- The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been criticized in a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report for insufficient supervision of fresh produce, resulting in frequent outbreaks of food-borne illnesses.
- Fresh produce inspections by the FDA are lacking due to staffing shortages. A significant 41% of inspected produce plants between 2000-2007 had issues.
- A large proportion of fresh produce imports (60%) into the U.S. bypass FDA inspection, further escalating the risk of contamination and food-borne illnesses.
- The FDA has limited resources and other commitments, such as counterterrorism activities, have detracted from efficient produce safety checks.
- Despite the existence of a proposed Food Protection Plan, its implementation has been delayed due to resource allocations towards other responsibilities.
Food safety issues continue to cast a shadow over the United States. These issues have resulted in extensive product recalls, illnesses, and even deaths, raising questions about the efficiency of the federal Food and Drug Administration in safeguarding consumers. A governmental report has come to light, placing the effectiveness of FDA into question.
Shortage of Key Players in FDA
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, made public recently, highlights the fact that the FDA is lacking the sort of manpower, namely inspectors, staff and scientists, to effectively secure the food supply. Fresh produce is drawing a lot of attention in this matter.
For example, out of 2,002 produce plants that the FDA inspected between 2000 and 2007, issues were flagged at a staggering 41 percent. However, most often, the FDA depended on the plant owners to willingly resolve these issues, as stated in the report.
The Import Issue
Further, only 1 percent of produce imported into the U.S. undergo inspection by FDA. Nonetheless, each year around 60 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables are imported into the country, leaving a massive grey area in terms of safety and quality control.
In one year, about one in four Americans, approximately 76 million people, fall ill due to contaminated food. The most severe food-borne illness outbreak in the last decade was connected to jalapeno and serrano peppers grown at farms in Mexico earlier this year. This outbreak afflicted 1,442 individuals, 286 were hospitalised, and tragic death of two people occurred between April and August.
Limited Resources and Counterterrorism Efforts
The GAO report also pointed out that, although ensuring fresh produce safety has been a priority for FDA for several years, limited resources and other responsibilities (like counterterrorism efforts) have prevented the agency from performing key safety activities related to produce. The report stated that the FDA has “no formal program devoted exclusively to fresh produce and has not consistently and reliably tracked its fresh produce spending.”
Further, the report mentions that, the FDA has delayed issuance of the final fresh-cut produce guidance by at least six years due to the need for staff reallocation towards counterterrorism and the investigation of food-borne disease outbreak.
While the FDA does have a proposed Food Protection Plan that could enhance the supervision of fresh produce, it is still in the nascent stages and yet to be implemented. In a recent statement, the FDA acknowledged the imperative need to augment the effort to implement the Food Protection Plan. A portion of this initiative includes awarding grants in a bid to boost food and feed safety.
The Broader Issue
According to Suresh Pillai, a professor of microbiology with specialization in food safety and environmental microbiology at Texas A&M University, this issue is not limited to just fresh produce. He highlighted that the same issues could be found if a deeper investigation is launched into packaged ground meat and irradiated meat, hinting at the insidious nature of these problems.
Another aspect of the conundrum is the fragmentation, cumbersomeness, and formidable complexity of the U.S. food-safety system. Vernon Tesh, professor of microbial and molecular pathogenesis at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine, explained that this isn’t solely about the imported produce; the entire domestic distribution network comes under scrutiny.
Regulation and Enforcement
Tesh suggested that the effective functioning of this [food safety] system requires not just monitoring the system initially but also tracking the produce all the way to the point of purchase by the consumer. He mentioned that this is a huge undertaking and is not surprised that the amounts allocated to the FDA may not suffice for this extensive ‘field-to-table’ spectrum.
Based on a report by the Trust for America’s Health published in April, approx 85% of foodborne outbreaks are linked to food regulated by the FDA. However, the agency receives less than half of all federal funding for food safety. In the past three years, the FDA has downsized its food safety program by reducing its scientific staff by 20% that led to a loss of 600 food safety inspectors according to the report.
Inspection and Enforcement
Tesh stipulates a two-pronged attack to solve this problem – stronger inspection and improved enforcement post detection of an issue.
To learn more about the food safety system, visit: foodsafety.gov.