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FDA unable to keep U.S. food safe, experts say

On the heels of the recent contaminated pet food incident, which caused the deaths of an unknown number of cats and dogs, the Food and Drug Administration announced that up to 6,000 hogs in several states also consumed feed tainted with industrial chemicals. The FDA said the hogs "cannot safely be sold to humans … and should be euthanized at the farms where they have been held from the market."

The FDA also announced that although several hundred of the contaminated swine have already entered the human food chain, "the concentrations of contaminants in the hogs was likely too low to harm humans."

This latest food-safety scare follows closely on the heels of last fall's spinach—related E. coli outbreak, and February's peanut butter recall following an outbreak of salmonella. It leaves lawmakers and consumer advocacy groups with grave doubts about the FDA's ability to protect the food supply—for pets or for humans.

"The food side of FDA has been cut tremendously the last couple years in terms of personnel and budget," said Michael Doyle, Ph.D., director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia. "There have been a couple of probes, but the bottom line is that the government and administration have not provided a mandate to FDA to fix these problems."

Doyle said the FDA has, at most, 800 inspectors to cover upwards of 80,000 processing plants, and that only about 1 percent of food imports are inspected, either through lab testing or visual testing.

In addition, the FDA lacks enforcement muscle. For example, the FDA inspectors visited the ConAgra processing plant implicated in the peanut butter salmonella outbreak in 2005, but plant operators refused to hand over requested documentation, and the FDA did not follow up. Currently, recalls are issued by companies, not by the FDA. This limited recall authority was a key reason why the Goverment Accountability Office earlier this year designated federal oversight of the food system as a high—risk area.

"FDA doesn't have a lot going for it when it comes to a robust, preventive approach to food safety," Doyle said. That position was echoed by consumer advocacy groups such as Consumers Union. "The FDA has been starved of resources for years," said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union, based in Yonkers, N.Y. "The result is a food system that is not dependable and an agency not adequately protecting our nation's food supply."

Update: Commissioner of Food and Drugs Dr. Andrew C. von Eschenbach has announced the creation of the position of Assistant Commissioner for Food Protection to provide advice and counsel to the Commissioner on strategic and substantive food safety and food defense matters. To read the full release, click here.

Can the FDA be fixed? Discuss...

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