WASHINGTON — Despite calls from the incoming Obama administration to bolster the embattled Food and Drug Administration, the agency is unlikely to see major reform soon as bigger problems with higher profiles once again shoulder aside food safety in the competition for resources.
Some of the leading champions of rebuilding the FDA and the food safety system acknowledge that the faltering economy, healthcare, global warming and other issues will make it tough to allocate more money for food safety, despite years of scandals involving food poisoning and tainted imports.
"This is an issue that will have to wait its turn," said Assistant Senate Majority Leader Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), a longtime proponent of tougher food laws and a friend of President-elect Barack Obama.
Instead of assuming more direct control of the inspection system, the government seems likely to remain heavily dependent on growers, food processors and others in the industry to police themselves and the food supply.
Durbin and others on Capitol Hill nonetheless plan to push ahead with legislation to try to strengthen the FDA, the much maligned agency responsible for overseeing about 80% of the food Americans eat. (Most meat and dairy products are regulated by the Department of Agriculture; fresh produce and most processed foods are the responsibility of the FDA.)
Obama, who has backed Durbin's efforts and sponsored his own legislation to strengthen state and local food oversight, will continue to back them, according to an official working on his transition.
The federal government's food oversight was once seen as a model. But after years of neglect -- and Bush administration distaste for aggressive government regulation -- a series of deadly food-borne disease outbreaks involving peanut butter, spinach and peppers called public attention to holes in the FDA's capacity to stay on top of a rapidly expanding food market.
The agency struggled to identify the sources of contaminated foods, most recently this spring, when federal officials initially linked a salmonella outbreak to tomatoes before concluding that jalapeno peppers from Mexico were the likely culprit.
At the same time, contaminated pet food from China exposed weaknesses in the agency's system for regulating imports.
Consumer groups lambasted the agency for failing to protect the public. Food-borne illnesses sicken as many as 76 million people and kill an estimated 5,000 each year.
Growers complained that the FDA's failure to identify the source of contaminated food quickly intensified public fears. That, in turn, decimated the market for products like leafy greens and tomatoes.
"The spinach industry has never recovered," said Tom Nassif, who heads the Western Growers Assn., a leading national trade group based in California.
Independent reviews by the Government Accountability Office and others found the agency lacked even basic information technology capabilities to analyze data and assess risks.
"We need some radical shifts," Dr. David Acheson, the FDA's associate commissioner for foods, said recently.
A year ago the FDA announced a plan for reforming itself, promising a major expansion of overseas inspections, better systems to identify where risks are highest, and more cooperation with state and local authorities as well as industry.
The agency opened an office in China this year and plans to open one each in India and Latin America in 2009.
But the promised changes have not come soon enough for critics, including many on Capitol Hill.
"There is little question that the FDA is dysfunctional," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who has pushed for a more sweeping overhaul of the agency. "The current structure is incapable of addressing food safety problems."
DeLauro thinks the FDA has given short shrift to its food inspection duties as it has focused on evaluating pharmaceuticals and medical devices. Those efforts consume the lion's share of the agency's budget.
She has pushed legislation to carve out an agency that would focus exclusively on food.
Durbin has called for an even bigger federal agency that would unify food oversight responsibilities that are currently scattered among the FDA, Agriculture Department and 13 other federal agencies.
Despite the evidence of problems and broad support for attacking them, few believe that is likely soon. "That is a heavy political lift," Durbin said.
If they can't rebuild the agency, critics say they will start by trying to rebuild its legal authority.
Durbin and a bipartisan group of senators have proposed authorizing the FDA to set binding national standards for the safe production of fruits and vegetables, something the agency says it cannot do now.
The lawmakers also want to empower the FDA to order recalls and to access industry records in the event of a recall.
In the crush of legislation this year, the bill expanding those powers never came up for a vote. Next year Congress may be preoccupied with the economy and potentially with a healthcare overhaul.