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FDA Needs Food Safety Overhaul: Report

Focus must shift from reacting to illness outbreaks to preventing them, experts say

TUESDAY, June 8, 2010 (HealthDay News) -- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) isn't equipped to handle problems with the food supply and is in need of a major revamping, a government panel of experts reported Tuesday.

To come up to speed, the FDA needs to squarely focus its efforts on identifying and addressing high-risk areas and on preventing foodborne illness in the first place, stated the report, issued today by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and the National Research Council at the request of Congress.

Among other things, the report recommends giving the FDA authority to issue mandatory recall of food products and to delegate responsibility for inspections to states, which already handle about 60 percent of this task.

"The agency's approach now is too reactive and lacks a systematic focus on prevention," Dr. Robert Wallace, chairman of the committee that prepared the report and professor of epidemiology and internal medicine at the University of Iowa College of Public Health, said at a Tuesday news conference. "The time has come to modernize the FDA's food safety program focusing on the development of an integrated, risk-based system."

A leading consumer group applauded the report.

"A distinguished panel of experts has concluded that FDA has neither the resources nor the powers it needs to keep our food safe," Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union, said in a prepared statement. "The report recommends that Congress act to give FDA the power to order recalls of tainted food, which amazingly, it still lacks. The report further urges that Congress require all food processors to register with the FDA, to act proactively to prevent foodborne illness, and tell the FDA when they discover adulterated products. FDA needs all these powers as well as a mandate to inspect high-risk processors at least annually. While the House passed a bill last July that would give FDA much of what it needs, the reform legislation remains stalled in the Senate. The time is now for Congress to act."

The FDA, which is supposed to oversee the safety of about 80 percent of the U.S. food supply, has been besieged by a spate of recent outbreaks of foodborne illnesses. These have led to recalls of salmonella-tainted salad dressings, snacks, soup mixes, pistachios and peanuts, among other food items.

The 2009 peanut debacle alone sickened almost 700 people and may have contributed to at least nine deaths, the FDA reported.

According to Wallace, the agency now needs to focus on identifying key threats to the nation's food system. Without this information, he said, "it can't identify where resources are needed and to determine the best policy interventions."

Meanwhile, Congress has a job to do revamping legislation regarding FDA's authority in facility registration, prevention control, mandatory recall, reporting of contamination and banning of imports if the public's health is at risk.

One bill covering some of these issues has already passed the House.

And as many have urged before, the country needs a single food safety agency, Wallace said. Right now that responsibility is split largely between the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with much overlap.

The FDA, which sponsored the report, responded with a prepared statement.

"Food safety is an important issue for the entire administration," stated FDA commissioner Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg. "Through the President's Food Safety Working Group, which includes all agencies involved in food safety, we already are making significant progress to ensure government agencies are working seamlessly to protect the American public. At FDA, we are engaged in the long-term, strategic transformation of our Foods Program, including appointing a Deputy Commissioner for Foods to oversee the newly created Office of Foods."

"While FDA looks forward to reviewing the IOM report in greater detail, the report clearly highlights the need for enactment of pending legislation that provides much needed authorities and resources to assist in our efforts to ensure the safety of our nation's food supply," she concluded.

More information

Access the full report at the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.

SOURCES: June 8, 2010 news conference with Robert B. Wallace, M.D., committee chair and professor of epidemiology and internal medicine, College of Public Health, University of Iowa; statement of Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D., FDA Commissioner; statement of Jean Halloran, director, food policy initiatives, Consumers Union; Enhancing Food Safety: The Role of the Food and Drug Administration
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