Killer pathogens, toxic chemicals, pesticides and hazardous contaminants: all may be making their way to a dinner table near you.
If food safety advocates are correct, additional cuts to The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) and United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) meager budgets will result in even more threats to the U.S. food supply.
A June 21, 2011 memo from U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Inspector General Daniel R. Levinson to Commissioner of Food and Drugs Dr. Margaret Hamburg reviewed 17 Class I recalls.
FDA Was Aware of Violations
FDA Class I recalls are defined as “a situation in which there is a reasonable probability that the use of or exposure to a violative product will cause serious adverse health consequences or death.”
The deadly 17 included foods contaminated with Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, Clostridium botulinum and high lead levels. HHS, authorized by 2011’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) with heightened powers over the FDA, discovered the agency failed to adequately develop or implement food recalls and hadn’t followed its own protocols for ensuring a quick and efficient monitoring process.
HHS’s report revealed the FDA was aware of dangerous food violations, yet allowed offending companies to hold off on alerting the public.
One company stalled for 102 days before issuing any public warning. The memo described how many offenders had no recall strategy in place, provided the FDA with spotty or inaccurate information about the dangers of their product and either didn’t submit timely status reports – or didn’t any reports at all.
Levinson’s analysis paints a bleak picture of the FDA’s ability to oversee food safety, and lists four critical areas where the agency lapsed in its duties:
1. Incomplete company inspections and lack of information about each contaminated product
2. Performing deficient audits of several companies or none at all
3. Failing to review recall strategies
4. Not overseeing the disposal of contaminated products.
After reading the report, the FDA agreed with HHS’ suggestions that the agency needed a protocol overhaul.
Ready or Not?
While the HHS analysis appears to highlight bureaucratic incompetence, a report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Trust for America’s Health entitled “Ready or Not? Protecting the Public’s Health from Diseases, Disasters and Bioterrorism, 2011,” disclosed that state and federal budget cuts are to blame.
Pointing out that public safety had been a primary concern after Sept. 11, the “Ready or Not” report accused slashes to the FDA’s budget as the real problem, and predicts the FSMA won’t be effective if there’s no money to give it teeth.
“The newly enacted food safety law will not fulfill its promise… if the FDA lacks the resources to carry out its new responsibilities,” the report warned.
“Ready or Not” suggested legislation mandating that food companies pay a fee to help cover inspection and enforcement costs “…to ensure the FDA has a stable source of funding.”
The advocacy groups Food and Water Watch and Alliance for a Stronger FDA concur with the “Ready or Not” assessment. Food and Water Watch issued its own analysis of the proposed Congressional budget.
“The federal budget currently proposed by Congress slashes critical funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). President Obama’s proposed budget is not much better. Both budgets fail to provide basic services that most of us expect.”
The Alliance for a Stronger FDA says that dwindling resources are leaving the agency unable to protect the public from dangerous foods and medicines.
The FDA is allocated a mere $8 per person per year. According to the Alliance, “Nowhere else in the federal budget does so little money need to go so far.”
USDA: Lean Budget Cuts Leave Public at Risk
Calling it a “Blueprint for Stronger Service”, the USDA recently announced the shuttering of 259 offices, food laboratories and research stations across the country.
While food safety advocates say the closings are leaving inspectors overworked and underpaid, the USDA characterizes the move as the “optimal use of USDA’s employees, better results for USDA customers, and greater efficiencies for American taxpayers.”
While using optimistic phrases like “streamlining,” “answering the (financial) challenge” and “greater efficiencies,” the agency admits that many offices will only now be staffed by one or two employees. But Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack spoke bluntly to CBS News after the announcement was made.
“Our workload is at record highs, we have less money and fewer people and work to do and we tried to address how do you do that without interrupting service.”