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Experts Call for Food-Safety Czar
Politicians and food-safety experts are calling for major FDA reform, saying we’ve reached a “tipping point” in terms of food safety.
image: Food and Drug Administration

In a year when “change” is the golden ticket to winning, experts are calling for widespread reforms in the food-safety arena, claiming America has reached a “tipping point” where consumers and industry insiders alike are aligned and ready for a new day in food-borne illness prevention.

And they just might get it with the new administration.

“Our food safety system is in urgent need of modernization,” says Jeffery Levi, executive director of Trust for America’s Health. “It is plagued with problems that lead to millions of Americans becoming needlessly sick each year.”

Along with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Trust for America’s Health released a report last week detailing food-safety failures and suggested solutions, including the appointment of a deputy commissioner over all food safety and the creation of a separate food-safety administration distinct from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The FDA regulates about 80 percent of the food supply, making it the main target for reform.

“The U.S. food-safety system is seriously out of date and fragmented and it’s leaving Americans overwhelmed,” says Michelle Larkin, public health team director and senior program officer for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

In an attempt to correct the system, Larkin is promoting prevention. She says the under-resourced and understaffed FDA isn’t protecting the American people because it can’t.

“Right now Americans are being mislead into believing our government agencies are protecting their health,” Larkin says. “The food-safety system has not been modernized since its inception nearly 100 years ago.”

According to the report, there are four main problems with the current food-safety system.

  • Inadequate technologies and inspection practices. Existing laws date back to 1906 and 1938, and policies are disproportionately focused on monitoring food after it has been produced, instead of trying to prevent and detect problems throughout the entire production process.
  • Inadequate staffing and resources. The FDA’s Science Board found that the agency is chronically underfunded. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the turnover rate in FDA science staff in key areas, including food safety, is twice that of other government agencies.
  • Inadequate inspection of imports.  Only 1 percent of imported foods are inspected even though about 60 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables and 75 percent of seafood Americans consume is imported.
  • Inadequate leadership, prioritization, and coordination. There is no FDA official whose full-time job is food safety and has line authority over all food-safety functions. The FDA’s three major food-safety components are managed separately, hampering efforts to effectively prevent disease outbreaks.

“No one is really in charge and realistically accountable for the success or failure of the FDA food-safety program,” says Michael Taylor, research professor of health policy at George Washington University. He says this is because the commissioner has to split time between food safety and medical product regulation, which often takes priority.

Despite these problems, experts and politicians seem to agree that now is the time for change and that the Obama administration is showing interest in securing the American food supply.

“With the support that exists for the core principles to shift to preventive control … if we’re not going to do food-safety reform in the first half of this year, it’s hard to think when we’ll do it,” Taylor says.

Right now Americans are being mislead into believing our government agencies are protecting their health."

But not all of the report’s suggested improvements require legislative action. Designating a deputy commissioner of the FDA and creating a food-safety administration are both changes that can be immediately put into action.

The two other recommendations outlined by the report, increasing and aligning resources with the highest-risk threats and modernizing the legal authority of the Health & Human Services Secretary to prevent illness, would require action from the administration.

Read about other suggested improvements to the FDA in the recent story “Sen. Kennedy Takes on the FDA.”

Go to HealthyAmericans.org to download the full report in pdf format.

Blair Chancey is QSR’s managing editor.