U.S. needs ranking of riskiest food products: USDA
By Christopher Doering
The United States needs a ranking of the riskiest products to help inspectors, lawmakers and food safety officials determine where to focus their attention, a top Agriculture Department official said.
"In order to have a uniform system for inspection I would say that there has to be a risk ranking," said Alfred Almanza, administrator for USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.
"When you look at product risk and you look at the risk ranking of where different products stand ... I think that's probably the key for the level of inspection, the amount of inspection, the intensity of the inspection," he told a House Agriculture subcommittee.
The U.S. food supply system has been hit by a series of big food recalls since 2006, leading to vociferous calls by lawmakers, consumer groups and most recently the Obama administration for reform. Several bills have been introduced in Congress to modernize the system.
Last month, President Barack Obama announced a White House panel -- headed by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Health and Human Services chief Kathleen Sebelius -- to find ways to improve food safety.
Almanza said a high-risk ranking should factor in the type of food, the risk of producing and manufacturing the product and how it is handled, especially once it leaves federally inspected or regulated establishments.
"I think that's certainly something that perhaps this food safety working group could do," he suggested.
USDA's FSIS oversees about 20 percent of the food supply -- covering eggs, meat and poultry. The agency has about 7,800 federal inspectors, responsible for about 6,200 slaughter and processing plants in the United States. The Food and Drug Administration covers most of the remainder.
Much of the call for change has been focused on the FDA, which has been impacted by most of the major recalls, including the recent peanut scare, while at the same time being dogged by limited funding, personnel and regulatory oversight.
In an effort to beef-up oversight, USDA has embraced a risk-based inspection system of its own. It still inspects plants under its purview once a day, but now directs more resources depending on the inherent risk of the product produced and how effectively each facility controls risk.
In some cases, the FDA can go several years without inspecting a facility. 4-23-09
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