The federal government is failing to ensure the safety of the U.S. food supply, and the president's $2.4 billion request for the Food and Drug Administration's 2009 budget—a 5.4 percent increase over 2008—is a small fraction of the resources needed to address the problem, according to recent government and scientific assessments.
The budget seeks a $42.2 million increase for the agency's food protection plan, which would allow the FDA to devote more people and resources to inspections in the United States and abroad, officials said. Specifically, the FDA will be working in 2008 and 2009 to establish a presence—and an office—in China.
While agency officials said this budget plan would move the FDA closer to safeguarding the American food supply, the announcement comes on the heels of a scathing report from a group of scientific advisers to the FDA. The panel of outside experts in November said the agency needed to beef up inspections and infrastructure or risk failing to carry out its mandate. At a congressional hearing Jan. 29, former FDA official Peter Barton Hutt told lawmakers the agency needed to double its $2 billion budget within the next two years.
At the same hearing, Lisa Shames, director for food and agriculture issues at the Government Accounting Office, testified on the GAO's recent assessment of the FDA's food-safety plan. Food safety has been on the GAO's "high risk" list for more than a year because the government's piecemeal approach to food safety—with at least 30 laws administered by 15 different agencies—is putting the public at risk, Shames said. Food-safety funding has not kept pace with an increased workload, and agencies have not been coordinating effectively. For example, 1,451 facilities produce food regulated by both the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture—and yet the two agencies don't coordinate inspections.
While the GAO advocates for one government-wide food-safety plan, Shames said the FDA's current food-safety plan does attempt to better leverage its resources.
The 2009 budget proposal includes some money for more inspections, such as 20,000 additional food-import field exams—but covers just a fraction of the 9.5 million import entries annually. When the GAO last analyzed FDA inspections in 2004, it found the agency was testing just more than 1 percent of seafood imports.
William Hubbard, a former deputy commissioner at the FDA, said the proposed budget increase—which includes a cost-of-living adjustment for personnel and IT investment—is barely half what the agency needs just to keep pace with inflation.
While the FDA plans to implement a new contamination-prevention strategy that will include working with industry on corporate responsibility, leading retailers are already taking matters into their own hands. Wal-Mart announced Feb. 4 that it had become the first U.S. grocery chain to require suppliers of its private label, as well as some produce, meat, fish, poultry and ready-to-eat foods, to have their factories certified by Global Food Safety Initiative standards. Created by a group of international retailers, GFSI goes beyond the FDA and USDA audit process.
"We are taking this additional step to ensure the integrity of our products throughout the entire food-supply chain," said J.P. Suarez, Wal-Mart senior vice presi?dent and chief compliance officer.
Jessica Centers is a Denver-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 3/p. 22