Grading Progress on Food Safety

Source of Article:  http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/06/opinion/06sat2.html?em

Published: December 6, 2008

The Food and Drug Administration is claiming considerable progress over the past year in protecting the nation’s food supply from pathogens and toxic substances. But the steps described in its self-assessment warrant only a so-so grade.

The agency released a report this week describing what officials call a “hugely ambitious” campaign to redesign the whole approach to food inspection. The goal is to root out tainted food — whether produced abroad or in this country — at the earliest stages of the production and distribution process while being ready to respond quickly if pathogens start reaching consumers.

The philosophy is sound. Imported foods are the focus of greatest concern. And it makes good sense to detect and eliminate contamination at a manufacturing or distribution plant abroad rather than trying to intercept tainted products at our borders. It is encouraging that the agency has already hired staff for new offices in China and India that will try to ensure the safety of food products before they are exported. It also has plans to open offices in Europe, Latin America and the Middle East as well.

The agency also deserves credit for approving the use of irradiation to kill bacteria on spinach and iceberg lettuce; for developing methods to detect even trace levels of melamine, a contaminant that has sickened a horrifying number of infants in China; for inspecting some 5,900 “high risk” domestic food establishments; and for starting to hire more than 100 new employees to conduct inspections and collect samples.

None of this is enough to ease concerns over the safety of the food supply. The F.D.A. regulates some 65,000 food firms in this country. Inspecting 5,900 of them is only a modest beginning. While it is useful to have offices abroad, it is not yet clear how effectively they will be given some countries’ resistance to admit problems.

By most accounts, the F.D.A. is still vastly underfinanced to carry out its widening responsibilities. The Obama administration and the next Congress will need to determine how much more money can be provided and what additional legislative authority is needed to trace contaminants through the food supply and recall tainted products.

They should also re-examine whether the Bush administration’s heavy reliance on the private sector to ensure safety needs to be rebalanced with more effective and vigilant regulation.





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