MONDAY, Dec. 1, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- Responding to criticism that it has done a poor job safeguarding the nation's food supply, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released a report Monday detailing its efforts to protect consumers.
Among the most important changes in 2008 was the agency's initiative to build better relationships with state and local health departments to protect the food supply, said Dr. David Acheson, assistant commissioner for food protection at the FDA.
"Another big success is the strategic change we are making with regard to imports. What you could call the 'globalization of FDA,' which is shifting our emphasis on inspection on the port of entry only to more of a product-lifecycle approach," Acheson said. "We are focused on building the systems to better understand what's going on in foreign manufacturing."
U.S. consumers have been bombarded during the past two years with a series of worrisome headlines, ranging from milk products, blood-thinning medication and pet foods contaminated with the industrial chemical melamine imported from China; to jalapeno peppers from Mexico bearing the salmonella bacteria; to U.S.-produced spinach poisoned with the E. coli bacteria.
The new report updates progress made since the FDA unveiled its Food Protection Plan in 2007. Titled Food Protection Plan: One-Year Progress Summary, the document cites improvements in three areas: prevention of outbreaks of food-borne disease; intervention; and response to outbreaks. Some of the accomplishments include:
- The agency said it's in the process of opening five offices around the world, to be staffed with its own inspectors, in China, India, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East.
- The FDA participated in meetings in China to discuss food-safety issues in both countries and to share suggestions on ways to address global food safety.
- It is hiring an "international notification coordinator" to serve as a liaison between the FDA and its foreign counterparts.
- It has approved the irradiation of iceberg lettuce and spinach to control toxins such as E. coli.
- It has developed tests to detect contaminants such as melamine and cyanuric acid.
On the intervention front, the FDA said it has inspected 5,930 high-risk food establishments in the past year; has developed a rapid detection test for E. coli and salmonella in food that's now being used in poultry-processing plants; and has expanded its database of "adverse drug events" to include "adverse feed events," to respond faster to outbreaks of feed-borne disease in animals, among other efforts.
As for its "response" efforts, the FDA said it's working with industry and the public to find better ways of tracing fresh produce in the food-supply chain; has hired two "emergency/complaint-response coordinators" to improve the agency's response to emergencies involving animal feed, including pet food; and has reached agreements with six states to create a "rapid response team" for food and food-borne illnesses.
In response to the threat of melamine-contaminated infant formula and milk products from China, the FDA said it has canvassed more than 2,100 stores stocking Asian products to remove them from store shelves.
Some critics think the FDA's food-safety efforts still don't go far enough.
"We were not a huge fan of some of the goals they laid out, so we are not a huge fan of the progress they've made," said Patty Lovera, assistant director of the consumer watchdog group Food & Water Watch.
Lovera thinks the FDA needs to have more independent authority to enforce food safety.
"They are too reliant on the industry," Lovera said. "They are really collaborating with the industry -- there is really not new regulation. There is not an overall commitment to enforcement domestically or abroad. This whole plan they are reporting progress on, we think is a step in the wrong direction."
Lovera said many of the food-safety problems that occurred this year highlighted the FDA's shortcomings. For example, late last week, the agency set acceptable levels of melamine in domestic infant formula -- one month after stating that no levels were acceptable.
"That's a month after they said, 'Oh, we don't think there is any safe level for infants.' Then magically, they said, 'Now we have a safe level for infants,' " Lovera said. "They are always in catch-up mode, they are always in response mode."
Jeffrey Levi is an associate professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, and a senior policy advisor to the consumer group Trust for America's Health. He said the new FDA report fails to offer enough guidance for what needs to be done to protect the food supply.
"The report does not rise to the level of providing a roadmap for the next administration about the challenges ahead, the resources that will be needed, and the milestones against which we can measure progress," Levi said.
The challenges to food safety are growing, Levi said. "Especially as we import more food, especially as the food-production system becomes more complex, we need a system that keeps up with that," he said.
Consumers Union, while acknowledging some progress, also said the FDA wasn't doing enough to protect the American food supply.
"The FDA needs a complete overhaul, including but not limited to vastly increased funding, far greater staff and much more frequent inspections of both domestic and foreign food processors," Consumers Union said in a news release. "While FDA's progress report states that the agency has inspected 5,930 domestic food establishments during fiscal year 2008, a January 2008 GAO report analyzing the Food Protection Plan states that there are 65,520 domestic food production facilities in the U.S. This means that FDA is still inspecting U.S. food production facilities only once every 10 years. At this rate, we would not be surprised to see more problems like the salmonella that was found in peanut butter manufactured at a Georgia processing facility in 2007."
Besides regulating drugs and medical devices, the FDA oversees about 80 percent of the U.S. food supply, including many foods grown abroad.
For more on food safety, visit the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.