The recent peanut butter/salmonella outbreak offers
another opportunity to reflect on the underlying budget crisis and staff
shortage at the Food and Drug Administration. I interviewed Tommy Thompson,
former Secretary of Health and Human Services, about what the peanut butter
debacle tells us about the FDA inspections of our food supply.
Val: Has this recent outbreak influenced how the FDA tracks food
Thompson: No it hasnít. We have a serious food problem in America
because the FDA is understaffed. There have been too many outbreaks of food
poisoning Ė everything from listeria on cucumbers
and onions to salmonella infections from ice cream and peanut butter. Approximately
82 million people experience an episode of food poisoning each year,
350,000 of them require treatment in a hospital and 8,000 die. People donít
seem to realize what a large problem food poisoning is until there is a new
outbreak. The recent peanut butter contamination affected between 700-800
different food products.
need to realize that the FDA is severely understaffed and cannot do the
inspections necessary to protect all of our food. Iíve been harping about
this for a long time. When I was Secretary of HHS I was able to increase
the number of inspectors by 100%, but since I left, the funding was
decreased and the numbers of inspectors is back to the level when I
are 64,000 venues that the FDA has to inspect, and there are only 700
inspectors. It is geographically and mathematically impossible to do all
the inspections. The FDA is responsible for inspecting 80% of our food
supply while the department of agriculture does the rest. The department of
agriculture has 7,000 employees and 6,000 venues that they have to inspect.
Just compare the resource differential between the FDA and the department
of agriculture and you see the serious constraints under which the FDA
department of agriculture inspects every meat processing factory every day.
But an FDA inspector may get to a food processing plant only once every 6
or 7 years.
Dr. Val: Wow, thatís
enlightening and also terrifying at the same time.
Thompson: Yes, it really is. We inspect less than 1% of the
food coming into America.
The amount of imported food continues to increase as the number of
inspectors decreases. We have some serious problems with our food supply
and itís about time that Congress recognized this.
FDA is doing the best job they can, and yet they are regularly criticized
by the media. When you consider their limitations, theyíre doing a heck of
a good job with the resources they have.
Dr. Val: So what do we need
to do to improve this situation?
Thompson: The FDA needs a larger budget, we need to get more
inspectors out there, we need updated testing technology, but we also need
a more modern law that would require food processing plants to file an
affidavit with the FDA to ensure that their food is safe. Thereís very
little supervision of these companies.
Dr. Val: Is there anything
the public can do to petition the government to increase funding to the FDA
so they can inspect our food properly?
Thompson: Thereís a coalition to improve the quality of
food inspections at FDA and Iím a part of that. There are people in
Congress who are working on introducing legislation to provide the FDA the
resources necessary to hire more inspectors, and to require affidavits of
safety from food processing plants.
Dr. Val: Do you think Dr.
Joshua Sharfstein will become the new FDA
Thompson: Sharfstein is being
considered for a position at FDA, whether itís commissioner, assistant
commissioner, or chief of staff I donít know.
Dr. Val: Do you have any advice
for the new FDA commissioner, whoever it is?
Thompson: Yes. In addition to lobbying for increased funding
to support more inspector positions, he or she should consider appointing a
special commissioner of food that would report directly to the Secretary of
Health and Human Services. The new FDA commissioner should focus on getting
medicines and new drugs to market. In 2008 we had fewer new drugs get to
market than any year since 1981. The entire FDA is overworked, the
responsibilities are great, and congress meddles too much in their affairs,
though that may change now that the democrats control both houses and the
staff at FDA are becoming demoralized because
every time they make a decision someone in congress criticizes them for it.
Then they become reluctant to make decisions at all.