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Congress Says FDA Not Protecting Americans' Produce

Sep 26, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP The Associated Press is reporting that it obtained a draft report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in which the GAO states that Congressional investigators found the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) “efforts to combat food-borne illness are hampered by infrequent inspections, not enough staff, and the failure to implement a program devoted to the safety of fresh produce.”  The GAO draft report also states that a mere one percent of imported produce entering the United States is inspected and that the ongoing practice of mixing produce from more than one source makes it difficult to conduct contamination tracebacks.  The findings are being released today.

Senator Barbara Boxer—Democrat-California—and Senator Ted Kennedy—Democrat-Massachusetts—ordered the investigation following 2006’s E. coli fiasco when three people died and 200 others were sickened by contaminated bagged spinach.  That outbreak cost the leafy greens industry $86 million.  "This report paints a frightening picture of the FDA's fresh produce safety efforts," Boxer said.  It "should serve as a wake up call to do more to protect the nation's food supply."

The report also stressed that “inspections at produce-processing facilities are rare and that when problems are discovered, the FDA relies on the industry to correct them without oversight or follow-up.”  In the seven years from 2000 to 2007, the FDA discovered food safety problems at over 40 percent of the 2,002 plants inspected.  Despite the massive amounts of problems found, only half of those plants were inspected only once during that time frame and plants in which food safety issues were cited only received warning letters from the FDA; that practice ended over three years ago in 2005.  "The agency seized no fresh produce, sought no injunctions, and prosecuted no firms," investigators said.

The GAO noted some FDA issues “can be attributed, in part, to funding.”  Although the U.S. has seen an increase in the amount of fresh produce imported here, the “FDA's inflation-adjusted budget has remained stable, which has forced the agency to absorb cost-of-living increases for staff members,” the report said.  The AP reported that this resulted in early retirements “and a decision not to fill some positions that have reduced food safety staffing by 17 percent.”  This reduction includes some 800 scientists, inspectors, and other food-safety staff and the AP reports that, “The loss of key scientists and the agency's failure to replace them means food safety guidelines have not been updated and the industry is relying on its own rules for product safety.”  With a “lack of specific knowledge,” according to the report, the FDA has been prevented from developing "robust, science-based regulations and risk assessments that quantify the relative risks of consuming different types of produce."

Meanwhile, new reports of food borne contamination outbreaks are emerging at least once weekly and the numbers of dead and ill continue to rise.  And, now, many food borne illnesses have become so prevalent and their treatments so overused that they are taking hold and becoming resistant to the very antibiotics used to stem their paths.  Worse, some of these infections cause life-long, chronic problems that either never resolve or return years, sometimes decades, later.

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