Fall/Winter 2010 Vol. 10 Number 3
Food Safety in America
A new report from the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council offers a blueprint for enhancing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's food safety role and for establishing the authority and central coordination currently missing in the nation's food surveillance and response system.
In Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel The Jungle, animals, garbage, and worse were indiscriminately processed into meat products. A century later, the graphic reports of unsanitary conditions at two egg production facilities involved in a nationwide salmonella outbreak might lead people to wonder how far we have come. Foodborne illnesses kill roughly 5,000 people every year and sicken another 300,000 severely enough to require hospitalization, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many of the laws that shape the government's powers to respond to food threats date back to the early 1900s, spurring some to ask whether new regulations or a new agency focused exclusively on food safety is needed.
Many people are surprised to learn that FDA cannot force product recalls or shut down facilities with violations. The report recommends a congressional examination of ways to more clearly spell out FDA's authority to register food facilities, issue mandatory recalls, ban imports, and other powers. A bill to update the nation's antiquated food safety regulatory powers has been passed by the House of Representatives and is awaiting Senate consideration.
With oversight of about 80 percent of the nation's food supply, FDA is the most visible agency responsible for food safety, but it is not the sole authority. The U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees meat, poultry, and egg products, and at least five other federal agencies have roles as well. In addition, state and local departments share in conducting inspections, surveillance, and outbreak investigations. One of the overriding challenges is the overlap and occasional disconnect between the many different groups involved, as illustrated by the lack of communication among officials who visited the egg facilities.
Since much of the work that goes into protecting the food supply depends on data collection and sharing, the report calls on the federal government to establish a centralized food safety data center separate from the responsible agencies. It should collect information and conduct rapid, sophisticated assessments of food safety risks and potential interventions. This center would reduce interagency competition for resources, and it could serve as an intermediate step toward consolidating food safety activities within a single agency, whose creation many individuals and organizations have demanded.
Data is also crucial for efficiently marshalling limited resources. FDA has been criticized for not adequately monitoring food suppliers and distributors. Given that the agency is responsible for 150,000-plus food facilities, more than 1 million restaurants and 2 million farms, and millions of tons of imports, however, there are not enough resources to consistently monitor the entire food supply, the report notes.
To more effectively use its finite resources, FDA should shift to a risk-based approach that would give the agency's officials the strategic vision needed to evaluate and plan for food safety concerns. They would then be able to steer resources to higher-risk areas rather than tackling problems on a case-by-case basis as they occur. FDA uses some risk assessment and management tactics, but it lacks a systematic focus on prevention.
To further enhance its efficiency, FDA should explore delegating food facility inspections to the states given that roughly 60 percent of inspections are already conducted by state inspectors. The agency could establish national standards for inspections, train and certify inspectors, and supervise their work. -- Christine Stencel
Enhancing Food Safety: The Role of the Food and Drug Administration. Committee on the Review of Food and Drug Administration's Role in Ensuring Safe Food, Institute of Medicine and National Research Council (2010, 360 pp.; ISBN 0-309-15273-9; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $71.00 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies).
The committee was chaired by Robert B. Wallace, professor, College of Public Health, University of Iowa, Iowa City. The study was sponsored by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.