WASHINGTON – What makes a meat sandwich?
The otherwise simple answer,”bread and,uh,meat,” has grown more difficult for the government to spit out over the years.
In a classic case of Washington bureaucracy,the Food and Drug Administration and the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the Department of Agriculture,the two primary agencies responsible for food safety,are locked in legislation over which inspects open-face sandwiches and which inspects closed-face sandwiches.
The FDA inspects manufacturers of packaged,closed-faced meat or poultry sandwiches – those with two slices of bread – once every five to 10 years.
The FSIS inspects manufacturers of packaged,open-face meat or poultry sandwiches – those with one slice of bread – on daily basis.
But it takes more than counting bread slices to tell an open-face sandwich from a closed-face sandwich. Here's a sample of sandwiches and some other products and the agencies that regulate them.
- A hot dog in a roll – FDA. A hot dog rolled in pastry dough – FSIS.
- “Bagel dogs” – FDA. Corn dogs and sausage turnovers – FSIS.
- Cheese pizzas – FDA. Meat pizzas – FSIS.
- Soups with less than 2 percent meat or poultry – FDA. Soups with more than 2 percent meat or poultry – FSIS.
- Meatless spaghetti sauce – FDA. Spaghetti sauce with meat – FSIS.
- Wraps, or sandwiches rolled with flat bread – FSIS.
Meat is the meat of the debate.
Deciding what constitutes a meat or poultry product is based not on the potential food safety risks posed by the food but on how prominent a role meat plays in the product.
The FSIS argues these divisions do not muddle food safety responsibilities,but leaders of consumer advocacy protest that the system is mired in inefficiency and red tape.
“I think they just got deeper and deeper in terms of making decisions. There's no rhyme or reason for why open-faced sandwiches should be treated differently from closed-faced sandwiches,” said Caroline Smith-DeWaal,director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
In December 2005,the FSIS and FDA held a joint public meeting to discuss alleviating some food inspection complexities.
Streamlining certain food categories would result in less consumer confusion and improve the efficiency of regulation,said Robert Brackett,director for the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition,according to a transcript of the meeting. But nothing has happened since then.
Laws enacted in 1906 and 1938 outlined FDA and FSIS jurisdiction through the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Federal Food,Drug and Cosmetic Act.
The emergence of breakfast burritos,heat-and-eat pizza pockets and a bevy of other on-the-go meals in the latter portion of the century blurred the distinction of how much meat makes a sandwich.
For frozen pizza manufacturers,inspection frequencies have become a “fact of life,” said Robert Garfield,executive director for the National Frozen Pizza Institute,adding that the system operates “pretty efficiently.”
In 2003,the FSIS rescinded regulatory standards that differentiated “pizza with meat” from “pizza with sausage,” saying the standards may have discouraged manufactures from producing pizzas to match consumer demand.
Critics say the agencies' responsibilities need a complete overhaul.
“In the long run,they are repairing the holes in the roof,not rebuilding the house,” DeWaal said.