Public Health

FDA Faulted For Gaps In Food Safety

lettuce crop in California

Leafy greens like these have been the subject of some high profile recalls lately. Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

Alfalfa sprouts, lettuce, spinach, and ground beef have all been subject to recent food recalls. In fact, hardly a month goes by without a notice about some unwelcome bug or another finding its way into the food supply.

And, the agency that watches over most of the food we eat is being bashed once again for being reactive — rather than out front — when it comes to keeping the food supply safe.

The Food and Drug Administration lacks a plan to assess risks posed by certain foods, doesn't prioritize surveillance and research, and is putting the public's trust on the line, according to a report released by the Institute of Medicine this morning.

"As recent illnesses traced to produce underscore, foodborne diseases cause significant suffering, so it's imperative that our food safety system functions effectively at all levels," said Dr. Robert Wallace, an epidemiologist at the College of Public Health at the University of Iowa, who chaired the report committee.

Basically, FDA doesn't have enough money or power to do the job, IOM says.

That job is a big one. It includes overseeing 150,000 food facilities, more than 1 million restaurants, more than 2 million farms, and millions of tons of imports.

The cost to consumers when the unsafe stuff hits the grocery store shelves? About $150 billion a year, plus 300,000 hospitalizations, and about 5,000 deaths.

FDA's not the only agency with authority over food safety, which is part of the problem, IOM says. At least five agencies have stakes.

The new report suggests that the federal government create a central database of food safety data outside of the various agencies vying for power. It also suggests FDA work more closely with state inspectors and improve its communications about food safety risks with the public.

For its part, the Obama Administration's FDA has increased its focus on food safety. It created an Office of Foods to oversee and coordinate agency policy. It's taken a more aggressive approach to pushing companies to recall suspected products, even when eating those products poses a low risk of health problems. Exhibit A: The ongoing hydrolyzed vegetable protein recall.

Still, unless Congress acts on a long-languishing bipartisan bill, FDA cannot force a recall or require all food processors to register with the agency — two powers the IOM says are needed.

FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg noted the agency's recent efforts, and and added: "[T]he report clearly highlights the need for enactment of pending legislation that provides much needed authorities and resources to assist in our efforts to ensure the safety of our nation’s food supply.”

Consumers Union is also using the report to push legislation that passed the House last summer. But you just can't rush the Senate. "It has been a backburner victim there," Consumers Union spokesman David Butler told Shots.

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