Report: FDA Lacks Resources and Authority to Safeguard Food Supply

Last Thursday, Jodi Nudelman, Regional Inspector General for Evaluations and Inspections from the Office of Inspector General, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, testified before the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce about the safety of the nation's food supply.

Her remarks were reminiscent of an earlier speech by Dr. Margaret Hamburg, Commissioner of Food and Drugs, and served to underscore the current vulnerabilities of our food supply chain.

Here are a few of the startling specifics:

Each year, more than 300,000 Americans are hospitalized and 5,000 die after consuming contaminated foods and beverages.

More than 56 percent of domestic food manufacturers have gone five or more years without a federal inspection, and regulators can inspect only a small fraction of the foreign firms that ship food to the U.S.

In a report on food traceability, researchers found that only 5 of 40 selected products could be traced through each stage of the food supply chain.

The FDA lacks the resources and authority to adequately safeguard the food supply. In FY 2004, FDA inspected more than 17,000 facilities; in FY 2008, this number dropped to fewer than 15,000. During the same period, the number of food facilities subject to FDA inspection increased from about 59,000 to almost 68,000 facilities. FDA officials attributed the decline in inspections primarily to a significant decrease in staffing levels that resulted from funding cuts.

Clearly, more needs to be done to ensure the safety of the nation's food supply. In her remarks, Nudelman recommended that the FDA:

increase the frequency of food facility inspections, with particular emphasis on high-risk facilities;

provide additional guidance about when it is appropriate to lower OAI (official action indicated) classifications;

take appropriate actions against facilities with OAI classifications, particularly those that have a history of violations;

ensure that violations are corrected for all facilities that receive OAI classifications;

seek statutory authority to allow FDA access to facilities' records during the inspection process; and

consider seeking statutory authority to impose civil penalties through administrative proceedings.

The complete testimony is available here.

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