March: Biodefense & food supply safetyU.S. food inspection system one step away from breaking point

Published 20 March 2008

High FDA official says U.S. food inspection system is not broken yet, but that a few food-borne outbreaks at the same time would push it toward the “breaking point”; official says FDA is “lacking the work force” to be able to respond to more than one major food borne outbreak at a time

The system U.S. consumers depend on to ensure the safety of their food supply is not broken, but multiple food borne outbreaks at the same time could push it to its “breaking point,” an official with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said yesterday. The food safety system is “not broken. It still is protecting public health,” Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied nutrition, said during the Reuters Food Summit. “It could be just one incident away from some catastrophic event. It’s stretched very thin at this point. If there was an additional crisis, it might be at the breaking point.”

The FDA — in charge of protecting 80 percent of the U.S. food supply, mostly fruits, vegetables and processed foods — has been facing mounting criticism following safety scares during the last few years involving spinach and peanut butter, along with imported Chinese seafood and toothpaste. Sundlof said the FDA is “lacking the work force” to be able to respond to more than one major food borne outbreak at a time, leaving it struggling to deal with other crisis involving food, drugs and medical devices. Sundlof pointed to one example last year when melamine, a chemical used in plastics and fertilizers, surfaced in U.S. pet food, killing animals and prompting wide recalls. The pet food was later mixed in feed given to pigs, chickens and fish. FDA quickly mobilized all its district offices to respond to the incident.

Lawmakers and consumer groups have argued that Americans are skeptical of imported food and other products after the safety scares, pushing the food safety system into a crisis situation. Several bills have been introduced in Congress proposing ways to overhaul the food safety system. Last November, the Bush administration made proposals to better protect the country’s food supply that included working closer with foreign governments to prevent dangerous foods from entering the United States and giving FDA the power to order a recall of food when safety concerns arise. Sundlof said the FDA would welcome having mandatory recall authority, but that it also would depend on how the law is written in Congress.

The FDA, which deals with several hundred thousand of individual industries that either supply food or food ingredients, has had some instances where a company waited until the last minute before they agreed to do the recall, according to Sundlof. “If the law is written in such a way that we would have the authority to mandate recalls, but only if met a certain very high threshold of evidence … to indicate that there really was a public health risk, that could take a lot more time and, in that case, that would not necessarily benefit us,” he said. Richard Raymond, agriculture undersecretary who oversees the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, said on Monday that, under some mandatory recall proposals, it could actually take longer to do the recall — perhaps several days. He added that, in the 100 years since the federal meat inspection act was passed, no company has ever refused requests for a government recall.