safety reform waits on back burner
of Article: http://www.freshplaza.com/news_detail.asp?id=35831
Many on Capitol Hill have called for an FDA overhaul, although it's unlikely
a sympathetic Obama administration can get to it soon.
Despite calls from the incoming Obama administration to bolster the embattled
Food and Drug Administration, the agency is unlikely to see major reform soon
as bigger problems with higher profiles once again shoulder aside food safety
in the competition for resources.
Some of the leading champions of rebuilding the FDA and the food safety
system acknowledge that the faltering economy, healthcare, global warming and
other issues will make it tough to allocate more money for food safety,
despite years of scandals involving food poisoning and tainted imports.
"This is an issue that will have to wait its turn," said
Assistant Senate Majority Leader Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), a longtime
proponent of tougher food laws and a friend of President-elect Barack Obama.
Instead of assuming more direct control of the inspection system, the government
seems likely to remain heavily dependent on growers, food processors and
others in the industry to police themselves and the food supply.
Durbin and others on Capitol Hill nonetheless plan to push ahead with
legislation to try to strengthen the FDA, the much maligned agency
responsible for overseeing about 80% of the food Americans eat. (Most meat
and dairy products are regulated by the Department of Agriculture; fresh
produce and most processed foods are the responsibility of the FDA.)
Obama, who has backed Durbin's efforts and sponsored his own legislation to
strengthen state and local food oversight, will continue to back them,
according to an official working on his transition.
The federal government's food oversight was once seen as a model. But after
years of neglect -- and Bush administration distaste for aggressive
government regulation -- a series of deadly food-borne disease outbreaks
involving peanut butter, spinach and peppers called public attention to holes
in the FDA's capacity to stay on top of a rapidly expanding food market.
The agency struggled to identify the sources of contaminated foods, most
recently this spring, when federal officials initially linked a salmonella
outbreak to tomatoes before concluding that jalapeno peppers from Mexico were
the likely culprit.
At the same time, contaminated pet food from China exposed weaknesses in the
agency's system for regulating imports.
Consumer groups lambasted the agency for failing to protect the public.
Food-borne illnesses sicken as many as 76 million people and kill an
estimated 5,000 each year.
Growers complained that the FDA's failure to identify the source of
contaminated food quickly intensified public fears. That, in turn, decimated
the market for products like leafy greens and tomatoes.
"The spinach industry has never recovered," said Tom Nassif, who heads the Western Growers Assn., a leading
national trade group based in California.
Independent reviews by the Government Accountability Office and others found
the agency lacked even basic information technology capabilities to analyze
data and assess risks.
"We need some radical shifts," Dr. David Acheson, the FDA's
associate commissioner for foods, said recently.
A year ago the FDA announced a plan for reforming itself, promising a major
expansion of overseas inspections, better systems to identify where risks are
highest, and more cooperation with state and local authorities as well as
The agency opened an office in China
this year and plans to open one each in India
and Latin America in 2009.
But the promised changes have not come soon enough for critics, including
many on Capitol Hill.
"There is little question that the FDA is dysfunctional," said Rep.
Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who has pushed for a more sweeping overhaul of the
agency. "The current structure is incapable of addressing food safety
DeLauro thinks the FDA has given short shrift to its food inspection duties
as it has focused on evaluating pharmaceuticals and medical devices. Those
efforts consume the lion's share of the agency's budget.
She has pushed legislation to carve out an agency that would focus
exclusively on food.
Durbin has called for an even bigger federal agency that would unify food
oversight responsibilities that are currently scattered among the FDA,
Agriculture Department and 13 other federal agencies.
Despite the evidence of problems and broad support for attacking them, few
believe that is likely soon. "That is a heavy political lift,"
If they can't rebuild the agency, critics say they will start by trying to
rebuild its legal authority.
Durbin and a bipartisan group of senators have proposed authorizing the FDA
to set binding national standards for the safe production of fruits and
vegetables, something the agency says it cannot do now.
The lawmakers also want to empower the FDA to order recalls and to access
industry records in the event of a recall.
In the crush of legislation this year, the bill expanding those powers never
came up for a vote. Next year Congress may be preoccupied with the economy
and potentially with a healthcare overhaul.
More money is also an uncertain prospect, though many in the food industry
agree that inadequate FDA funding has hobbled the agency's ability to keep up
with the rapidly expanding food marketplace.
Last year, fewer domestic food companies were inspected than in 2001, even
though more firms were under FDA jurisdiction -- 65,000, up from 51,000 --
according to the GAO.
"They simply have to hire an inspection force that can enforce the
rules," said Tony Corbo, senior food lobbyist
for Food and Water Watch, a consumer rights group in Washington.
One of the leading champions of more FDA funding is the Grocery Manufacturing
Assn., which represents food and beverage companies.
This year the Bush administration requested an additional $275 million for
the FDA's food safety program in the wake of the salmonella scandal. Last
year the agency received $620 million for food protection, the GAO
It is virtually certain that the agency will have to rely on private
companies to do much of its food inspection, a prospect accepted even by
lawmakers like Durbin, who has long championed tougher consumer protections.
Durbin's bill would have allowed so-called third parties to inspect domestic
and foreign food supplies to ensure they comply with U.S.
Obama has not indicated what he has planned for the FDA, although he is
expected to name his choice to head the agency soon.
Many are watching closely. "Consumer groups," said Chris Waldrop,
who directs the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America,
"have very high expectations that this administration will do things