Is the nation's food safety system working or is it broken?

"The answer, in my opinion, is yes and yes," Michael Pariza, director of the University of Wisconsin's Food Research Institute in Madison, said at a recent hearing about the safety of fresh produce.

"One might argue that the system works, at least sort of, because foodborne illness, when it happens—particularly on a large scale—is still news. If the system were completely broken, foodborne illness would be commonplace, and it certainly is not that."

The hearing was convened by U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., who chairs the agriculture subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee. The event gave produce industry professionals an opportunity to respond to the Food and Drug Administration's newly released food safety rules. The voluntary guidelines recommend that fruit and vegetable processors adopt food safety plans similar to those required in the meat industry.

Over the past few years, as resources have decreased, the numbers of FDA food inspectors and safety tests have dropped.

" [After September 11, 2001], funds that had previously been allocated for traditional food safety research and regulatory activities were redirected to defense against food bioterrrorism, and that trend should be reversed," Pariza says. "We should not lose sight of the more mundane but very real risks of foodborne illness from more familiar corners—without, of course, compromising the equally important complementary efforts aimed at preventing food bioterrorism."