite this knowledge, new waves of deregulation are being implemented. The most recent example of this occurred last week, as the Agriculture Department passed a new regulation that overhauls current swine slaughter inspections. This move is set to privatize inspections, allowing local inspectors without food safety training to conduct these checks. This would essentially allow companies to decide how they should test for pathogens, effectively deregulating the industry.
Deregulation like this is detrimental to our food security. It places the power to determine acceptable food standards in the hands of private-sector companies that have every incentive to cut corners. The meat industry has a reputation for neglecting its facilities sanitation practices in favor of a cheap product and maximized profits. Giving this industry more power by allowing companies to carry out their own inspections will most likely reduce the frequency and quality of them.
Overall accountability will also be limited, as we’ve already seen in the pilot program. Companies that participated and failed to meet safety standards were not deterred from violating the Federal Meat Inspection Act because current policies allow repeated violations to occur without consequence.
The only way to ensure the security of our food supply is having regular inspections by third parties. When regulations are implemented, they have been proven to be effective because modern practices shift the focus from quality control to the prevention of contamination by pathogens in the first place.
Countries that have implemented stronger regulations have also seen increases in their own food security as well as those of their trade partners. For example, to address vulnerabilities in their food supplies, many European countries conduct risk assessments centered on pathogen detection. In the absence of these types of precautions, weaknesses in the food supply chain went unnoticed and contamination was caught later on, if at all.
Typically, it takes an outbreak to get people to take foodborne illness seriously and implement new regulations. But why should we wait to take preventative measures against a future outbreak?
We know that strong standards keep our food safe — we shouldn’t risk our food security by deregulating the industry.
Kayla Roy is a sophomore biochemistry and microbiology major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.