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Report slams food-safety system

A new federally funded report found that the United States food safety system is reactive, not proactive, and is deleteriously hampered by a haphazard and fragmented inspection system. While none of this is earth shattering, especially given the magnitude of food safety scares from melamine to peanut butter, the report puts into writing how best to repair a broken system. The study, “Enhancing Food Safety, The Role of the Food and Drug Administration,” was ordered by Congress and overseen by the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council.

"FDA uses some risk assessment and management tactics, but the agency's approach is too often reactive and lacks a systematic focus on prevention. Our report's recommendations aim to help FDA achieve a comprehensive vision for proactively protecting against threats to the nation's food supply," said committee chair Robert Wallace, MD, professor at the College of Public Health at the University of Iowa, Iowa City.

If the recommendations are implemented, FDA would centralize resources toward the riskiest foods. For instance, fresh foods, raw meat/poultry and foods with a history of contamination would get the highest inspection priority over acidic and cooked foods with lower risk. “The agency would then be able to direct appropriate amounts of its resources and attention to those high-risk areas and increase the chances of catching problems before they turn into widespread outbreaks,” the report said.

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler, of Marler and Clarke LLP in Seattle, likened the current system to Homeland Security randomly inspecting 3-year-olds at the airport. It’s inefficient, expensive and fails to identify the areas of most risk. “From my perspective, manufacturing facilities that produce a lot of product are inspected very infrequently,” he said.

Marler pointed to the 2009 peanut butter food safety case as an example. He said the plant where the contamination originated had not been inspected in seven years, despite the fact that a similar problem was discovered at a nearby plant in 2007.

The report authors also indicated that the country needs a single agency to handle all food safety areas, similar to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and that states would have to take on more responsibility to food facility inspections. Currently more than 15 separate agencies play a roll in U.S. food safety. Marler said that this might be possible over time, but that an overnight change is unrealistic because of bureaucracy and dissimilar cultures within FDA and the Food Safety Inspection Service.

The report acknowledged that to implement any significant changes adequate food-safety funding is imperative. FDA lacks the resources to oversee more than 150,000 food facilities, 1 million restaurants and other retail food establishments, 2 million farms, as well as millions of tons of imports.

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