Keep America’s Food Safe
The Case for Increased Funding at FDA
Outbreaks in 2006 and 2007 linked to fresh produce and processed peanut butter and canned chili are just the latest symptom of an agency that is overwhelmed by responsibility, but lacking the staff and resources to function effectively. Without adequate funding, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) responds to crisis after crisis rather than preventing them.
Since 1972, inspections conducted by the FDA declined 81 percent. Since 2003, the number of FDA field staff dropped by 12 percent, and between 2003 and 2006 federal inspections dropped by 47 percent. These declines in inspectors and inspections can be traced to an ongoing funding shortfall in the food safety program estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Declines in inspections and inspectors have an impact on the safety of the food supply. The Peter Pan peanut butter outbreak — affecting more than 600 people in 47 states — and recall in February of 2007 shows the consequences of this gap in inspection capacity. In that outbreak Salmonella-contaminated peanut butter might have been discovered earlier by a more robust inspection program at FDA, as the agency requested test results from the company in 2005 but never followed up to obtain them.
Fewer Inspectors Covering More to Inspect
Even as the number of inspectors and inspections declines, the need for more inspectors in critical areas, such as imported foods, has been continuously increasing. Imports of FDA-regulated foods have more than doubled in the last 7 years—from 4 million shipments in 2000 to approximately 9 million shipments in 2006. Of these 9 million shipments, only 0.2 percent were analyzed in a laboratory as part of its inspection process. Currently, FDA has the capacity to inspect only one percent of food at the U.S. border.
FDA’s food program had a funding shortfall of $135 million in 2006, which an FDA budget official described as equivalent to a 24 percent budget cut. This year, estimates of the shortfall range from $140 million to $250 million.
The latest report from the FDA Science Board says that FDA’s food program is in critical condition. It “cannot sufficiently monitor either the tremendous volume of products manufactured domestically or the exponential growth of imported products,” according to these scientific advisors to FDA. The proof of the report is in the number of food outbreaks and recalls over the last 16 months. Preventing illnesses and outbreaks takes money. Without it, millions of consumers are at increased risk of becoming ill from something they eat.
FDA: the Neglected Stepchild
Federal food safety efforts also suffer from confusion caused by both the 100-year-old food safety laws and the bureaucracies that enforce them. Federal food safety expenditures are not distributed evenly across all the high risk foods, but instead are concentrated on meat and poultry products regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). In fact, while USDA regulates one-fifth of the food supply causing 27 percent of outbreaks, its food safety appropriations are double those given to FDA.
USDA has the resources to inspect meat and poultry plants daily, as required by law. In contrast, FDA, which regulates 80 percent of the food supply, inspects food facilities it oversees on average just once every 10 years. USDA employs more than 7,600 inspectors who are stationed in 6,282 establishments to carry out its inspection mandate. FDA, meanwhile, has fewer than 2,000 inspectors who are spread over 136,000 domestic food processors and warehouses. When it comes to authority and resources, FDA remains the neglected stepchild of our food safety system.
A consequence of the funding shortfall is a loss of consumer confidence in the safety of the food supply reflected in a Harris Poll that found the number of people who thought FDA was doing an “excellent” or “good” job dropped from 61 percent in 2000 to 36 percent in 2006.
FDA’s Funding Crisis: What Needs to Happen
CSPI, working with the Alliance for a Stronger FDA, is urging the Bush Administration to give FDA a realistic budget request for 2009 that will address this urgent shortfall and to support the need for a multi-year effort to at least double FDA’s budget within 5 years. FDA needs an increase for next year in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Anything less will fail to address the on-going crisis in consumer confidence, as Americans realize that FDA is unable to address pressing food safety problems.
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