Food Safety

The safety of the United States food supply is a vital interest of all citizens. The recent deadly outbreaks of salmonella poisoning in peanuts, spinach, and other foods has brought the lack of safeguards in the food supply chain to the forefront.
A new report by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s inspector general, released last week, documents an outdated and ineffective federal food safety program with too few inspectors, too skimpy legal authority and too little funding.
Faced with the reality of overseas food-processing plants that have been responsible for several recent food safety scares such as contaminated seafood and powdered milk, the FDA report reveals that the agency doesn’t even have enough inspectors to visit U.S. processing plants.
According to the report, the FDA can’t even track dangerous food from the plant where it was processed to the stores where it was sold. Even more disturbing is the fact that the agency does not have the authority to order a recall when tainted food is discovered.
The last time U.S. food safety laws were updated was in 1938. This week, the Senate could take up a new food-safety bill that would update the FDA’s authority, allow it to dictate “best practices” for processing and preparing food and mandate more frequent inspections.
The Food Safety Enhancement Act was approved by the House last summer. It would require a food-tracking system so that when inspectors discover problems at a food-processing plant, they can trace where tainted products were shipped.
Those common-sense updates are overdue.
The inspector general’s report, released last week, details a system in urgent need of attention. Staffing for FDA food safety programs fell by 18 percent between 2003 and 2007, even as the number of U.S. food-processing plants climbed to 51,229. The number of FDA inspectors has increased, but it remains below the level in 2003.
The FDA took regulatory action to force compliance in about half of the instances in which inspectors uncovered serious problems. In the rest, the FDA either reclassified the findings as less serious violations or did nothing.
In about 36 percent of cases in which serious problems were found, the FDA didn’t conduct follow-up inspections to ensure that the violations had been corrected.
Some 76 million Americans contract a food-borne illness every year. About 325,000 people are hospitalized and about 5,000 die each year from those illnesses.

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