U.S. food agency needs more bulk

An internal report on severe problems at the Food and Drug Administration can help push reform.

Americans' trust in food safety fell sharply last year (16 percent). The food industry itself is alarmed at weak government oversight. Now, in a scathing internal report by the Food and Drug Administration, the watchdog agency concludes "the nation's food supply is at risk." So everyone agrees there's a problem. What will it take to fix it?

Food in America is among the safest in the world. Yet the world of food is rapidly changing. Consumer tastes have changed to favor more variety, with fresh and ready-to-eat foods. Most food remains domestically grown, but imports have risen nearly 40 percent from 1995 to 2005.

These and other factors have overwhelmed the FDA, which oversees 80 percent of food consumed in the US (as well as pharmaceuticals and cosmetics). The FDA is in "fire-fighting" mode, it admits, reacting to crises, such as E. coli in California spinach, instead of preventing them.

A year ago, the FDA commissioner requested a study to see if the agency had the science and technology to fulfill its mission. Last month's report by an advisory panel to the agency, "FDA Science and Mission at Risk," confirms what outside studies have found: Demands on the FDA greatly exceed its ability to respond.

Underfunding is a chronic problem. Tight budgets reduced food-safety inspections by 47 percent from 2003 to 2006 – and an amazing 78 percent over 35 years. The FDA's antiquated computer system fails frequently. Reports on product dangers are handwritten and not easily cross-checked. Turnover among science staff is twice that of other agencies. Meanwhile, the food-import system is "badly broken," according to the FDA report.

The starting point for reform is where the food industry and consumer groups agree, and they agree on quite a bit – much of it borrowed from practices at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees meat and poultry.

Both groups recognize that primary responsibility for safety lies with the food industry. It's not possible to catch everything through inspection, though inspections must be expanded to improve the margin of safety. The USDA, for instance, inspects US meat and poultry plants daily. The FDA inspects its food facilities on average once in 10 years.

Both groups also see the need for domestic food producers to establish mandatory plans that show they understand hazards and can counter them. The White House prefers voluntary plans, but over at the USDA, they're mandatory.

Industry and consumer advocates also recognize that the FDA is subsisting on budgetary crusts, while the USDA gets the loaf. Most food-borne problems occur in the FDA's realm, but while it inspects most food, it gets half the safety funds of the USDA.

Both groups also believe importers must devise a way to assure that foreign suppliers comply with FDA standards. And they believe the US government should work directly with foreign governments on this issue. This happens for USDA-regulated food – a smaller universe. The FDA can adapt its own version.

Several bills on food safety are pending in Congress. Now that the FDA has looked at itself in the mirror, lawmakers should work to enact the strongest possible reform.

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