FDA Needs More Money for Food Safety, Senators Tell BushDec 7, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP
The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) needs more funding. That was the gist of a letter U.S. senators sent President George W. Bush and budget director Jim Nussle on Thursday. The senators are demanding greater funding for food safety after food poisoning from tainted spinach, beef, and other food sickened consumers, weakening their confidence in the U.S. food supply. Twenty-three senators from both parties stated that additional funding for the FDA an important step toward improving the protection of human health and welfare. They also asked for a significant increase in the fiscal 2009 budget for the food safety activities in the agency, which is responsible for the safety of 80 % of U.S. food supply, yet only receives about 30% of the nation's food-safety budget. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) receives the remainder of the funding.
Shrinking inspection budgets at the FDA, which oversees almost half a trillion dollars in processed foods, fruits, and vegetables a year, have meant the agency inspects only a small fraction of food sold in the U. S. Food makers are inspected about once a decade and, over 35 years, inspections dropped 78% due to a rising number of products coupled with inadequate funding. Lawmakers said greater inspections were particularly important as the volume of imported food increases dramatically, with farm goods from China, for example, growing from $1.2 billion to $2.1 billion from fiscal 2003 to 2006. Many of the worrisome products that have surfaced recently-including fish and pet food-have come from China, but China is not the only problem country. Much of the hazardous food has been produced domestically.
The senators stated that additional funding would allow the FDA to hire more inspectors, pursue additional compliance and enforcement actions, and improve its data management. The FDA is using an obsolete information technology (IT) system that is so lacking that product danger reports are not rapidly compared and analyzed; inspectors' reports are handwritten and slow to move through the system and a lack of backup systems have resulted in lost files.
Senator Edward Kennedy told reporters yesterday that the FDA budget should be doubled over five years. Kennedy, joined by Assistant Senate Majority Leader Senator Dick Durbin and industry and advocacy groups, said the issue is of enormous urgency and they have the answers to resolve this matter.
There is also the issue of a depleted staff, about the same size as it was 15 years ago, despite huge growth in agency responsibilities. Short staffing does not enable the FDA to be proactive and a dearth of scientists due to high turnover rates in some scientific positions at the FDA leaves few who understand emerging technologies.
Both Congress and the Bush administration have reacted to the recent epidemic of food and other product scares, but a solution remains unclear. This year, the Bush administration convened a panel that has initiated a reform process, but critics say it lacks money and substance. Lawmakers in both houses have floated a series of bills, but even advocates of change say that major reform is unlikely to be passed into law in the near future.