FDA Food Safety Efforts Close to Breaking PointMar 19, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP
Stephen Sundlof, director of the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Center for Food Safety and Applied nutrition said Tuesday—during the Reuters Food Summit—that the FDA could be pushed to its “breaking point” if multiple food poisioning outbreaks occur at the same time. Sundlof said that while the food safety system is "not broken. It still is protecting public health …. 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 oversees 80 percent of the US food supply—generally fruits, vegetables, and processed foods—and has been under fire because of a number of scares in recent years involving spinach, peanut butter, and imported Chinese seafood and toothpaste, to name a few. Sundlof said the FDA is "lacking the work force" to respond to more than one major food borne outbreak at any given time at this point, leaving it struggling with other myriad crises involving food, drugs, and medical devices. Sundlof referred to last year, when melamine—a toxic chemical used in plastics and fertilizers—was found in US pet food, killing animals and causing a media frenzy and wide recalls. The pet food was later mixed in with feed given to pigs, chickens, and fish.
Lawmakers and consumer groups are worried that Americans are concerned about imported foods and other products which is now pushing the food safety system into crisis. Several bills have been introduced in Congress proposing ways to overhaul the food safety system and, last November, the Bush administration made proposals to better protect the country's food supply including working closer with foreign governments to prevent dangerous foods from entering the US and giving the FDA the oversight and power to order a food recall when safety concerns arise. The FDA deals with several hundred thousand individual industries that supply food or food ingredients. Sundlof said that while the FDA welcomes mandatory recall authority, much is dependent on how the law is written in Congress. "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. There have been some instances where a company waited until the last minute before they agreed to do a recall, according to Sundlof.
Richard Raymond, agriculture undersecretary who oversees the agency’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, said that under some mandatory recall proposals, it could actually take longer to do the recall, perhaps several days.
Meanwhile, Representative Bart Stupak—an eight-term Democratic congressman and chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the House's Energy and Commerce panel, which has jurisdiction over the FDA—is at the center of an aggressive effort by congressional Democrats to spotlight what they say are problems with the Bush administration's position on consumer-safety issues.