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Every year in the U.S., foodborne illness leads to about 130,000 hospitalizations and is responsible for about 3,000 deaths. To help protect against this, the Food and Drug Administration inspects facilities that produce and handle food. But a new report raises some red flags about the inspections program. It comes from the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Inspector General, and it concludes the FDA is not doing enough to fix some of the serious safety violations that it finds. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Back in 2013, FDA inspectors went into a facility in Kansas that produces beans and sauces and found some serious problems. Here's Meridith Seife of the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Inspector General.
MERIDITH SEIFE: What inspectors found were rainwater leaking through the roof directly about where food was being prepared. There were cracks in walls that prohibited adequate cleaning. And perhaps most worrisome, the inspection revealed the presence of listeria throughout the facility.
AUBREY: Listeria is a pathogen that can cause life-threatening illness. Now, Seife says the FDA does have the power to take swift action that could compel facilities to fix problems. But in this case and many others, she says the FDA issued a warning letter asking the company to voluntarily correct its violations. The problem, Seife says, is that oftentimes this just doesn't work. In the Kansas facility, the same unsanitary conditions were documented again and again in three subsequent inspections.
SEIFE: What I found most disturbing is that in our report, we found that there were a lot of instances the facilities just weren't fixing the problem, and the FDA wasn't moving to take stronger action.
AUBREY: The inspector general's report also found that for almost half of the serious violations inspectors found, the FDA failed to conduct timely follow-up inspections within one year. And Seife says in too many cases, the FDA could have done more.
SEIFE: In fact we found that 22 percent of the time, FDA took no action when it found these serious violations.
AUBREY: Going forward, Seife says the FDA could step up the use of enforcement tools such as seizures or injunctions or detain food from facilities that have serious violations so the food never enters the marketplace.
SEIFE: We think FDA really needs to do more to take swift and effective action to make sure that when really worrisome conditions are found in our food supply, that FDA's stopping that.
AUBREY: Officials at the FDA have reviewed the inspector general's report, and they say they agree there are challenges. They also concur with all the recommendations about how to improve the outcomes. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
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