FDA slow to improve import food safety

September 26, 2007

Christopher Doering/Reuters/September 26, 2007

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Food and Drug Administration ignored hundreds of proposals that could have improved the safety of food imported into the United States, former FDA officials told a House Appropriations subcommittee on Tuesday.

The FDA is in charge of 80 percent of the U.S. food supply, mostly fruits and vegetables, and has been criticized as being too passive in handling the growing surge of imports into the United States. Total imports, including food, total $2 trillion annually.

“FDA has failed to implement literally hundreds of proposed solutions to specific import problems, which would have enabled the FDA to begin to progressively focus its limited resources where the risks are indeed the greatest,” said Benjamin England, a former FDA official who co-founded a consulting firm that helps foreign and U.S. companies meet FDA import rules.

The proposals were made more than four years ago in FDA’s Import Strategic Plan that deals with the import of food, drugs and products from other countries.

Rosa DeLauro, who chairs the U.S. House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the FDA, said she was surprised by how “frivolously (FDA) allowed these recommendations to go by the board.”

“It was alarming to discover today that even with the significant problems the country is facing with imported foods, the FDA lacks a formal process that evaluates the food safety systems of other countries,” said the Connecticut Democrat.

England and former FDA employee Carl Nielsen said the pressure is on FDA to direct most of its resources toward domestic food safety. They said FDA lacks enough real-time data on imports and relies mostly on invoices, shipping manifests and other documents that lack information such as where the product was made, the ingredients or process used.

Although food imports grow at 15 percent a year, FDA inspected just 1.3 percent of the goods under its purview in the fiscal year ending September 30, 2006.

In particular, the safety of food and other Chinese products have come under attack in recent months after reports of seafood containing banned antibiotics, contaminated toothpaste and melamine, a chemical used in plastics and fertilizers, being found in U.S. pet food.

Asked by DeLauro whether the FDA needed more authority to do its job, Dr. David Acheson, FDA’s assistant commissioner for food protection, responded: “I believe we do.”

U.S. food companies, concerned the recent import scares may turn away consumers, have asked for tougher government guidelines on how companies verify imported foods or inputs; along with more money given to the FDA, widely seen as understaffed and underfunded.

“The food supply has become so globalized,” said Joseph Levitt, a former 25-year veteran of the FDA, who now represents the Grocery Manufacturers Association/Food Products Association. “Our unique problem is just how large we are.”

The Bush administration also has established a panel to recommend steps to ensure the safety of imports in an effort to restore public confidence. The detailed recommendations are expected in November.

“The time is right for Congress to act on reforming the country’s food safety laws,” said Caroline Smith DeWall, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s food safety program.

She noted a survey by the Food Marketing Institute that showed consumer confidence in food they got from stores and restaurants last year declined 16 percent.

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