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The Nation

Food safety makes list of flawed federal programs

A disjointed inspection system has left the nation vulnerable to food-borne illness, says a report to Congress.

February 01, 2007|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Government Accountability Office on Wednesday added food safety to its list of critically flawed federal programs, saying that splintered jurisdiction among 15 agencies has left the nation vulnerable to outbreaks of food-borne illness or, worse, a terrorist attack.

Meanwhile, a senior administration official said President Bush would seek an increase of about $11 million for food safety in the fiscal 2008 budget he is scheduled to release Monday. Much of the funding would be aimed at reducing the risk from produce outbreaks, such as the E. coli-contaminated California spinach that caused three deaths and sickened more than 200 last fall.

Consumer and industry groups, however, said the increase would not stop the continued reduction of the Food and Drug Administration's inspection staff. The FDA's budget has not kept pace with the rising cost of federal salaries and benefits, so the agency has had to eliminate hundreds of field inspector jobs, along with scientific and technical positions.

"We are at a critical moment for the nation's food safety," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee. "I could not agree more with GAO's conclusion that we are in need of a fundamental reexamination of our food safety system."

The GAO, the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, said it added food safety to its so-called high-risk list of federal programs because the system is out-of-date, often unscientific and lacks accountability. The list, created in 1990, serves as a kind of tip sheet for Congress, alerting lawmakers and their staffs to problems simmering below the surface of the federal bureaucracy. One agency just off the list: the U.S. Postal Service.

It may be stretching it to refer to a federal food safety "system," a senior GAO official said.

"It is a collection of 15 agencies trying to administer some 30 laws, and that results in inefficient use of resources, inconsistent oversight, and overlap and duplication," said Lisa Shames, director of food and agriculture issues, urging that a solution "be approached system-wide."

The FDA and the Agriculture Department split most of the responsibility for food safety, with the USDA overseeing meat, poultry and processed egg products and the FDA overseeing just about everything else. But each operates under a different set of laws. While the USDA is required to continually inspect slaughterhouses, FDA inspections are infrequent.

Bush administration officials disputed the conclusion that the system is broken, pointing to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing a decline in the incidence of food-borne illness since the late 1990s. But most of the progress occurred before 2005, the statistics indicate, and the CDC has concluded that further measures are needed.

Each year about 76 million people contract a food-borne illness; most get better on their own, but about 325,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 die.

The senior administration official said the $11 million in new funding would mainly go to the FDA.

It would be used to bolster the ability to trace the source of outbreaks, develop scientifically sound preventive measures, improve computer systems to keep track of imported produce inspections, and for research.

The funding "will strengthen the FDA's ability to respond to possible food-borne outbreaks, and assist industry to mitigate the risk of increased outbreaks, especially those attributed to fresh produce," said the official, who asked not to be identified because the budget had not been officially released.

But consumer and industry groups say much more money is needed -- and it's unclear where that will come from in a tight budget.

"This is a huge food supply system, and $11 million doesn't go very far when it's spread across the entire need," said Pat Verduin, chief science officer for the Grocery Manufacturers Assn., the trade group for the food, beverage and consumer products industry. The FDA's entire food safety budget is about $450 million.

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ricardo.alonso-zaldivar@latimes.com

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