FRIDAY, Sept. 26, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- As food-safety problems continue to rock the United States, resulting in massive recalls, illness and even death, the federal Food and Drug Administration remains underfunded and understaffed to protect consumers, a new government report concludes.
The report, released Friday by the Congressional General Accountability Office (GAO), found that the FDA lacks the inspectors, staffers and scientists to safeguard the food supply, particularly fresh produce.
For instance, problems were detected at 41 percent of 2,002 produce plants inspected by the FDA between 2000 and 2007. Yet, in most cases, the agency relied on the plant owners to voluntarily correct the problems, according to the report.
In addition, only 1 percent of produce imported into the United States is inspected by the FDA. This, despite the fact that 60 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables are imported each year.
One in four Americans becomes sick from tainted food each year -- 76 million people. Earlier this year, the largest outbreak of food-borne illness in the past decade was linked to jalapeno and serrano peppers grown at two farms in Mexico. The outbreak sickened 1,442 people, hospitalized 286, and was implicated in two deaths between April and August.
The GAO report also found that, while the FDA has considered fresh produce safety a priority for many years, limited resources and other demands -- such as counterterrorism efforts -- have caused the agency to delay key produce safety activities. The FDA has "no formal program devoted exclusively to fresh produce and has not consistently and reliably tracked its fresh produce spending. Based on FDA estimates, FDA spent at least $20 million and 130 staff years on fresh produce in fiscal year 2007 -- or about 3 percent of its food safety dollars and 4 percent of its food safety staff years," the report said.
In addition, the report said, the FDA has had to "delay issuing final fresh-cut produce guidance at least six years because it had to shift staff to counterterrorism" and investigating outbreaks of food-borne illness.
The report also noted that the FDA has proposed changes in its Food Protection Plan that would improve oversight of fresh produce, but the plan is still in its early stages and hasn't been implemented.
In a brief statement released Friday, the FDA said the agency "appreciates the Congressional investment in its efforts to implement the Food Protection Plan, which calls for two of the very same authorities recommended in this report. In addition, FDA will soon be awarding grants to states to further food and feed safety -- one of the many steps we are taking to transform food protection."
Suresh Pillai, a professor of a microbiology specializing in food safety and environmental microbiology at Texas A&M University, said the issue of food safety has been "a problem that's been ongoing, and it's not only restricted to fresh produce. If you start digging deeper into ground beef and irradiated meat, you have the same issues. Additional resources could help, but even if you get an army of inspectors into a processing plant, the whole issue of microbial contamination of fresh produce is very complicated. There's a lot of science we still don't know."
Besides the challenges of basic scientific knowledge, experts describe a U.S. food-safety system that is fragmented, unwieldy and dauntingly complicated -- themes that were sounded last January in a three-part series on food safety published by HealthDay.
"There are multiple issues here," said Vernon Tesh, professor of microbial and molecular pathogenesis at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine. "It's not just about produce coming in from foreign countries. It's the whole development of a nationwide distribution network."
For instance, fresh produce may arrive from South America or Central America to a centralized distribution center in the United States. Then box-car loads of the produce are transported around the country, Tesh explained.
"If the [food safety] system is going to work, it can't just be limited to monitoring what's coming in to the system," he said. "You have to follow the produce all the way to the point where the consumer purchases it, and that's a big undertaking. It doesn't really surprise me that the funds allocated to the FDA might not cover that field-to-table spectrum."
According to a report issued in April by the Trust for America's Health, about 85 percent of food-borne illness outbreaks occur among foods regulated by the FDA. Yet, the agency gets less than half of all federal funding for food safety. In the past three years, the FDA has cut back its food safety program by cutting its science staff by 20 percent and losing 600 food safety inspectors, the report said.
What's to be done?
"I see this as requiring a two-pronged attack," Tesh said. "The first is that you have to have better inspection. The other issue is what do you do after you find a problem. In addition to detecting a problem, you have to have a means of enforcing regulation."
Learn more about the food safety system at foodsafety.gov.