FDA, lacking staff and budget, falls short on oversight of food processing

fda-300x125Uncle Sam, estimating that 48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases each year in the United States, has pledged to step up preventive and protective measures to prevent these all too common health banes. Here’s the dirty secret about that vow: The federal Food and Drug Administration lacks the staff to do so in some key ways. And it faces further cuts in its funding.

Inspectors from the federal Health and Human Services department (HHS) have audited FDA inspection data from 2011 to 2015, finding, according to the Washington Post:

Government inspectors failed to take action on one of every five serious food-safety risks identified in manufacturing facilities. … In the remaining cases, the [FDA] almost always asked food manufacturers to correct violations voluntarily. In one incident in 2013, FDA inspectors found listeria in a facility where rain dripped through holes in the ceiling onto food prep areas. While FDA asked the facility to address the problems, samples from the factory still tested positive for listeria two years later. That same year, FDA inspectors found salmonella in a facility that made ready-to-eat seafood, salads and dips. They did not send the facility a warning letter or initiate any other corrective actions.

The inspectors, in taking the jab at the FDA, noted that it likely lacks the staff it needs to carry out responsibilities that Congress broadened for it in 2011 under the Food Safety Modernization Act, which, the Washington Post reported, “made it mandatory for the agency to carry out routine inspections of all domestic food processors.” But:

The agency’s total funding decreased over that same period, and employment in the Office of Regulatory Affairs — the branch of the FDA primarily responsible for conducting field inspections — had increased by only 11 percent as of 2013, the most recent year for which data is available.

Lawmakers have ordered the FDA to step up its inspections of domestic food processors, enterprises whose number went from 76,000 to 86,000 in just three years and who include everything from tofu-makers to flour-millers to coffee roasters. FDA inspectors are supposed to chase the processors with ever more detailed, expensive site visits and follow-ups about the cleanliness and absence of rodents, insects, and other pests and problems, as well as their workers’ hygiene and sanitary food-handling practices.

The FDA has made multiple requests for more money from Congress and the White House to pay for more inspections. The Washington Post notes that President Trump’s budget calls for the agency to take $83 million in cuts.

With fingers crossed, it’s good news that, thus far, 2017 is heading to the books as a year with spare, major, national crises in outbreaks of foodborne illnesses. We shouldn’t rely on mere luck to ensure this good circumstance prevails, and it certainly is helpful to prevent our getting sick from what we eat by ensuring we have robust funding for a robust inspection regimen throughout the chain by which we get our good. Before lawmakers rush to find tax cuts to shower on the super rich, they may want to think about funding for health and medical programs that benefit us all.

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