FDA inspections of food plants, enforcement down, officials say

By Lyndsey Layton
Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The number of federal inspections of food-manufacturing facilities, and enforcement actions triggered by those inspections, has decreased, a government auditor reported Tuesday. Officials blamed the situation on inadequate staffing and resources.

Between fiscal 2004 and 2008, the Food and Drug Administration inspected fewer than half of the 51,229 facilities that it regulates, the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services said.

In addition, the number of regulatory actions prompted by inspections fell from 614 in fiscal 2004 to 283 in fiscal 2008, the report found.

"If the FDA does not routinely inspect food facilities, it is unable to guarantee that these facilities are complying with applicable laws and regulations," the inspector general reported.

The finding echoed complaints by congressional critics, the Government Accountability Office, consumer groups, industry associations and President Obama, who have said the FDA lacks modern enforcement tools and adequate resources to keep the nation's food supply safe. Since taking office, the Obama administration has increased funding for the FDA, and the agency has stepped up enforcement activity.

A major food-safety bill pending on Capitol Hill would require regular inspections for all food facilities and give the FDA significant new enforcement powers. The bill easily passed the House in July but has been stuck in the Senate. Food-safety laws have not changed markedly since 1938, when Congress gave the FDA the power to oversee the safety of most foods, as well as drugs and cosmetics.

Michael R. Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods, said the inspector general's report makes the case for the bill's passage.

"We need legislation that will direct us and empower us to be proactive, not reactive," he said. "The legislation pending in Congress will open up entirely new and much more effective ways to do prevention."

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