Report Slams U.S. Food Safety System

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By Steven Reinberg
HealthDay Reporter
Wednesday, April 30, 2008; 12:00 AM

WEDNESDAY, April 30 (HealthDay News) -- The current system that guarantees the safety of food in the United States is in a state of crisis, a new report finds.

Gaps in the food safety system include out-of-date laws, poor use of resources, and inconsistencies among agencies protecting food safety, according to the reportFixing Food Safety: Protecting America's Food From Farm-to-Fork, released Wednesday by Trust for America's Health.

"One in four Americans are sickened by food-borne illness each year, that's 76 million people," Jeffrey Levi, executive director of Trust for America's Health said during a morning teleconference Wednesday. "That number is far too high, and major gaps in our nation's food safety system are to blame."

"The major problem with the current food safety system is that no one person is in charge," Levi said. "Instead, there are total of 15 federal agencies that play a role in administering some 30 laws related to food safety."

The whole system needs to change from one that responds to threats as they happen to a more preventive system that tackles challenges before they arise, Levi said. At the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food safety is on the back burner, he added.

According to the report, the U.S. food safety system has not been changed in more than 100 years. Most of the funds spent on food safety are spent on outdated practices of inspecting poultry, beef and pork carcasses, even though changing agricultural practices make this a waste of government money.

Levi noted that despite realizing that the food supply is vulnerable to a terrorist attack, the federal government has devoted very limited resources to the problem, despite a presidential directive and recent serious outbreaks of food-borne illnesses.

Not enough money is spent on fighting bacterial threats such as salmonella andE. coli. About 85 percent of food-borne illness outbreaks occur among foods regulated by the FDA. Yet, the agency gets less than half of all federal funding for food safety, Levi noted.

In the past three years, the FDA has cut back its food safety program by cutting its science staff by 20 percent and losing 600 food safety inspectors, according to the report.

However, on Wednesday, the FDA announced that over the next few months it will be hiring 1,300 biologists, chemists, medical officers, mathematical statisticians and investigators. However, how many of these new positions will be devoted to food safety isn't clear, Levi said.

The report also criticized the number of federal agencies involved in food safety. For example, the FDA regulates frozen pizza, unless there is meat on it, in which case, it is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Moreover, only 1 percent of imported food is inspected, even though about 60 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables and 75 percent of seafood is imported.


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