WEDNESDAY, March 25, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- A new report calls for a radical overhaul of the U.S. food safety system, including the creation of a separate food safety administration with its own food safety czar.
"We want to take the 'F' out of FDA [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] and create a separate food safety administration to make sure this issue gets the attention and resources it deserves," said Jeffrey Levi, executive director of the Trust for America's Health, during a March 25 teleconference marking the release of the report.
"The U.S. food safety system is seriously out of date and fragmented, leaving Americans vulnerable," added Michelle Larkin, public health team director and senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. "We shouldn't have to worry that our kids are going to get sick from their school lunch or that our family is at risk if they eat out at a restaurant or at home."
The report, titled "Keeping America's Food Safe: A Blueprint for Fixing the Food Safety System at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services," was prepared jointly by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Trust for America's Health, a nonprofit advocacy group.
Food safety should be focused on prevention, not action after the fact, the report stated.
Susan Cruzan, an FDA spokeswoman, said that "President Obama has established the White House Food Safety Working Group to examine ways we can reform the system and is strongly committed to strengthening the food-safety system."
"We all agree that we need to start reforming the system and are committed to working together towards that end, although we are not yet in a position to make specific proposals," she said.
Cruzan said the agency is "gathering the information we need to make critical changes and looks forward to working with Congress and the federal government to make these changes as soon as possible, as well as staffing up our critical food safety agencies."
Food safety has become an increasingly hot topic, with not only consumer groups but food industry representatives, government agencies and legislators crying out for change. In a recent radio address, President Barack Obama called for a fundamental restructuring of the food safety system. And several bills have been introduced in Congress to correct problems.
An estimated one in four Americans gets sick from food-borne illnesses each year, but the actual number is probably much higher, Larkin said. Of those people, about 300,000 are hospitalized, and 5,000 die each year.
The most recent failure of the food safety system was the outbreak of salmonella in peanut butter products, which sickened almost 700 people in 46 states this year. Nine people may have died from that episode, and U.S. officials have launched an investigation into a processing plant involved in the shipment of peanut butter and other products in the past that had tested positive for salmonella.
The report identified several key problems in the system, starting with what it called antiquated FDA laws that date back to 1938 and focus on reacting to problems rather than preventing them. The FDA regulates 80 percent of the nation's food supply, with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Agriculture also having jurisdiction in this area.
"The FDA has no mandate to hold all food companies accountable for implementation of modern food safety measures," said Michael R. Taylor, a George Washington University professor and a former FDA deputy commissioner and a former administrator at the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.
He said the second problem cited by the report is too-little funding, and the third -- the actual focus of the report -- is the "fragmented and ineffective organizational structure" at the FDA.
The report recommended several steps toward change, some requiring action by Congress. They include "increasing and aligning resources to highlight risks and threats," Levi said, and adjusting the authority of the secretary of Health and Human Services to prevent outbreaks and illness. This would include establishing food safety standards and requiring companies to implement proper controls.
A third step would be to establish a deputy commissioner at the FDA with line authority over all food safety problems.
Revamping the system would include giving the FDA authority to mandate product recalls -- something now done voluntarily by companies -- and implementing a tracing system.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association said that it would favor giving the FDA mandatory recall authority when a company refuses to conduct a voluntary recall. That was among a number of ideas the trade association said would help improve food safety.
The group issued a statement saying that although it was "not necessarily opposed to the concept of creating a separate food safety administration within HHS ... we also believe that there are steps Congress can take right now that would have a much more immediate and direct impact on improving our food safety system."
Besides changing the recall authority, those steps should include increasing FDA funding to establish federal agricultural and food safety standards for certain fruits and vegetables and to prioritize inspections of foods and facilities that pose the greatest risk.
"The problems are clearly defined, and the solutions are clearly defined," Levi said. "At some point, one has to stop doing oversight and start fixing the problem."
Read the full report at the Trust for America's Health.