Local, State Agencies Lack Resources to Ensure Food Safety

Jeff Almer of Savage, Minn., whose mother, Shirley Mae Almer, 72, shown in a family photo, died after eating tainted peanut butter at an assisted-living home in Brainerd, Minn., testifies before a House panel's hearing on the recent outbreak of salmonella illness caused by peanut products.
Jeff Almer of Savage, Minn., whose mother, Shirley Mae Almer, 72, shown in a family photo, died after eating tainted peanut butter at an assisted-living home in Brainerd, Minn., testifies before a House panel's hearing on the recent outbreak of salmonella illness caused by peanut products. (By J. Scott Applewhite -- Associated Press)
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By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 17, 2009

Local and state health officials trying to prevent food illness outbreaks are stymied by scarce resources, weak leadership from the federal government and bureaucratic barriers, according to a new study public health experts released yesterday.

While much of the current debate about improving food safety has focused on federal agencies -- the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- the bulk of food safety work is performed by about 3,000 local and state agencies, which handle everything from inspections of restaurants, food processing plants and grocery stores to detecting outbreaks and removing unsafe products from stores.

But those agencies are struggling, and Congress must reengineer the national system, according to an analysis by the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, based on consultations with health experts, consumer groups and food executives nationwide.

"Congress needs to take responsibility for telling the government what its job is," said Michael R. Taylor, an author of the study who teaches at George Washington and is a former top official at the FDA and USDA. The study urges Congress to invest at least $350 million over five years to bolster underfunded state and local agencies and ensure a basic level of food safety in each state.

The analysis describes a fractured collection of food safety professionals all trying to do the same thing -- prevent illness from contaminated food -- but their efforts are hampered by weak coordination, poor communication, varying abilities, inconsistent methods and a lack of federal leadership. The report urges Congress to create a single cohesive food safety network composed of local, state and federal agencies and accountable to the secretary of health and human services.

"We need one food safety system, not 50," said Joseph Corby, executive director of the Association of Food and Drug Officials. "State and local agencies do 2.5 million inspections a year, analyze hundreds of thousands of food samples, and most of this work is not done in a coordinated fashion and not used by the federal agencies."

Communication between state and local officials and federal agencies is often disjointed, the study found. During a recall of a tainted product, for example, the FDA will often obtain from a food processor a distribution list that identifies retailers who received the product, but the agency does not routinely share that information with local or state officials, even though they are responsible for checking store shelves to make sure tainted products have been removed.

Meanwhile, states that interview people who have become sick from food to figure out which products may be suspect often do not share victims' identities with the CDC, citing privacy laws, even if that data would help federal officials better track an outbreak.

In Tennessee and several other states recently, consumers who took a food supplement complained that it made their hair fall out and damaged their fingernails. The supplement contained too much selenium and was recalled by the manufacturer, said Tim Jones, the Tennessee state epidemiologist. The FDA would not give the distribution list to the state, he said. "The information is just not flowing," Jones said. "We all have different laws and rules."

And the quality of epidemiology varies from state to state, the study found. Some, such as Minnesota, have well-funded public health agencies that lead the nation in detecting outbreaks and tracing contamination to the source. But others are underfunded and less equipped.

That creates problems, Taylor said. He pointed to the recent national outbreak of salmonella illness that was traced to a peanut processing plant in Blakely, Ga. In the middle of the outbreak, when the Peanut Corporation of America was allegedly knowingly shipping contaminated peanut products, state inspectors approved the facility. They did not note several structural deficiencies in the plant that federal officials later flagged as signs that contamination was likely.

In addition to their own inspections, state employees now perform more than half of the FDA's inspections under contracts with the agency.

The study can be found at http://www.thefsrc.org.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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