Making U.S. food safe, I: FDA not moving fast enough

Published 13 June 2008

The recent outbreak of tomatoe-borne salmonella poisoning moved legislators to charge that the FDA has not made good on its promise last year to make food safer for U.S. consumers

U.S. health officials have not made good on their promise last year to make food safer, lawmakers and others said on Thursday, as investigations widened to find the source of the latest outbreak of Salmonella that has been linked to tomatoes. The number of reported cases of Salmonella was raised on Thursday to 228 in 23 states from Wednesday’s 167 in 17 states, including at least 23 hospitalizations. The infections were caused by Salmonella Saintpaul, an uncommon type of the bacteria. The outbreak is the latest in a series of incidents involving lettuce, peanut butter, and spinach, that have eroded public confidence in food safety and led to calls for change at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “These continued outbreaks are unacceptable,” Representative John Dingell (D-Michigan), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said at a subcommittee hearing on Thursday. “To have (the FDA) come up and say they don’t know what to do about it or how much money they need or what resources they require is a shame and a disgrace.”

The Guardian’s Christopher Doering writes that the FDA, which oversees 80 percent of the food supply, issued a “food protection plan” last November that focused on preventing problems and targeting the riskiest areas in the United States and overseas. Since then, the FDA has been criticized for failing to produce a clear strategy and a reasonable estimate of what it would cost. The FDA’s Science Board, an advisory panel, has said the agency does not have the capacity to ensure the safety of the food supply. “As food borne illness outbreaks continue, FDA is missing valuable opportunities to reassure Congress and the public that it is doing all it can to protect the nation’s food supply,” Lisa Shames, a director on food and agriculture for the General Accounting Office (GAO), told the subcommittee. David Acheson, FDA’s associate commissioner for food protection, said that within six to eight weeks the agency would give lawmakers timelines and more specific goals for the next two years. He said budget restrictions hindered him from giving long-term cost estimates, but Representative Diana DeGette (D-Colorado ), countered: “We do believe that is within your statutory authority and furthermore we don’t see how the FDA can implement a plan if it doesn’t have cost estimates that go out over the life of the plan.” Acheson responded: “I understand your frustration. Will you allow me to explore that and see what I can provide?”

Concern about food safety has prompted dozens of hearings and bills from lawmakers seeking tougher standards. The FDA also has requested more funding. This week the Bush administration asked for an additional $125 million for food safety on top of the $42 million it was seeking for fiscal year 2009. Michael Taylor, a professor at George Washington University, said the budget increase was “a downpayment” and echoed calls by the FDA Science Board to double the food safety budget to $1.4 billion by 2013 to institute effective reform. For now, Taylor said FDA should “begin the shift from reaction to prevention and address some of today’s pressing food safety problems.” He urged FDA to identify the most urgent food safety problems and formulate strategies to improve them.