Reporting from Washington — The Food and Drug Administration, the nation's chief watchdog on food safety, is too often caught flat-footed when problems arise, a health advisory panel said Tuesday, urging the agency to focus more on preventing outbreaks of illness by targeting facilities and products most likely to make people sick.
The panel said the FDA is trying to apply so-called risk-based management in food safety in piecemeal fashion and does not have an overall plan, or the money, to implement it effectively. The assessment came in a report from the Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academies.
Making the recommended reforms so the FDA heads off problems instead of trying to solve them after they crop up would require "a cultural change, a different way of doing business," said the study's main author, Dr. Robert Wallace of the University of Iowa's College of Public Health.
Devising a proactive plan would include pulling together fragmented food safety information in a master database that would allow the FDA, other federal, state and local agencies, and industry to share information to prevent food borne illnesses, the report said.
"You want to put your limited resources where they'll do the most good, and you can't do that unless you can look at the food safety system as a whole," said Barbara Kowalcyk, a co-author of the study and director of food safety at the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention in Grove City, Pa.
The report said the federal government should put food safety under one regulatory roof. Currently, the FDA is responsible for overseeing the safety of about 80% of the nation's food supply, including produce, seafood and most dairy products. Most of the remainder, including meat and poultry, is overseen by the Department of Agriculture, though more than a dozen other agencies also have a hand in food safety.
In broad outlines, the 500-page report echoes advice offered in recent reports by the Government Accountability Office and several other government agencies and consumer advocacy groups.
It recommends, for example, that food producers be required to file plans for ensuring safety and that Congress expand FDA access to producers' records. It also called for lawmakers to grant the agency the power to order food recalls on its own authority.
Much of the legal authority needed to accomplish the study's recommendations is contained in a bill that has been stalled in the Senate.
Lawmakers plan to consider the food safety legislation before the Senate's July 4 recess, according to one Senate staffer. But disagreements over funding, turf and other issues continue to make the outlook for action uncertain.
Both the legislation and the report resulted from congressional concerns over a series of expensive and sometimes deadly food-borne illness outbreaks in recent years involving spinach, peanuts, cookie dough, jalapeno peppers and other products.