The FDA's effectiveness at testing and maintaining the safety of the food supply is under scrutiny by watch guard and public advocacy groups. While the FDA is issuing plenty of contamination warnings, those warnings may be coming too late.
Recently, salmonella-contaminated peanut butter left ill more than 370 people in 42 states, E. coli-tainted mushrooms were recalled last week and last year's E. coli-spinach epidemic killed three and hospitalized hundreds.
"It's pretty clear that the FDA is not doing its job," said Joseph Mendelson, III, legal director at the Center for Food Safety in Washington, DC. "Recent reports indicate that between 2003 and 2006, there was a 47 percent reduction in inspections and almost a 75 percent reduction in food testing by the agency."
Following Sept. 11, 2001, and the general "what's-coming-next" stance, the FDA, USDA and CDC ramped up food safety protocols and inspections. But even in 2003, at the pinnacle of this effort, the network of protection was still contaminated with inefficiencies.
In April 2003, the Institute of Medicine, National Academies, in its publication, "Scientific Criteria to Ensure Safe Food," recommended Congress "require the development of a comprehensive national plan to harmonize the foodborne disease surveillance." Citing the need for "improved management and use of food safety data to ensure that foodborne diseases are identified as early as feasible," the IOM indicated that standards and enforcement varied among regulatory agencies, thereby diminishing the effectiveness of regulatory measures overall.
Two major flaws in the nation's food inspection system are an imbalance in the distribution of funds and agency conflict of interest.
The FDA, responsible for regulating almost 80 percent of the food supply only receives approximately 24 percent of the federal government's $1.7 billion allocation for food safety, according to the General Accounting Office. The USDA receives the lion's share of that budget to manage the other 20 percent of the food supply.
"The USDA's mixed mission to promote and protect can also lead to a conflict of interest," said Mendelson. "Because the USDA is design to promote agriculture and inspect meat, there is a reticence to shut down operations because that could hinder U.S. agriculture."
The CFS contends that these imbalances, conflicts, oversights and inefficiencies need to be resolved in order for adequate food safety inspection to be in place; that accountability for effective food safety needs to be legislated.
"Clearly, the FDA is not doing everything it should to protect our food supply," Mendelson said. "And if we are going to protect the public from food hazards we need to insure that our regulatory agencies are doing their job. We are looking into what we can do both legislatively and legally."
In response to recent events, the FDA will hold two public hearings on March 20 at the Ronald V. Dellums Federal Building in Oakland, Calif., to share information about recent outbreaks in fresh produce, gather information on production and shipping practices, and accept comments on risk factors and possible enhancements to current safety measures.