Food Safety System Is 'Badly Broken,' Critics Say
July 7, 2008
(CNSNews.com) - Recent recalls and outbreaks of food-borne disease are evidence that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is dangerously close to being unable to guarantee the safety of the nation's food supply, say liberal health policy advocacy groups and the investigative arm of Congress.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recalled approximately 530,000 pounds of possibly tainted beef, and a nationwide effort is underway to take suspect beef off market shelves.
Just one day before, the government's food watchdog announced that it was broadening its investigation into a recent widespread salmonella outbreak to other foods because the agency is no longer sure that tomatoes were ever the source.
Both actions are signs of a system that is not working well, according to Richard Hamburg, director of government relations for the liberal health care policy group, Trust for America's Health.
"American families should be able to put food on their tables that does not make them sick," Hamburg said, "and when contaminated food does hit the market shelves, the government should be able to tell where it came from and why the problem originated."
Government statistics show that 76 million Americans -- one in four -- are sickened by food borne disease each year. Of these, an estimated 325,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 die, costing the U.S. about $44 billion a year.
Hamburg's group said the amount of food that requires FDA inspection continues to grow -- $419 billion in domestic food and $49 billion in imported food -- while funding for increased oversight and investigation has failed to keep up.
Meanwhile, the FDA has fewer investigators that are on the job and those who are use methods and technology that are a century old, Hamburg said.
In addition, the FDA is subject to obsolete laws, misallocation of resources, and inconsistencies among major food safety agencies.
"It doesn't add up, and the risks to the American people keep reappearing like clockwork," he added.
In June, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) presented a report to Congress that concluded that the FDA is not keeping up with its own Food Protection Plan -- a blueprint the agency adopted in 2007 to try to improve food security.
"GAO has looked at the federal oversight of food safety for over 30 years, and what we found is that across the board there's been ineffective oversight, inefficient use of resources, and for that reason, two years ago, we put food safety on GAO's 'high-risk' list," said Lisa Shames, director of the natural resources and environment group at the GAO.
Americans, she said, are also not very confident in the safety of food -- 67 percent are worried about the safety of food, according to a Harris Poll.
"There have been a series of outbreaks," Shames said. "Two years ago, there was the outbreak of spinach with E. coli, coming out of California. These outbreaks are costly in terms of deaths and illness, and business is hurting as well."
The FDA is responsible for guaranteeing the safety of the lion's share of the food supply - 80 percent - including all fruits, vegetables and fish. The other 20 percent, beef and poultry, are the province of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Shames said.
The system has become so cumbersome, even the process of deciding which government entity is responsible for monitoring a food product has become "crazy," she said.
"Just to illustrate how crazy this can be, cheese pizzas would fall under the FDA's jurisdiction. Pizza with pepperoni would fall under USDA's jurisdiction for food inspection," Shames told Cybercast News Service.
The image that there are FDA inspectors in every food processing facility is a myth. The FDA needs 1,000 more inspectors, she said.
"There have been many reports, including from FDA's own science board, that have found that FDA's resources haven't kept pace with its increasing responsibilities. There's a general acceptance that FDA is hard-pressed and just doesn't have the funding and staff to be able to meet its oversight responsibilities," Shames added.
Both groups concluded that more funding is needed for the FDA, in the billions of dollars.
"We propose strengthening the FDA with increased funding - and by aligning resources with high risk threats, with the long-term goal of realigning all federal food safety functions," Hamburg said.
Shames said there is currently a mismatch in terms of the federal resources that go towards inspections.
"The FDA may be responsible for 80 percent of the food, but it receives only 20 percent of the funding for federal food inspections," she said. "It's the flip side for the USDA, which is responsible for about 20 percent of the food, but gets 80 percent of the funding."
Conservative policy groups, meanwhile, agree that changes need to be made, but Peter Van Doren, with the libertarian Cato Institute, wonders if the free market might not better protect food.
"The task that the FDA is charged with may be impossible," Van Doren told Cybercast News Service. "When I look at the facilities that would need to be inspected - there are about 65,000 in the United States, and there are many more than that overseas that we import from - it's not clear to me that it's possible to inspect all of them on a reasonable basis."
"Yes, we need more inspection, but it is not clear to me that taxpayers are willing to pay the amount of money it would take to actually do a good job," Van Doren added.
"If there were no FDA, what would firms and farms do to try to reassure the consumer of the sanctity of their processes and the healthfulness of their product?" he asked.
Van Doren said some food distributors, like the Austin, Texas-based natural food grocer Whole Foods, are using new technology that can track where specific foods are actually grown or produced.
The FDA, meanwhile, plans to spend $90 million dollars to implement its Food Protection Plan. Full funding to inspect all 65,000 domestic food firms would call for an increase to $524 million. The agency did not answer a request for an interview.
Food policy groups say there have been more than 700 major outbreaks of food-borne illness in the last decade.
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