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Time to Split Food and Drug Regulation February 8, 2009

Posted by Brandi Hight in Prevention.

The salmonella-contaminated peanut butter scandal reached fever pitch last week when revelations surfaced that the Peanut Corporation of America knowingly sold tainted roasted peanuts and peanut butter to the federal government for its free school lunch program.

The Washington Post reports the contaminated products reached schools in California, Idaho and Minnesota during 2007. Federal officials told schools to destroy any uneaten products, but school administrators say most of the goods already have been consumed. No illnesses have been traced back to these products, but the fact that disadvantaged children were put at risk of serious illness by peanut butter sandwiches offered by their school systems is chilling.

The salmonella outbreaks have been traced back to Peanut Corp.’s Blakely, Ga, facility, where last month Food and Drug Administration officials discovered cockroach and vermin infestations in production and storage spaces, along with a leaky roof, and four strains of salmonella on equipment.

Thus far, the salmonella outbreak has killed 8 people, sickened 575 others, and led to one of the largest food recalls in the nation’s history.  The FDA is being blamed alongside the Peanut Corp. of America for failing in its mission to ensure food processors are being held to standards that ensure our food supply is safe.

With the peanut butter contamination case the latest in string of recent food borne-illness outbreaks (e. coli in spinach, melamine in pet food), it is time to face facts: the nation’s food supply and our collective health will continue to be jeopardized if the federal government does provide the FDA with the resources to fulfill its consumer protection mission.

A Washington Post graph on the breakdown in the FDA’s food regulation provides evidence: there were 34,643 safety inspections of food processors in 1978, compared with 6,078 inspections in 2007. The problem is the number of food processors has surged to more than 150,000 in recent years. Clearly, the lack of resources devoted to the FDA has tied its hands when it comes to food safety. Less money and fewer inspections amid a growing food processing industry puts Americans at greater risk of food-borne illness.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution story puts the issue in greater context:

The agency (FDA) is responsible for inspecting 80 percent of domestic and imported food products but receives only 24 percent of federal food-safety spending. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates meat and poultry, gets 76 percent of the money for inspecting 20 percent of the food.

With these divided responsibilities and lack of resources, how can American consumers feel confident that the products they pull of supermarket shelves are safe?

One solution proposed by Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro is streamlining the nation’s food regulatory system by creating a single agency to oversee food safety. This legislation would create and Agency of Food Safety under HHS, overseen by a food regulatory czar nominated by the president, to focus on preventive measures to shore up the nation’s food supply and quickly investigate and react the food-related outbreaks.

Creating a new agency to handle food safety would leave the FDA with more resources to ensure the nation’s drugs, medical devices, and vaccines are safe and effective. Indeed, in December 2008 the FDA’s Science Board Subcommittee on Science and Technology released a landmark report that said the agency was unable to fulfill its science mission because of underfunding and a lack of leadership to keep pace with scientific progress.

As the nation’s oldest consumer protection agency, the FDA serves a vital purpose in keeping Americans safe and healthy. Congress and the executive agencies must find the political will to overhaul the nation’s food system to ensure the FDA has the resources it needs to prevent such cases in the future and preserve the public trust.



1. medhead - February 10, 2009

Can’t we just give the FDA more funding and tell them to inspect more food suppliers? Why create a whole new agency?

2. Brandi Hight - February 11, 2009

Bolstering FDA funding and increasing its inspection powers is certainly the simplest solution to the current food contamination crisis. Many federal officials and Congressmen are calling for increased funding to meets the demands of a growing food processing industry. While this would certainly help FDA meet its food safety mission, the division of food safety responsibilities among the FDA and USDA just doesn’t make sense in the 21st century.

Creating a new agency responsible for all food safety issues and products would enable the government to direct their time and efforts more strategically, particularly on the issue of imported foods. The FDA inspects less than 1% of foods imports (again, because of budgetary and regulatory constraints). This is more than a little concerning in a world where melamine in infant formula made more than 50,000 Chinese babies ill.

And I’m not saying this approach would be inexpensive or uncomplicated, but with an issue as basic as the safety of the food we consume everyday, the nation needs a much stronger regulatory network than the current system.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who is sponsoring the legislation to create a new food safety agency, published an editorial in the Hartford Courant explains her thinking and makes a number of good points.


Thanks for commenting.

3. Feds Use Social Media for Peanut Recall Outreach « Target Population - March 2, 2009

[…] products produced by the Peanut Corp. of America (last week I wrote about the outbreak and the need to revamp the nation’s food safety system), federal health officials are using the recall as a test case to improve their communications […]

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