Monday, October 19, 2009

India's Rx for food safety: Poisoning courts

Because death is even less popular than taxes, you’d think more politicians would rail against the perils of food contamination and make it their headline-snagging cause.

Then again, look at how that tactic’s working for Kirsten Gillibrand, the junior senator from my state. The upstate Democrat held a press conference on Sunday to awaken the populace to the dire threats lurking in supermarkets and restaurants. More than 900 food products have been yanked off the market since 2005 because they posed a danger, the result of disturbing safety violations, she stressed.

You probably didn’t know she’s calling for all ground beef to be tested for E.coli contamination, a major step toward neutralizing a safety scourge. But who can bother with matters like that when Balloon Boy’s father is being questioned by the police?

You have to feel sorry for the proponents of food-safety reform. The reaction they’re drawing just seems out of sync with the cause. Today, for instance, 16 people personally touched by a food-poisoning catastrophe visited the White House to push for more stringent safeguards. They were foisted off on the assistant White House chef, Sam Kass, who was described in statements as one of President Obama’s advisors on food policy. “I’d recommend the sweet potato fries today because they’re in season, Mr. President.”

Okay, the entourage also snagged ear time from David Lazarus, a senior-level official at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Mariano-Florentino Cuellar, the lead White House staffer on Obama’s Food Safety Working Group. But the Beer Summit was treated as more important.

Maybe the notion of regulatory or legislative reform just isn’t sexy enough. Perhaps we should consider using the judicial branch of government as a powerful agent of change.

That’s what India is considering. A proposal has reportedly been aired there to create a secondary court system exclusively for cases involving alleged instances of food contamination. The new ministry would be a place of recourse when food-safety authorities find a processor that isn’t adhering to standards.

Not that infractions are difficult to detect, apparently. The news coverage notes that 1 million cases of alleged safety infringements are currently waiting to be heard by conventional courts.

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