Monitoring and Protecting the Nation's Food Supply Faces Challenges

After a year of headlines warning of contaminated spinach, peanut butter, and, most recently, pet food, lawmakers and government officials are trying to plug holes in the nation's food-safety barriers.

But consumer-advocacy groups and some government leaders suggest that there may not be enough fingers available to hold back the threats.

The problem, as with most everything in Washington, is money.

But while every agency begs for more bucks, the Food and Drug Administration's food safety and nutrition arm — responsible for 80 percent of the nation's food supply — has fallen from $48 million to $28 million over the past decade. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees about one-fourth as much food, gets four times the funding.

To respond to mounting criticism without a budget increase, the FDA has tried a band-aid approach: On May 1, the agency created a new food-safety oversight position, naming its chief medical officer, David Acheson, the agency's first assistant commissioner for food protection. See related story.

But Caroline Smith-DeWaal, food-safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said until additional funding allows for more frequent and more thorough inspections, Acheson's promotion means little more than printing new business cards.

"Nobody can do anything meaningful in that position without resources," Smith-DeWaal said. "These managers all have their hands tied behind their backs. They're not given the people or the resources to do it."

The Government Accountability Office named food safety on its annual list of "high risk" issues for 2007 after a year in which deaths were reported from bagged California spinach carrying E.coli bacteria. Peanut butter under several brands from ConAgra Foods (CAG) was contaminated with salmonella, and tainted lettuce was found at Pennsylvania Taco Bell restaurants.

In recent months, ongoing investigations and recalls of pet food and animal feed tainted with ingredients imported from China has brought food safety back to the front page.

Acheson's promotion within the agency to food czar won't give the FDA any more muscle in regulating food, and it certainly doesn't change its funding troubles. Actions in Congress may bring more of a shakeup.

Imports increasing, but not inspections

Last week the Senate unanimously approved a Dick Durbin-authored food-safety amendment to an FDA drug funding bill. The Illinois Democrat's measure includes provisions that would tighten restrictions for pet food safety, increase vigilance for imported food and ingredients, and impose fines on food companies that fail to report product problems within two days of discovery.

"We only inspect 1.2 percent of imported food. That doesn't reflect how much imports are exploding," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who introduced a House bill virtually identical to Durbin's amendment last week. "We've seen deception, misreporting of sanitary conditions. We have a relationship with these countries (food importers) that's based on trust, and we must put them on notice."

DeLauro's colleagues on the House Energy and Commerce Committee agree that imported food and ingredients should be of paramount concern, especially from China, the source of the contaminated wheat, rice and corn proteins responsible for recent pet food and animal feed contamination.

"It is the country we know the least about, and we don't have inspection there," said Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich. "Even if China says they'll do everything we ask as far as safety, how will we know they're doing it?"

"Now it's being rumored that China's been sending this product to the Netherlands, where they stick a windmill on it and say it's Dutch," Stupak added.

FDA inspectors have entered the two Chinese plants that sold contaminated protein products to Las Vegas-based ChemNutra, Inc., and Wilbur-Ellis, a San Francisco ingredients distributor.

The agency has also stopped all protein supplements at the border, where the ingredients are tested for melamine and melamine-related compounds, additives considered the culprits in March's rash of pet deaths.

Still, the government inspects only 2 percent of Chinese food imports, a figure both Stupak and DeLauro find troubling.

Stupak's oversight and investigations subcommittee has sent its own investigators to California's Salinas Valley, site of more than 20 food-borne illness outbreaks in the past decade, including spinach contamination in 2006. The panel's staff will investigate the valley's agricultural practices, as well as the work done by FDA's ever-shrinking inspector corps.

Trying to do more with less

The FDA must operate using a "risk-based" inspection approach — meaning time-stretched inspectors target specific portions of production rather than poring over each item. Smith-DeWaal said recent outbreaks prove this strategy is not thorough enough.

"While no one is opposed to a risk-based approach, I worry that it really is a cover up for, 'We don't have enough money, so we're going to cut back on what we do.' It's regulatory triage," she said.

Funding concerns have forced the agency to consider closing seven of its 13 field testing laboratories, a decision that has come under fire from lawmakers. But Smith-DeWaal said even if the labs stay open, they can't function without money. "There comes a point where you just don't have the resources to do the job. They're not just at that point. They're past it."

Stupak said the unchecked concentration of such problems points not only to a lack of inspection money, but to a lack of leadership within FDA.

"If it's a lack of resources, come tell us," Stupak said. "When did they ever ask for it?"

In reality, it would be unrealistic for the FDA to plead for a dramatic budget increase, Smith-DeWaal said, as it would directly question the president and thus risk an FDA official's job.

Another subcommittee member, Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., commented on the confusing stratification of food safety responsibilities. In the GAO report, officials revealed that a frozen cheese pizza is the jurisdiction of FDA; add pepperoni or sausage, and it's USDA's responsibility. It's an example of the mind-boggling bureaucracy governing the issue: At least 12 federal agencies and 35 different laws govern food safety.

That division has led Durbin and DeLauro to reintroduce a bill that would scrap the current system, consolidating all food safety activities within a new, single agency. Among other powers, the new food group would have the authority of mandatory recall, a weapon the FDA and USDA do not possess. An identical law passed last year's House, but was never discussed in the higher chamber.

While not every lawmaker agrees on government authority that's that big, many Republicans support a stronger food safety arm.

"We have to be careful about over-consolidation of power, but it does seem that there are too many places people have to go," said Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Tex. "In any case, it's got to be nimble and quick. It's not an issue of 'Have you put the power in the hands of one agency?' It's 'How's it going to help people like you and me?'"

Some groups worry that a consolidation of power could actually weaken the strength of American food safety. Jeff Fidis, staff attorney for U.S. PIRG, the federation of state public interest research groups, said a previous proposal would have allowed federal food-safety rules to override state authority, even when the states' laws were stronger. While the organization thinks federal consolidation is good, it can't be done at the expense of more responsive state arms.

"States are laboratories of democracy. They're good testing grounds of what are effective regulations," Fidis said. "They're much more nimble and able to respond more quickly to localized concerns, which is huge when you talk about food safety."

The Center for Science in the Public Interest supports consolidation, but Smith-DeWaal said that a new food agency isn't enough, if it's not properly funded or powerful.

"Any food agency needs more funding and more teeth to create regulations," she said. "Teeth include programs of preventive controls, not just enforcement when something goes wrong. They need to have the authority to create mandatory programs that cause companies to manage hazards before they reach the public."

Copyright (c) 2007 MarketWatch, Inc.