June 8th, 2010
03:45 PM ET
By Saundra Young
The Food and Drug Administration is not properly protecting the nation's food supply and must change it's approach to food safety in order protect public health, according to a report released today by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), part of the National Academies of Science (NAS).
The report, 18 months in the making, found that outbreaks of foodborne illness will continue unless the FDA changes its management style and adopts a risk-based approach to food safety, moving from a "reactive" system where they address issues on a case by case basis. The IOM suggested a new system would include strategic planning, the ranking of hazard risks, targeted surveillance and designing an intervention plan. It would allow the FDA to better identify potential weak links in the chain where contamination can start and catch problems before an outbreak occurs.
In the United States there are about 76 million cases of foodborne illness every year. More than 300,000 people are hospitalized and 5,000 die. "As recent illnesses traced to produce underscore, foodborne diseases cause significant suffering so it's imperative that our food safety system functions efficiently at all levels," said IOM committee chair Robert Wallace, professor, College of Public Health , University of Iowa, Iowa City. "FDA uses some risk assessment and management tactics, but the agency's approach is too often reactive and lacks a systematic focus on prevention."
Part of the problem: Food safety is regulated by several agencies and the systems currently in place are not very well integrated. The FDA oversees about 80 percent of the food supply with responsibility for all produce, seafood and dairy products. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is responsible for meat, poultry and egg products. Mostly state and local agencies handle inspections of food production facilities. They also provide surveillance and investigate illness outbreaks. On top of that, the FDA also is responsible for more than 1 million restaurants and food establishments, more than 150,000 food facilities, more than 2 million farms, and millions of tons of imported foods–leaving it without the resources it needs to adequately monitor everything, according to the IOM committee doing the review.
"Food safety is an important issue for the entire administration. Through the President's Food Safety Working Group, which includes all agencies involved in food safety," said FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg. "We already are making significant progress to ensure government agencies are working seamlessly to protect the American public. At FDA, we are engaged in the long-term, strategic transformation of our Foods Program, including appointing a Deputy Commissioner for Foods to oversee the newly created Office of Foods." That office is tasked with overseeing all food policy, but IOM says what is still needed is direct authority over inspectors in the field which is often handled at the state and local level.
The IOM committee called on the FDA to establish review standards and also recommended federal officials create a separate food safety data agency that would collect information and quickly assess risks to determine appropriate action. The commitee also called on the FDA to consider turning over facility inspections to state governments– something for which the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), public advocates for nutrition, health, and food safety expressed "serious reservations."
"Tasking these overburdened, understaffed and underfunded state agencies with additional responsibilities will produce only frustration and not safer food." Sarah Klein, CSPI staff attorney said.
It was Congress who asked IOM to look at the problems in the system and work with the FDA to improve food safety. Now IOM is calling on Congress to step up and give the agency the authority it needs to protect public health by amending the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. That legislation is pending in the Senate. "The 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." Hamburg said.
On that CSPI agrees. "The NAS report offers several strong recommendations for improving food safety under the FDA, many of which are echoed in the legislation pending in the Senate. It's gratifying and yet not surprising to have this chorus of experts reach the conclusion that our food safety system is in desperate need of help, and we hope the Senate will heed their call to provide many of the authorities that would be needed to make these important improvements."
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