Adding to the chorus seeking an overhaul of the nation's food safety system, a report issued Wednesday called on the Obama administration to put someone in charge of safeguarding the food supply and to create a Food Safety Administration.
The food safety system is "plagued with problems," said Jeffrey Levi, executive director of Trust for America's Health, which released the report in conjunction with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Calls for reform of the Food and Drug Administration have only become louder since the salmonella outbreak linked to peanut products late last year. Voluntary product recalls are still being announced; the outbreak has sickened nearly 700 people in 46 states and possibly caused nine deaths.
"We are way overdue for a makeover," said Michelle Larkin, director of the foundation's Public Health Team. "It costs us around $44 billion annually in medical care and lost productivity, so the stakes are really high."
Michael Taylor, a former FDA deputy and a professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, said obsolete laws focus on reacting to problems rather than preventing them, and the agency is underfunded. Also, he said, there is no unified system for inspection, enforcement and notifying the public of dangers.
The report calls for the FDA's food program funding to double in the next five years, from $542 million in fiscal 2009.
Several bills have been introduced in Congress to remake the food safety system, a responsibility shared by 15 agencies, according to Trust for America's Health. A bill introduced by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) calls for splitting the FDA into two agencies -- one for food and the other for drugs and medical devices.
A Senate bill to revamp the food safety system has support from members of both parties, including Democrats Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, and Republicans Richard M. Burr of North Carolina and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia. There also is support for reform from consumer groups and industry, now frequently relied upon to police itself.
The country, Levi said, has "reached the tipping point," and the political will for reform now exists. But some seeking reform are skeptical the issue will get attention this year.
Although creating a Food Safety Administration, under the Department of Health and Human Services, would require an act of Congress, other measures are less involved. For example, the administration could appoint an FDA official to oversee the food supply in the meantime, as the report recommends.
This month, President Obama nominated former New York City Health Commissioner Margaret Hamburg to head the FDA and announced the creation of a Food Safety Working Group, an interagency panel that would work to upgrade food safety laws -- some of which have not changed in a century.
The FDA regulates 80% of the national's food supply; most meat and dairy products fall under the Department of Agriculture. About 76 million Americans get food poisoning each year; 5,000 of them die, public health experts say.
Among possible reforms is a tracking system for recalled food products. The FDA also cannot mandate recalls; that too could change.
Some concerns have been raised that new regulations could be too costly for small farms or producers to comply with. Taylor said their worries would be taken into account.