FDA Needs More Resources To Oversee Food Safety

Congress is taking the first step toward major changes in monitoring the safety of the nation's food supply. The broad plan is to give more money and power to an agency that has come under a lot of criticism in recent years — the Food and Drug Administration.

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A number of unsafe foods have made their way into supermarkets over the past several years and the Food and Drug Administration has been criticized for letting that happen. Today, Congress is taking the first step towards major changes in monitoring the nation's food supply. The broad plan is to give more money and power to the FDA. NPR's Joanne Silberner reports.

JOANNE SILBERNER: Peter Hurley of Wilsonville, Oregon knows the dangers of tainted food. Last January, his three-year-old son Jake suffered through 11 days of diarrhea before recovering.

Mr. PETER HURLEY: It was pretty scary.

SILBERNER: During Jake's illness, Hurley continued to give his son his favorite food - peanut butter crackers. Only a few epidemiologists knew at the time that the country was already four months into a food poisoning epidemic caused by tainted peanut butter products.

Mr. HURLEY: It does make you think twice about the safety of everything that you purchase.

SILBERNER: Serrano peppers, spinach - in the past few years the FDA has come under heavy criticism for allowing unsafe foods on the market. With a new activist commissioner and deputy in place at the FDA, Congress appears ready to give the agency more resources to oversee food safety.

Consumers Union knows what it wants the FDA to do. Ami Gadhia is head of policy for the group.

Ms. AMI GADHIA (Consumers Union): We would like to see more frequent inspections of the facilities that make our food. We would like to see more funds for FDA to be able to do these inspections.

SILBERNER: And civil and criminal fines for companies that don't abide by new regulations and more food testing. Consumer groups got that and more in the legislation being considered today by a house subcommittee. Manufacturing plants would have to register annually with the FDA and have detailed safety plans. Companies would have to keep records on all foods. The FDA would step up oversight of imported food.

At a hearing on Capitol Hill last week, Democrat John Sarbanes called the provisions no-brainers.

Representative JOHN SARBANES (Democrat, Maryland): These are things that the average citizen would imagine are already in place and I think would be surprised to learn are not in place.

SILBERNER: Industry, which has fought regulation, is pretty much onboard. Scott Favor heads government affairs at the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

Mr. SCOTT FAVOR (Grocery Manufacturers Association): We agree that FDA needs new powers, new authorities and more resources to address the food safety challenges posed by an increasingly global and increasingly complex food system.

SILBERNER: There are stumbling blocks. Part of the financing for the inspection system would come from a $1,000 annual fee on each manufacturing plant. Favor doesn't like that idea.

Mr. FAVOR: Having the industry, having any industry pay for its own watchdog probably erodes consumer confidence rather than improving consumer confidence.

SILBERNER: The food industry is fighting the fee, and FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg has testified that the agency may need more time and money than is provided for. But the legislative process is just beginning. They'll have to make it through the subcommittee, full committee and House floor and then it'll be meshed with a bill beginning its trip through the Senate.

Still, with broad support from the president, business and consumer groups and legislators, a substantial food safety bill is likely to pass this year.

Couldn't be too soon for Peter Hurley, whose son Jake was sickened by peanut butter crackers.

Mr. HURLEY: I would like to have my confidence restored in the American food supply and the safety of our food.

SILBERNER: Meanwhile, a plan to establish a separate food agency outside the FDA is on the back burner. Ami Gadhia of Consumers Union says her group still backs the idea but is focusing on getting a beefed-up food safety system in place quickly before more illnesses occur.

Joanne Silberner, NPR News, Washington.

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