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Report Slams U.S. Food Safety System

Overhaul of outdated inspection practices desperately needed, critics say

WEDNESDAY, April 30 (HealthDay News) -- The current system that guarantees the safety of food in the United States is in a state of crisis, a new report finds.

Gaps in the food safety system include out-of-date laws, poor use of resources, and inconsistencies among agencies protecting food safety, according to the report Fixing Food Safety: Protecting America's Food From Farm-to-Fork, released Wednesday by Trust for America's Health.

"One in four Americans are sickened by food-borne illness each year, that's 76 million people," Jeffrey Levi, executive director of Trust for America's Health said during a morning teleconference Wednesday. "That number is far too high, and major gaps in our nation's food safety system are to blame."

"The major problem with the current food safety system is that no one person is in charge," Levi said. "Instead, there are total of 15 federal agencies that play a role in administering some 30 laws related to food safety."

The whole system needs to change from one that responds to threats as they happen to a more preventive system that tackles challenges before they arise, Levi said. At the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food safety is on the back burner, he added.

According to the report, the U.S. food safety system has not been changed in more than 100 years. Most of the funds spent on food safety are spent on outdated practices of inspecting poultry, beef and pork carcasses, even though changing agricultural practices make this a waste of government money.

Levi noted that despite realizing that the food supply is vulnerable to a terrorist attack, the federal government has devoted very limited resources to the problem, despite a presidential directive and recent serious outbreaks of food-borne illnesses.

Not enough money is spent on fighting bacterial threats such as salmonella and E. coli. About 85 percent of food-borne illness outbreaks occur among foods regulated by the FDA. Yet, the agency gets less than half of all federal funding for food safety, Levi noted.

In the past three years, the FDA has cut back its food safety program by cutting its science staff by 20 percent and losing 600 food safety inspectors, according to the report.

However, on Wednesday, the FDA announced that over the next few months it will be hiring 1,300 biologists, chemists, medical officers, mathematical statisticians and investigators. However, how many of these new positions will be devoted to food safety isn't clear, Levi said.

The report also criticized the number of federal agencies involved in food safety. For example, the FDA regulates frozen pizza, unless there is meat on it, in which case, it is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Moreover, only 1 percent of imported food is inspected, even though about 60 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables and 75 percent of seafood is imported.

Recommendations to fix these problems include:

  • Start inspecting foods throughout the entire food production and processing chain.
  • Enact procedures that will allow the inspection system to be updated as changes occur.
  • Establish standard practices of authority for recall and penalties.
  • Improve inspection of imported foods.
  • Increase FDA funding to improve food safety.

Ultimately, Levi thinks a new federal agency should be responsible for all food safety.

"The goal should be to consolidate and align all federal food safety functions into a single agency, to increase effectiveness, responsibility and accountability," Levi said. "The agency could then address the food supply as a whole and set priorities accordingly."

"Some of the critique is right, but we differ with them on some of their recommendations," said Patty Lovera, assistant director of the consumer watchdog group, Food & Water Watch. "There is a little too much optimism in the report."

One of the problems is that the FDA has not been forthcoming on what it needs to improve food safety, Lovera said.

"The FDA keeps coming to Congress and saying they aren't able to assess what they need," she said. "They need to come up with a number about what it would take to improve oversight."

In addition, the FDA has so far refused to release data about the extent of its food safety inspections, which has caused Food & Water Watch to sue the agency, Lovera said.

In another criticism of the nation's food supply system, a report released Tuesday from the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health questioned current animal-rearing practices.

The report Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America calls for limiting use of drugs in animals destined for the food supply. The report also criticizes large feeding lots that bring together tens of thousands of animals and releasing large quantities of animal waste that contaminate water supplies and spread disease.

The report calls for phasing out these troubling animal farming practices over the next 10 years. Some of these practices include crating pregnant sows to prevent them from turning around, which restricts them from nursing, small cages for egg-laying hens, and force-feeding geese and ducks.

More information

For more about food safety, visit the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

SOURCES: April 30, 2008, teleconference with Jeffrey Levi, Ph.D., executive director, Trust for America's Health; Patty Lovera, assistant director, Food & Water Watch, Washington, D.C.; Fixing Food Safety: Protecting America's Food From Farm-to-Fork; Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America

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